When working with families and children who present to the clinic for behavioral concerns, such as being aggressive, not following directions or being impulsive or distracted, I often slow down, encourage some reflection and support a pathway for developing tools for parents.

We don’t have to take a poll around Missoula County to know that any parent wants their child to act better and misbehave less often. The challenge is getting to that point … and it can be rough at times to find the right strategies that work for both you and your child.

Children like getting our attention, but they need us to teach them how to get it in the right ways. (It’s true! Children might not say that they like your attention, but watch what they will do to get it.)

A child’s unwanted behaviors often get noticed more frequently than their desired behaviors. It’s not that parents try to notice the negative, but the negative behaviors are often hard to miss. It’s easy to notice the actions we just can’t ignore, such as hitting a sibling, refusing to get shoes on in the morning, or getting in and out of bed multiple times throughout the night.

On the other hand, it can be pretty easy to miss your little one sitting nicely in the car, brushing teeth after being asked once, or taking good care of the family dog.

When children’s behavior is puzzling us, it can be tempting to explain it. You’re not alone if you’ve ever found yourself thinking, my child is not following directions because they’re lazy, or my child can’t get any homework done, so they must not care about their future. These explanations may often be inaccurate and our tendency to explain children’s behaviors is often unhelpful. When we practice noticing our child’s behavior as on-task (desired) or off-task (undesired) behavior, we often get less attached to the negativity associated with the behavior we don’t like.

What we know about little ones and their behaviors is that they are highly connected to what we do, how we respond, or what we say. Our words, affirmations, and/or touch can often be supportive tools when we use them strategically. When we respond to the good things children do with excitement, detail, and praise, we will continue to see more of those actions. Many times, the first task I give parents is to simply notice what they appreciate about their child. There’s a lot our little ones are doing well and it’s our job to let them know how great they are.

Here are some tips for helping support your child’s behavior and interpersonal growth:

Noticing experiment to increase awareness: This experiment is to help remind you what makes you most proud of your child. Practice doing a little more watching while focusing on smaller details. How does your child walk down a hall? Eat a meal? Change into pajamas? Feed the dog? Zip up their jacket? Use the toilet? Sit while watching TV with you? Take care of a family pet? Treat a sibling? Work on a craft project? Follow a two-step command? (Do this, then do this…) You might notice some really good decisions.

Your commentary as a tool: Your feedback is one of the most important ingredients in building a supportive relationship with your child. Practice commenting on the good things your child does. Let them know you notice the good choices they make. Example: I really like how you got up this morning when I asked you or, I love when you sit nicely at the dinner table, or you’re such a good kid for helping me make dinner!

Offering choices to promote independence: Little ones don’t get as many opportunities to make their own choices, so it’s our role to encourage them in decision-making when the opportunity arises. Encouraging your child in making their own decisions builds independence and responsibility-taking.

Sometimes we can actually set up situations that allow our little ones to have more choices. Example: Pick a few activities that your child can choose from and let them make the decision. Would you like to play a board game together, play in the snow with me, or keep reading your book? When no answer is “right,” we allow children to make independent decisions, we get to praise them for stating a decision, and they can feel proud of making their own choices.

Dr. Sarah Potts is a licensed clinical psychologist and the Director of Behavioral Health at Partnership Health Center in Missoula, MT. Partnership Health Center is excited to be offering more pediatric and adolescent integrated behavioral health services in 2020.