Positive parenting tips

Getting better results with humor, empathy, and diplomacy

© 2018 GWEN DEWAR, PH.D., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Example of positive parenting - mother and child discovering something together during lunch (the sounds of chewing) Everyday encounter: Listening to the sounds of chewing, by David D / flickr

Who needs positive parenting tips? What's the fuss about, anyway?

Positive parenting means slightly different things to different people. But the core idea might be summed up this way:

Positive parenting emphasizes warm, positive family interactions, and guides children by rewarding and reinforcing their better impulses. 

The goal is to empathize with children, offer them warmth and support, and create situations that make it easier for kids to behave cooperatively and constructively (e.g., Gardner et al 1999; Boeldt et al 2012).

Is it worth the effort? The research is compelling on this point. 

For example, studies show that children with conduct problems are more likely to improve if their parents abandon harsh discipline practices in favor of positive parenting techniques (Furlong et al 2012). 

There is also evidence that the approach works in the classroom. When middle school teachers have been coached to replace punitive discipline policies with empathy and supportive problem-solving, suspension rates were cut in half (Okonofua et al 2016). 

And studies suggest that positive parenting protects kids from the effects of toxic stress. Not only do children enjoy better health outcomes, they are also less likely to develop stress-related brain abnormalities (Whittle et al 2017).

So clearly, families benefit from positive parenting. But how can we make it happen? Here are 10 tips for bringing out the best in your children.

10 positive parenting tips

1. Get inside your child's head.

Kids might drive us crazy. Their behavior might seem irrational or unjustified. But that’s the way things look on the outside. On the inside, children are making choices that jibe with their experiences and perceptions of the world. Their behavior is motivated by legitimate needs. If we can get inside their heads, we can learn what these needs are, and address them.

So the next time you see misbehavior, ask yourself: Is the child tired? Bored? Craving attention? Is he feeling overwhelmed or threatened?

Is she nursing a perceived injustice, or facing a temptation she doesn’t know how to resist?

Kids have a lot to learn, and they are still developing self-control. We need to keep their developmental limitations in mind, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

2. When in doubt, apply the Golden Rule.

What does it really mean to be empathic, supportive, constructive? 

It doesn’t mean you have to agree that a child’s demands are reasonable. Sometimes they aren’t. Nor does it mean that you fail to enforce limits.

Instead, the goal is to be the kind of arbitrator and mentor you’d want for yourself.

Someone who is prepared to listen to your side of the story, and reassure you that you’ll get a fair-minded and sympathetic hearing. Someone who will reason with you, and use encouragement and good humor to steer you towards an acceptable solution to your problems.

When other people treat us this way – with sympathy, fairness, and diplomacy – it inspires feelings of friendliness and trust. It defuses stress, and makes it easier for us to recover from our negative emotions. Children benefit in similar ways.

3. Master the art of distraction.

For babies and toddlers, positive parenting often takes the form of distracting children from engaging in behavior that you don’t like.

Ideally, you anticipate and prevent trouble by taking pre-emptive action (e.g., Gardner et al 1999). For example, if you know that preschoolers will fight over a toy, keep it out of sight and provide the children with something else to do -- something that won't invite conflict.

If a child is already doing something undesirable, you take quick action to provide an alternative activity. For instance, if your toddler has gotten hold of a forbidden object (like Grandma’s heirloom vase)you calmly remove it and give your child something else to play with. Oops! That vase is not for you. But look at these fun pots and pans!

Distraction is useful for older kids, too. Siblings bickering on a road trip? It's natural to be annoyed and shout at them to stop. But consider their side of things: They are stuck in a vehicle, restless and uncomfortable, and convinced they are victims of some sort of injustice. 

Ordering them to stop isn’t very helpful by itself. They may be overwhelmed by feelings of outrage, confinement, or discomfort. They probably don't know how to stop. If you actively engage them in a diversion – like a game of 20 questions – you make it easier for them to stop fighting.

4. Use strategic humor and playfulness to motivate. 

Jokes and silliness can serve as excellent distractions (positive parenting tip #3). But they are also indispensable tools of diplomacy. You'll probably inspire more cooperation from your kids if you communicate requests with humor, and transform work into play.

For instance, when your child leaves her dirty laundry lying around, you could vent your irritation and scold her. But you’ll likely get better results by making a game of it – encouraging her to “feed the dirty laundry hamper," or play a game of toss-the-laundry-into-the-basket.

5. Make sure that most of your interactions are positive -- even if that means ignoring some of your child's misbehavior.

As noted above, positive social interactions make for friendlier, more trusting family relationships, and they motivate kids to be cooperative. So it’s important to keep the balance of your interactions upbeat, even if your child is struggling with behavior problems.

How can you do this? Clinical psychologist Timothy Cavell suggests that you envision a kind of quota system – setting priorities about what misbehavior to call out, and what behavior to ignore – at least for now (Cavell et al 2015).

As your child’s behavior improves, you can start addressing the less serious problems. But from day to day, make sure that most of the communication between you is warm and pleasant – and not focused on your child’s mistakes or wrongdoing.

6. Make sure kids understand what's acceptable and what's not, and take care to explain the reasons for rules.

We shouldn't expect kids to read our minds. Nor should we expect children to develop advanced moral reasoning skills -- not if we don't share our own reasoning.

So it's important to engage kids in genuine, two-way conversations about our standards. The goal isn't just to recite a set of rules, but rather to explain the rationale for the rules, and to address children's questions and concerns.

This approach is sometimes called "inductive discipline," and it's a core principle of authoritative parenting, the style of child-rearing associated with the best child outcomes. 

7. Find ways to say yes.

The trouble with "no" is that it can fuel resentment and resistance. Parental criticism can also trigger feelings of hopelessness, making kids feel they lack what it takes to improve.

So if your child wants to do something that’s out of the question, don't be dismissive or condemnatory. Help her find acceptable alternatives.

If she's a toddler, this might mean offering a quick distraction. If she's a teen, this might mean engaging in meaningful discussions and negotiations. Experiments suggest that adolescents are less likely than adults to learn from negative feedback -- particularly if they don't see any rewarding options available (Palminteri et al 2017). 

8. Catch children at being good.

Some people believe it’s wrong to praise or thank kids for staying on track. They feel that good behavior is something to be taken for granted. But the evidence argues strongly against this.

As noted above (positive parenting tip #7), adolescents may respond more readily to rewards than to punishments.

And experiments on young children reveal them to be very responsive to praise. When parents were instructed to offer simple praise for their children’s good behavior (“Well done!"), the kids experienced fewer subsequent behavior problems (Leijten et al 2016).

9. Be a good "emotion coach."

Another crucial positive parenting tip is to provide what psychologists call "emotion coaching" -- talking with kids about their feelings, and discussing helpful strategies for handling emotionally difficult situations.

By acting as an emotion coach, you reassure kids that you understand and respect them. You also provide them with the concrete support they need to develop strong self-regulation skills.  Read more about emotion coaching here.

10. Angry? Impatient? Hassled? Stressed out? Get your own emotional state under control before interacting with your child.

It's easy to see how anger would undermine your efforts at positive parenting. But other negative emotions also pose a threat. For instance, even babies can recognize when we're feeling stressed out, and the stress is contagious. 

So before you interact with your child, take a moment to calm yourself down and get into the zone. It's better to give yourself a time out than overreact to your child's transgression. For help, see these evidence-based tips for coping with parenting stress.

More positive parenting tips

Kids aren't all alike. Some are much tougher to handle, and so parents need extra support. For more information, see this article about aggression in children, and these constructive, evidence-based tips for handling defiance and disruptive behavior.

In addition, check out these tips for teaching children to better understand the thoughts and feelings of other people.


References: Positive parenting tips

Boeldt DL, Rhee SH, Dilalla LF, Mullineaux PY, Schulz-Heik RJ, Corley RP, Young SE, Hewitt JK. 2012. The Association between Positive Parenting and Externalizing Behavior. Infant Child Dev. 21(1):85-106.

Cavell TA, Harrist AW, and Del Vecchio T. 2013. Working with parents of aggressive children: Ten principles and the role of authoritative parenting. In RE Larzelere, AS Morris and AH Harrist (eds): Authoritative parenting: Synthesizing nurturance and discipline for optimal child development. American Psychological Association.

Furlong M, McGilloway S, Bywater T, Hutchings J, Smith SM, Donnelly M. 2012. Behavioural and cognitive-behavioural group-based parenting programmes for early-onset conduct problems in children aged 3 to 12 years. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 15;(2):CD008225.

Gardner FE, Sonuga-Barke EJ, Sayal K. 1999. Parents anticipating misbehaviour: an observational study of strategies parents use to prevent conflict with behaviour problem children. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 40(8):1185-96.

Leijten P, Thomaes S, Orobio de Castro B, Dishion TJ, Matthys W. 2016. What good is labeling what's good? A field experimental investigation of parental labeled praise and child compliance. Behav Res Ther. 87:134-141.

Maag JW. 1999. Behavior management: From theoretical implications to practical applications. San Diego: Singular.

Okonofua JA, Paunesku D, Walton GM. 2016. Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 113(19):5221-6. 

Palminteri S, Kilford EJ, Coricelli G, Blakemore SJ. 2016. The Computational Development of Reinforcement Learning during Adolescence. PLoS Comput Biol. 12(6):e1004953

Sanders MR. 2008. Triple P-Positive Parenting Program as a public health approach to strengthening parenting. Journal of Family Psychology 22(3): 506-517.

Whittle S, Vijayakumar N, Simmons JG, Dennison M, Schwartz O, Pantelis C, Sheeber L, Byrne ML, Allen NB. 2017. Role of Positive Parenting in the Association Between Neighborhood Social Disadvantage and Brain Development Across Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. 2017 Aug 1;74(8):824-832.

Title image of mother and child by David D / flickr

Content of "Positive parenting tips" last modified 7/31/2018



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