Encouraging Good Behaviour
Young children can tell us so much about how they are feeling and what they need through their behaviour. Once they can talk fluently it gets easier, but reading their behaviour can still be a good life skill. So if you want to encourage good behaviour, it can help to tune in to what your child is communicating through their behaviour as well as through their words.
Some Relevant Psychological Theories in a nutshell
You might be reading this as someone who knows more or less than I do about managing children’s behaviour but it’s probably better to start with some basics rather than make assumptions.
Bio-psycho-social framework (Engel)
This might sound like a fancy phrase but really it just means that in understanding children we need to accept that biological, psychological and social factors are all interacting for them and this can be both helpful and unhelpful. Biological factors to consider if you’re thinking about children’s behaviour include whether they are well, in pain, hungry, thirsty, too hot or too cold. For babies and younger toddlers, it can also help to track whether they may be growing through a period of brain growth (a developmental leap). I’ve found following the “wonderweeks” app helpful with both of my children, because if they’re going through a fussy phase it’s helpful to know there’s a good reason and that it will pass.
Psychologically it can be helpful to consider factors like their attachment style at the moment, their developmental stage, temperament, their sensory needs and sensitivities and how much intellectual stimulation children are getting compared to how much they might need.
It’s so important to remember that children don’t live in little bubbles but are sponges that soak up whatever is happening with their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, teachers and classmates. If anyone in their network is stressed, that might be leading them to feel that way too. They’re also influenced by current events with coronavirus. It’s also worth considering what sort of community they live in – how safe is it out and about for them to play and explore? Are there outdoor play opportunities? Are the neighbours friendly?
Attachment theory (Bowlby)
We all have a default attachment style we learned as children ourselves which might be secure or insecure, or even disorganised. For the roughly 40% of us lucky enough to have a secure style, it might be one we learned as children or one we learned as an adult in a stable relationship with a partner (earned secure). With a secure style, people usually believe they themselves are capable of coping with problems but are comfortable seeking support from others if they need to, believing that other people are basically good. For those of us with a mainly secure style, we’re still likely to sometimes be pulled into a less secure variation of it if put under enough stress. The most common insecure styles are anxious and avoidant. Someone with an anxious attachment style might feel they need to cling more to others under stress and feel unable to cope alone, whereas someone avoidant might be more likely to deny they are stressed and insist on coping alone. It can be helpful to reflect on what your own attachment patterns are and what happens to them when you get stressed as it’s probably going to influence your parenting style. For more info on this if you’re interested but unfamiliar with it I’d recommend Miriam Silver’s book “attachment in common sense and doodles”.
With children, we’re aiming for them to have a secure attachment style. Children with a secure attachment style have the best outcomes across social, educational and occupational factors (no pressure then fellow parents!). We can help young children feel secure when we meet their physical, practical and emotional needs regularly and in a predictable way. Children will usually tend to want a balance of being close with you and going off to explore which will keep changing and shifting as they develop. Right now my baby has started to move away from wanting lots of cuddly feeds towards wanting to climb the walls, stairs and the guinea pig cage (and really anything else he can grab). Children need the chance to explore and build confidence the world is safe and other people are mainly good. It’s ok if sometimes this doesn’t work out too well – for example my baby got a bit upset earlier when he headbutted daddy’s tooth by mistake but was comforted with a cuddle and merrily resumed exploring again. The process of being there for your child will help build their confidence in both you as a safe base and the world as OK. In case reading this is making you feel pressured, it’s worth remembering you only need to “get it right” with your child 1 in 3 times for them to turn out secure. Whenever you can attune to how your child is feeling and offer them understanding, empathy, comfort or reassurance you’ve got another point in the attachment bank.
Developmental stages (Piaget)– children are not just mini-adults. Their brains are developing, and they move through a series of developmental stages, each of which unlocks new abilities. Piaget suggested that up until the age of two, children are in the sensori-motor stage where they enjoy exploring the world physically through the five senses. He suggested they then work through the pre-operational stage until they reach about seven years old. During that time, they learn that one object can represent another which unlocks pretend play as entertaining, but they remain egocentric and struggle to take other people’s points of view. It’s easy to have unrealistic expectations of your child and become frustrated if they don’t manage what you think they should – for example, if you expect a baby to sleep through the night, because everyone keeps asking if they do yet, you may start tearing your hair out. It is developmentally normal and healthy for babies to wake up at night for loads of reasons. It is important to hold in mind too that children don’t have “theory of mind” until the age of 3-4. This is just a fancy way of saying they don’t get that other people have their own minds, with their own thoughts and feelings and can’t read the toddler’s mind. So, young children will find it hard to empathise much before that age with others. Sharing and turn taking might both be a bit tricky with toddlers and pre-schoolers for this reason too. As children without theory of mind will likely find other people a bit confusing and frustrating sometimes, they will tend to find familiarity, routine and repetition comforting. They might otherwise become stuck in a tantrum and need your help to regulate their feelings (they can’t do that yet either). Strategies that can help regulate emotions will also help regulate behaviour. For example, we aim for a mix of outdoor and indoor activities and a mix of upbeat and calm ones. We have a basic daily routine with changing morning and afternoon activities depending on the week day. We also have a mix of intellectual stimulation, fun and exercise. Normally we also mix social time with downtime at home but coronavirus has of course reduced our social time. The exact mix of what suits each child will vary depending on their own personality and temperament as well as their interests and developmental stage (which might be different from their age and from other children you know of a similar age).
Social Learning Theory (Bandura) – the key idea here is that we learn from what we see other people around us do by observing, imitating them and modelling. So, your child will look to you and anyone else in their life as a model to copy. The model you’ve got most say in the behaviour of is yourself, so a good place to start if you want to influence their behaviour is to model how you want them to act. You might also want to consider having a chat with other adults who care for them (your partner if you have one, grandparents or aunts and uncles if they’re involved, friends who are around your child a lot, nursery or teaching staff) about any strong views or ideas you have about parenting where it’s important to you that other people respect where you’re coming from and take it into account when interacting with your child. It’s also helpful to bear in mind that children learn best when messages about expectations of them are consistent – so if you want them to be kind to others, you need to be kind to them and let them see you being kind to other people too. You then need to socialise them around other people who are kind to them and others too.
Behavioural Theory (Pavlov) – All behaviour has a purpose – it might or might not be obvious all the time what the function is, but there will be one. So, if your child ever does something that provokes a strong emotional reaction in you like anger, fear or disgust, it’s always worth having a think about why they might have done it. If you’re at a loss, it can be helpful to have a calm but curious chat with your child about what they get out of the behaviour. For example, my daughter at 3 absolutely loves asking questions – all the time. So much so, that she has favourite questions she asks on repeat. As a Clinical Psychologist, I can think of various reasons why young children do that, for example liking familiarity and finding routine and repetition comforting and soothing. Sometimes though when it’s the 100th repeat of “Why is milk white?” that week while juggling a hungry baby who dislikes talking while feeding and shows this by loudly complaining with his mouth full, I notice myself feeling tense and frustrated (with a probable negative effect on my milk flow hence the grumpy baby). So, taking a deep breath and putting on my game face, I asked my daughter why she was repeating the question – AGAIN – when we had already covered it on the 99 previous recent occasions. She then explained that she was “just making chat”. I found that interesting because I’d never have thought of that. I’m not much of a chat-for-the-sake-of-chat person, I like listening to what other people have to say and am happy to be quiet unless I have something I think is of value to say. My daughter though never stops talking. So, it emerged that she was just trying to draw me into keeping up my end of the “conversation” more. Understanding that helped me come up with better solutions – for example, broadening the range of questions to discuss, playing letter and number games at mealtimes and talking through plans for what to do next at mealtimes if there’s a natural lull rather than leaving her an empty space to fill with repetitive questions. I’m not saying we no longer have repetitive questions at home, but if they frustrate me, I now know how to address it more effectively.
Also, on this topic – behavioural reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is one of the most helpful parenting tools around. You catch your child behaving well and praise them for it. For bigger achievements, you reward them with something more tangible like stickers, food or magazines so they’re more likely to do it again. Negative reinforcement is more subtle – it’s what happens when you avoid something and feel short term relief – for example, your child gets to avoid school by pretending to have a sore tummy, feels good staying home with TLC and TV, then starts feeling really anxious about having to go back in tomorrow. And the one that traps lots of parents – intermittent reinforcement. This what happens when parents unintentionally do something that has the effect of keeping a behaviour going that they dislike. For example, my daughter walks happily at the same pace as me when she comes for a walk in the woods with just me and her brother. In fact, she often runs off ahead while I hope she doesn’t trip on tree roots too often. On the other hand, when we walk with my husband, she trails behind saying loudly “I like to walk s-l-o-w-l-y” because she’s learned he will then offer to carry her as he likes to go faster, which she quite likes. I gather she is now becoming a little heavy to carry up the hills though so sooner or later it might become motivating to address that one.
Where ACT comes in
I’m not sure there is any one “right” way to parent or to manage behaviour, there’s just what works for you, your child and your family in your context. A good place to start if there are any behavioural issues you want to address with your child is your parenting values. If you haven’t thought about that at all before, you might want to have a look at the Values page on this website. Here’s a few questions to think about though –
What kind of parent do you want to be – a strict one? A laidback one? Somewhere in the middle? The evidence base would say somewhere in the middle gets the best long-term outcomes for children, but only if the rest of the family are on board. Therefore, you also probably want to have a chat with anyone who shares parenting or grandparenting with you about what sort of parent they want to be so you can come to some sort of working agreement.
What other values do you want to infuse into your parenting – compassion? A love of learning? Creativity? Responsibility? Honesty? Whatever matters to you, the first place to start is then asking yourself how closely your actions as your child sees them would match up to those values. The more you can model your values through your actions for your child, the more they will learn about them.
Mindfulness and tuning in
Some form of mindful shared activity is so useful for building in a time you can feel close and share a rapport. I often find mindfulness is a great parenting tool for emotional regulation. For example, my daughter has understandably been a bit cranky this week after her immunisations and I’ve noticed mindfulness has really helped calm her behaviour. Once she’s calm, it’s much easier to then have a chat about what’s going on – often not the obvious from my perspective – and once we understand it, what to do about it gets more obvious. I have some recent blog posts on Mindfulness if you want some ideas.
Defusion could be useful for either you or your child, depending on the context. For example, if you’re fused with an idea about how to parent that isn’t working for your child, it can be helpful to notice that so you can consider getting some perspective from it. For example, I’ve found my daughter wants a visual timetable during lockdown so she has some sense of predictability and structure and a separation of week and weekend days whereas I would be willing to get up every morning and decide what to do based on the weather and our mood. Timetable it is though, because that’s what she needs and me fusing with the idea of embracing the chance to be flexible without our usual groups and activities to structure the week would not have been helpful. Defusion can also be helpful if you notice anxiety, anger or another strong emotion start to build up in either you or your child. It can also be a great tool to avert meltdowns. Once we averted a panic over the scary figures in the museum at Edinburgh Castle by popping into the gift shop and getting my daughter to list what she could see, hear, smell, taste and touch. I’ll admit the shop assistant might have given me some strange looks, but the older I get the more defused I am from reacting to what I think other people think of what I say or do, and this is especially true when I’m doing what I feel is right for my children. You can check the defusion page for more ideas.
Depending on what the behaviours are that might bother you in your child, sometimes it can be helpful to pick your battles. It can also be helpful to accept when developmentally they’re not ready to do something yet, even if other children you know are. For example, it might be helpful to accept that a two and a half year old still isn’t showing signs of being ready for toilet training yet and to choose to wait another couple of months, or to accept that having a new baby means it’s not the right time to work on staying dry at night for a pre-schooler. Or for other parents, it might mean accepting that the child you have is different to the one you thought you would raise – for example due to a learning difficulty, or features of autism or ADHD. It’s OK to feel however you feel about any of this – acceptance doesn’t have to mean feeling completely OK with it. It can mean just acknowledging that your feelings right now are your feelings, and noticing that they change, but being willing to have them as they are until they do. It can also mean giving yourself a break from trying to change something that you or your child might not be ready to address yet. If you want more info, check out the Acceptance page.
Committed action is when you feel ready to take action to address a problem, whether yours or your child’s, and to use your parenting values as your compass for how to do this. The spectrum of committed action is as broad as a range of parenting values might be, but I thought I’d give some examples to illustrate the sorts of things you might do once you’ve considered all the above to encourage good behaviour.
House rules – Young children need time to develop before they are ready to follow rules as they need to understand them first. My 3-year-old loves rules now she does understand them though. We only really have three – don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt other people and don’t hurt property. If we spot any behaviour that looks likely to break a rule, we encourage our daughter to notice it. For example, “I see you’re balancing on the top of your seat by one toe – I’m getting a bit worried you might fall off again – could you sit on your bum?”. We then allow a reminder, and if we need to do this, a warning of what the natural or logical consequences are likely to be if she continues. For example, “You’re about to fall off the seat, watch out!”. The natural consequence there would be falling off and getting a bump. Since I now have two children I increasingly favour positive risk taking where I give my daughter some advice and support to encourage her to manage her own risks rather than hover and helicopter, but when I only had one child I was more in the latter camp – it helps to have flexibility with any rules or behavioural systems in your home and adapt them as your children develop, you develop as a parent and your family grows. Logical consequences are similar but imposed by the parent – for example if your child hits another child with a toy at a toddler group, you might take the toy away for the rest of the session. As a word of caution, I’ve only used natural and logical consequences with my daughter since she’s been able to understand that her actions have consequences, that we all make mistakes and can learn from them and that there are rules to follow and what these are. For a baby or toddler, natural and logical consequences might be a bit harsh – for example, I wouldn’t let my baby experience the natural consequence of crawling off the sofa or eating crayons, however much he protests at my interventions.
Transition support – We use countdowns for most things in order to leave the house on time – for example, counting down from 60 for toothbrushing as otherwise it would take half an hour. Any time my daughter is particularly enjoying something, she needs a warning it will end soon – for example, “finish your maths game on daddy’s phone and then we will have breakfast.” We also have a visual timetable which gives predictability about what will happen when. We also have implicit routines where we usually do things in the same way which again gives predictability – for example, my daughter has a favourite red chair she likes to sit in after her music class to eat a snack (and woe behold any child who tries to sit in it – luckily they’re all very understanding).
Time out – I mean this for you rather than your child. All parents need a break sometimes, even if it just means you go somewhere you can see but not hear your pre-schooler play for a moment while you take some deep breaths. It is also helpful to plan some time doing whatever you need for you – a catch up with a friend, reading a book in a coffee shop, even work stuff. Sometimes parents need therapy for their own well-being too, and its OK if you do. You are a person as well as a parent and sometimes it helps to remember parenting is just one of your roles, and if it’s a bad day, it’s only one – maybe tomorrow will be better. It’s also helpful to remember that for a child to have secure attachment, you only need to “get it right” 1 in 3 times – does that seem achievable? If not, go and have a cake and a cuppa – maybe it will then.