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How to Make Negative Behavior Positive

From temper tantrums to eye rolling, kids seem to have a knack for pushing your buttons. Sometimes they seem intent on getting into trouble. The truth is, though, that most kids would prefer to be good. All behavior has a root cause, which may be a lack of understanding, a desire for attention, or even the need for power and control. Careful observation is usually the first step in eradicating a behavior. Once you understand the causes of negative behavior, you can tailor a solution specifically for your child.


Sometimes kids behave negatively because they don't know a behavior is inappropriate. Calmly setting boundaries and discussing acceptable behaviors is often enough to change a behavior.

Dr. Sue Cornbluth, a child psychologist and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., says, "Address negative behaviors as soon as they occur, but without giving negative consequences. For example, when your child makes a mistake the first time, address it without anger. Talk to your child and explain how he or she can make an adjustment in their behavior to correct it. In this sense, they do not fear punishment but are being encouraged to move toward successful behavior."

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Positive Attention

Kids crave our attention and will resort to bad behavior to get it, says Adam Caller, founder of Tutors International in Oxford, England, and a specialist in dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. He adds, "Children can't generally differentiate 'good attention' (attention for doing the wanted things) from 'bad attention' (the attention they get when doing something unwanted). Unfortunately, children often get more attention from bad behaviors than from good. Make sure that a child gets more attention for desired behaviors than the unwanted behaviors."

Tell kids what you want them to do, rather than what you don't want them to do. For example, try "Please hang up your backpack and coat" rather than "Don't leave your coat and backpack on the floor." Many experts suggest "catching them being good," which simply means focusing more on good behaviors than bad. Give kids some sincere, specific praise when they get it right. Say something like, "Thanks for treating your sister kindly. I can tell that made her feel happy."

Consistent Consequences

When you're tired and frazzled, it's tempting to forgo consequences, but to curb bad behavior, you've got to stick to your guns. Families should discuss consequences ahead of time. Better yet, let your child help you choose consequences.

Jennifer A. Powell-Lunder, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist from Katonah, New York, who works primarily with children and adolescents and their parents, says, "Encourage kids to come up with their own consequences for negative behaviors. This process sends the message that you care what they think, which in turn can help them care more about what they are doing. Believe it or not, the consequences kids can come up for ‘bad’ behaviors are often far worse than you would implement."

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Role Models

Kids are the masters of imitation. They watch everything we do, picking up negative behaviors from parents, friends and even television shows. To reduce negative behaviors, pay attention to the influence of media and peers. Get to know your children's friends. Set boundaries for what's OK in terms of movies, video games and television shows. For example, perhaps kids can watch only movies rated G or PG.

"Be sure to model positive behaviors yourself," says Powell-Lunder. "Sometimes kids pick up negative behaviors because they are modeling their parents. If you don't want your child to scream at you, then refrain from screaming at him or others."

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