There is a vast market in courses/ books/websites to help parents who are struggling with their children’s behaviour. Fortunately, they are all founded on the same core principles, which are summarised below. What one is essentially doing is implementing new habits, forming new structures of reward and consequences to make the organisation (family) run more smoothly and improving interpersonal relationships. (It is a process that should be familiar to anyone working in the NHS, who will also understand its difficulty!)
In order for behavioural management to be effective, it needs to be based on a ‘good enough’ relationship. At some level, the child needs to care about the parent’s feelings, and also feel good about themselves, to cope with the changes the parent wants.
Promoting the emotional security of the relationship through shared activities is useful, so any shared activity is worthwhile, but play is paramount for younger children. Play led by the child for a short (10 minute) period is advised, but any play where the adult attention is on the child is useful.
‘Catching them being good’ and noticing when they have made small positive steps is a powerful tool.
Targeted praise: vague, general praise (aren’t you a good boy) has been shown to be worse than none at all, whereas specific praise (I like how you did X) is beneficial.
Much attention is focused on children’s screen time, but it is perhaps more important that parents limit the time they are unavailable to their children due to phone conversations, Facebook etc. Unlike most household tasks, these cannot be combined with conversation with the child. Parents must learn to distinguish between listening to the child respectfully and granting the child’s every wish, as learning to tolerate a degree of frustration is an important step in emotional development. .
A routine is important for children to feel safe and reassure them that the adults are in control. This can be very mundane, like a list of tasks involved in getting ready in the morning, or fun, like a weekly film night.
There need to be rules, binding upon the adults and children. These need to be simple, unambiguous, and (initially) few, perhaps 2 or 3. These rules should specifically target unwanted behaviours (eg don’t hit, rather than be good). Patterns of behaviour take a long time and much effort to change, using positive and negative encouragement and the power of habit, so sometimes it is more productive to target only one behaviour at a time to start off with.
Planning for situations does not require strategic genius. Parents know the situations where children have trouble, so before they enter a supermarket, for example, it is useful to stop, and calmly tell the child what is expected, what is not allowed, and what the consequences of positive and negative behaviour will be.
None of the above will have any effect unless parents are consistent, in several ways:
* consistency over time.
* consistency across all parents and carers
* consistency across settings and contexts.
Rules cannot be dependeant on parents’ moods or energy levels. Occasional rule lapses act as ‘intermittent reinforcement’, shown to be the single most powerful way to ensure that the behaviour that is being targeted continues with a vengeance.
This is perhaps the most important element, yet often overlooked by parenting manuals selling a quick fix. Behavioural management works, but takes time, and there is often an ‘extinction burst’ of increased unwelcome behaviour before things start to improve, as the child reacts against the new boundaries. Parents need to be prepared for this.
As well as patience across weeks, parents need patience across hours, to be able to abandon a shopping trip, wait out a tantrum, or stay calm in the face of sibling conflict when shouting would, in the short term, be quicker.