Stop Bad Behavior Before It Starts

The most effective way to stop anything negative is to prevent it from starting in the first place. This is especially true of your child’s behavior. Once poor choices and behaviors become a habit, they are much more difficult to stop, and much more frustrating for you to manage! Follow these tips for “preventative discipline” and teach your child about the rewards associated with good choices and behavior.

When your child is young, start out by rewarding as many incidents of positive behavior as you can possibly catch! Rewards do not always need to be extravagant treats and outings; save these things for special occasions and big accomplishments. Simple rewards like high-fives, hugs, and verbal acknowledgement and praise are more than enough to set your kiddo on the right path.

Use specific praise to help your child understand the behavior they are doing well. Instead of saying “Way to go!” or “Good job!” expand on your praise: “Way to go for making your bed so neatly this morning after you woke up!” or “Good job remembering to wash your hands before you came to the table for dinner!” or “I really like how your poured your juice into your cup slowly so it didn’t spill!” This will help your child clearly recognize the behavior you would like them to continue, and WHY it is a good behavior.

Make your expectations clear, because ambiguity is a recipe for trouble! For example, if you will be going to the grocery store, let your child know, “We are driving to the grocery store. When we go in, I expect you to sit in the cart and quietly sing the song you learned at school yesterday. We are only going to be there long enough to pick up spaghetti sauce, orange juice, and a birthday card for your grandma. We will not be buying any treats. After we are done, please follow me quietly to the car, and we will have time to go to the park for 15 minutes on the way home.” Then, have your child repeat back to you what is expected, and be sure to praise him or her after they have done well on the task. Most importantly, if you promise a small reward, make sure to consistently follow through on what is promised – after all, if you don’t follow through on what’s expected, you are role modeling for your child that expectations are optional and do not need to be followed.

Help your child build a confidence and a sense of competence in his or her problem-solving skills to increase frustration tolerance. If your child is struggling to figure out how to do a task, allow him or her to struggle with it for several minutes or longer if it is safe to do so. Instead of immediately “fixing” the problem for your child or rescuing him or her from frustration, offer support through brief words of encouragement: “You can do it, I love how hard you’re trying!” If your child asks for help, find out what specific help they would like, narrate what and why you are doing things a certain way, and start only a portion of the task – once they catch on to the next step, pass it back to them to finish. Your child needs to recognize that they have the skills necessary to solve problems and make things “right,” and that frustration and confusion are not necessarily bad things, but can lead to a later sense of accomplishment.

Remember: Kids do not understand everything we know as adults, and they have to be taught why something is or is not okay. If they make a mistake, ask yourself whether it is something they should already know, or if it has never been explained to them. If it is the latter, have patience and teach them what to do instead, instead of punishing them for not knowing. Follow these tips when your child is young to save yourself and your child from a great deal of frustration in the future!


Next Week’s Blog: Natural Consequences Vs. Logical Consequences Vs. Punishment

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.