Managing the Parent-Child Behavioral Relationship - Learning Lab

Managing the Parent-Child Behavioral Relationship


Over the course of my career, I have worked with children who have a wide variety of needs. Some are profoundly affected by some form of a specific disability, while others are considered “typically developing,” but in need of some behavioral support/guidance.

With many of those children, both typically developing and those affected by a disability, there may be one or more relationships in their lives in which we see a significantly higher occurrence of problematic behavior. Such relationships may be with a parent, a teacher, or with a sibling. If there is an existing pattern of problematic behavior with a specific individual – or multiple individuals – we may be able to determine or predict that there is some variable in the dynamic between them that is increasing the likelihood of problematic behavior. In other words, if you feel as though your child “only acts like this with ____,” you may be correct!

When we take a step back and examine such a relationship, one question that we should ask ourselves is “how often am I correcting/nagging/scolding the child?” Then, compare that to how often they are being praised and rewarded in our presence.

I believe the vast majority of us take the “good” behaviors of others for granted.  We assume that doing something “good” or kind or appropriate is just what is supposed to happen. However, “good” behavior requires effort and should be recognized. This goes beyond the obvious “good” behavior (e.g., saying “please”, holding a door for someone, etc.).

We give directions constantly to our children and they respond accordingly:

“Sally, come here.”  

“John, pick up those socks.”

But they do so without receiving praise for their compliance. The “good” behavior occurs as requested without recognition. On the other hand, when Sally does not come right away, or Johnny forgets to pick up the socks, we deliver a correction or a criticism. This is significant because a criticism, a scolding, or any other correction, can often contain much more meaning and hold more power over our emotional and psychological response than positive praise.

Pretend that a friend of yours gives you ten compliments (“I love your shoes. Your haircut looks great”) and then tells you one negative thing about you (“That shirt is really ugly”). Very likely, most of us would have a hard time getting past the negative comment, no matter what was said before in the form of praise.

In a relationship with a child where the ratio of praises versus corrections swings in favor of corrections, we may have discovered one reason why there is some problem with the dynamic in that relationship. Each correction, each scolding, each time we “nag” or tell the child what they are doing wrong, we are potentially increasing the likelihood that we represent someone in that child’s life associated with negative feelings, feelings of “failure”, or of being disappointed by them.

This is not intended to suggest that we can never correct a child (or an adult); that is sometimes necessary. The idea is to become more cognizant of how often we are acting as the person in their life associated with negative responses, as opposed to the person who is recognizing their efforts and praising what they are doing correctly.

I recently worked on this very idea with a father and his son. The child, who has a diagnosis of autism, is a great kid and a joy to work with, but like any typical child, he can be silly at times and easily distracted. In addition, he sometimes has trouble understanding the words of others and also has difficulty expressing himself with verbal communication.

The father is a wonderful man as well and is also a joy to work with. He has high expectations for his son because he wants him to fulfill his true capabilities. The problem is that sometimes, such as during “homework time”, there is a high frequency of correcting the child, both for academic and behavioral “mistakes.” This likely led to an increase of frustration and problematic behavior by the child, which further led to increased frustration for the father, which, again led to even more frustration for the child. At this point there existed a vicious cycle of frustration.

Just by drawing the father’s attention to this dynamic in their relationship, he became more conscious of how often and for which specific behaviors he was correcting his son.  As a result, he has learned to adjust his expectations and to become more conscious and intentional in how and when he is correcting his child.

As a result of that change, we have seen a significant decrease in frustration from the child, which has led to a proportionate decrease in frustration by the father. Another change I observed in the father’s corrective behavior towards his son was that he began finding ways to still correct his son, but do it with language, a tone, and an attitude that didn’t feel negative. This allowed him to continue providing correction when necessary, but removed negative associations that might have previously occurred with those.

Those of us who may be having difficulties with our children should ask four questions of ourselves:

  1. How often am I correcting/scolding/”nagging” my child during a given day?
  2. How often am I praising/rewarding/recognizing my child’s successes on a given day?
  3. Are there certain “mistakes” or behaviors on which I can focus less corrective action as a way to limit the amount of negative interactions I have with my child each day?
  4. If I do need to correct a behavior/mistake, can I do it in a way that doesn’t feel negative?

Doing so will likely produce positive effects on the parent-child relationship.