It’s a natural instinct for parents and caregivers to want to correct a child and point out what they’re doing wrong when the child is misbehaving. But although this may be instinct, it doesn’t always work the way that it’s intended.
It’s been studied that giving children positive attention over negative attention is more effective in changing behavior. For example, instead of correcting what they’re doing wrong—praise what they do right. This encourages them to put more effort into positive behavior because they get a positive response from it.
But what exactly does positive attention mean, and how is that different from letting children get away with excessive bad behavior?
Positive Attention—What Is It?
It’s a knee-jerk reaction to respond when children are doing something that they’re not supposed to be doing. Reacting with positive attention requires a shift in perspective where we call out the positive behavior and ignore, for the moment, the negative.
Children rely on parents’ attention so strongly that any attention given to a behavior—even if the attention is negative—will encourage that behavior simply because it’s given any attention at all.
This means that it’s essential to catch kids doing things right instead of doing them wrong. This takes practice, as it goes against what many of us are used to, but over time it will become second nature—and the relationship with your child will thrive because of it.
Positive Attention in Practice
Positive attention has the potential to take many different forms. It looks different for different age groups, but the foundation of it is the same. Whether it’s verbal praise, hugs, kisses, high-fives, or rewards, the positive reinforcement is there.
The key to the success of positive attention is specificity. Avoid being general and get as descriptive as possible when detailing what it is your child is doing right. This way, they’re not confused about what behavior they should try and replicate to continue receiving positive attention.
For example, instead of saying blanket phrases like “Great job!” or “Nice work!” dial it in and get specific by saying, “Great job sharing your stuffed animal with your brother,” or “Nice work on remembering to load the dishwasher this morning.” No matter the age of the child, specific praise like this will stick in their brain and help them remember behaviors for the future.
What about Negative Behavior?
Unless the children are acting in a way that puts themselves or others in danger, do your best to ignore the negative behavior that they’re showcasing. This will probably be difficult at first, but when the child realizes that their actions aren’t receiving any attention at all, they’ll see no point in continuing. As soon as the child begins to follow your instructions or calm down, that’s when you can give them attention once again.
But just because you’re ignoring a negative behavior at the moment doesn’t mean that you should ignore it for good. But when emotions are high, it is not the time to discuss unfavorable actions with your child—no matter their age. When they’ve calmed down, that’s when you can return to the topic and talk about how to act differently the next time.
Positive Attention in Action
It helps to understand how positive attention can work in a challenging situation. Take the situation of your child throwing a temper tantrum in a grocery store because they want candy, for example—something every parent has experienced or will experience at some point. If you give in and buy them the candy, they’re going to repeat the behavior in the future because it got them the result that they wanted—even though it would stop the tantrum in the moment. Negotiating for a different treat at home would have the same effect.
Because of the public nature of the tantrum, many parents feel put on the spot and like they need to show the “audience” that they know how to be firm with their child by raising their voice or threatening ultimatums. This response won’t benefit you or your child, though—and it won’t prevent a tantrum from happening in the future, either. You’re still reinforcing the behavior with attention, even if it’s negative attention.
A reaction involving positive attention looks like this: Ignore the tantrum until the child stops (easier said than done, we understand—but power through!), and give positive attention and praise when the child calms down. For example, “I’m proud of you for calming your body down and taking some deep breaths and understanding the candy is not possible right now.”
Home is the place to address the tantrum itself when emotions have cooled off. You can address the situation by being specific and validating your child’s emotions with something like this: “I saw in the grocery store that it was hard for you when I said no to the candy. When I say no to something, that means we can’t have it right then. So the next time that happens, what can we do?”
You’re acknowledging the way that your child is feeling while still reinforcing expectations and boundaries, which strengthens your relationship.
Positive Attention and Your Child
It’s important to note that utilizing positive attention is not something that is perfected overnight. It’s a process, sometimes a grueling one, but the results that it brings about and the healthier relationships you have with your child are worth the work that you put into it.