Research can be confounding when it comes to understanding what is considered best parenting practices these days. Do you praise a child's behavior or their character? Focus only on rewarding or also include punishment? Praise unconditionally or only in response to good behaviors? It can certainly feel like a morass of advice, with actual implementation being even more complicated and challenging.
However, there are two basic pieces of advice upon which all the different research threads agree: model the behaviors you want to see and notice the good. These are principles that are simple enough to understand, though most parents would agree that putting them into practice can be anything but straightforward.
Modeling good behavior is one of the most powerful tools available for influencing other people. There are no guarantees, of course, but modeling the behavior you want to see in your children will definitely tip the odds more in your favor. Don't want your kids to smoke cigarettes or drink? Being a non-smoker and refraining from drinking regularly around them will have a big influence. Want your kids to be more generous? Start being generous to others in their presence. Think your kids need to learn better skills for resolving conflict? Start resolving conflict with your partner in front of the kids. Some of these things won't be problematic and can be checked off with ease: Great, I don't smoke anyway -- check! Other things aren't so easy: Be more generous -- how? If it feels difficult, a little self-reflection will help. Examine the obstacles getting in your way. They will usually fall into one of two categories: 1) It doesn't feel comfortable (you're not in the habit of doing it that way or have not had models for it yourself) or 2) You're not sure what it would look like exactly in concrete terms. If the obstacle is a lack of comfort, remember that familiarity increases with repetition and new habits can be formed. Some say that a habit takes 30 days of repetition to change 1. So be a scientist and try on this new effort of modeling for the next month and assess your results. On the other hand, if the obstacle is lacking specifics about modeling what you want to see, brainstorm some ideas as you think through the different parts of your day. You can think big if you're ready for it (for example, modeling generosity by starting to donate your time weekly to a non-profit) but thinking small can be at least as impactful (finding opportunities to share more with family members). The goal is to make the behavior you seek in your child a normal, expected part of life.
Some researchers call noticing the good behavior of your kids "catching them doing good." 2 This is an idea that has a parallel application in the world of training animals. Ever watch dolphins or whales being trained to do a new trick? The trainer becomes acutely attuned to every little segment of that new trick and then notices, acknowledges, praises and rewards each of those segments. The trainer "catches" the animal doing one of those segments and when the animal notices that that particular thing is being rewarded, it wants to do it again!
Some people find the comparison of animal behavior with human behavior disturbing or inappropriate, but as a psychologist helping parents, I find that it can be helpful for people to stand back from an emotionally charged, difficult situation and think about it from another angle. You might look at your child, who perhaps can't seem to be nice to his sister to save his life, and imagine he is a dolphin, frolicking in the water -- and wait! What's that? He accidentally shared something with his sister! In shoots the trainer with a rewarding comment ("So lovely to see you sharing like that,") or just a pat and smile. Humor often helps a difficult situation by lightening the mood, but also because it helps people be more creative in their thinking. In this case, envisioning one's son as a dolphin might help you see the small actions he takes that are segments of the larger goal.
Having a strategy for responding to negative behaviors is of course critical, but what many people overlook is the equally critical strategy necessary for responding to positive behaviors. In fact, it's helpful to remember that it is new, positive behaviors that will need to replace the time and function of the negative behaviors. Sometimes it feels challenging to find those positive behaviors when the negative ones are looming large, but the more attention, encouragement, and reinforcement of those (perhaps fledgling) desirable behaviors they receive, the more they will flourish. "Catching them doing good" is a winning strategy.
Dr. Nicole Kosanke is the director of family services at the Center for Motivation and Change, where she specializes in working with family members of people abusing substances and in the assessment process for families and individuals with substance abuse issues. Dr. Kosanke has been working in the research and clinical practice of substance abuse treatment for many years and is a regular blogger on the Huffington Post.
Dr. Kosanke is a co-author of Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change (www.beyondaddictionbook.com), a compassionate and science-based family guide for navigating the addiction treatment world, understanding motivation, and training in the use of CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) skills. These practical skills include self-care, positive reinforcement, positive communication, and staying connected in a constructive, positive way to help your loved one.
Find more skills for helping a loved one with substance abuse issues at The 20 Minute Guide (www.the20minuteguide.com).