Part II: How to survive and thrive as a parent: De-emphasizing the bad

This is the second in a three-part blog series.

By Elissa Gonzalez, M.D., M.P.H.
Pediatric Resident, PGY3
Baylor College of Medicine
The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio

In this blog, we will explore how you can focus on positive reinforcement and avoid placing attention on negative behaviors by:

1. Eliminating the “Nos,” the “don’ts,” and the “can’ts”
2. Focusing on what they should do
3. Picking your battles
4. Addressing the emotions not the behavior

Eliminating “no.” Think about how many times you say this word in a day and how often that word induces ugly behavior. “No, don’t grab that. No, you can’t have candy. No, don’t say/do that.” Focusing on the negative behaviors can also devalue the significance of saying “no.” A firm “no” should be used when a child is hitting or running into the street, but challenge yourself to avoid “no” in other cases. If you focus on the No’s and Don’ts they will too. For example, if I say, “ Don’t think about cherries,” what are you thinking about right now? Cherries. The same holds true for children. “Don’t eat that candy,” and they will only think about candy. If you do not give it to them, they will get upset. Try saying, “Candy has a lot of sugar. I have a tasty orange. We can make some juice with together.” If you try to change the way you talk, the behaviors will change as well.

What should they do? Try to focus on what the child should be doing instead of what they should not be doing. For example, instead of, “Don’t stand on that chair,” say, “Please sit on your bottom in the chair. You can fall and get hurt if you are standing.” This will help them build on critical thinking so that next time they are standing on the chair (because there will be at least 20 more times), they will eventually remember that they should sit because it is safer. Letting them know what to do will help them problem solve in the future and develop their moral judgement.
Picking battles. Your child is human; you are human. We need to pick which behaviors bother us the most. My child will not be the person I want him to be at all times, just as I know I am not the perfect person I want to be at all time. We make mistakes, and they make mistakes. I pick what I want to address so I’m not spending most of my day making a big deal of every misgiving.

Emotions. Yes, we are talking about emotions again. Work on addressing the emotion linked to the poor behavior. If your child breaks a plate, spills milk, destroys your favorite shirt after spilling paint, address how he feels. “Was that scary? Are you O.K.?” Resist “You shouldn’t have been playing with the paint! You know you are clumsy with your plate. Next time don’t walk with it.” If the behaviors are accidents, address how it makes them feel. If behaviors are purposeful, talk about what made them feel a certain way. “How were you feeling when you threw paint at me? What made you feel that way? What other ways can we deal with that emotion?”

Our final part in this blog series focuses on ways to reinforce your child’s good behavior.

Dr. Elissa Gonzalez is a third-year pediatric resident at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Early Childhood Development and since has tried to incorporate the whole child approach in her practice. Dr. Gonzalez’s research and training has been in the areas of pediatrics and prevention of diseases since her passion is in the areas of working with children and families. She obtained a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree and a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. During her free time, you can find her riding bikes at the many parks in town or just walking around the farmers market with her husband and children.

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