I was teaching an undergraduate class on the psychology of behavior a couple of years ago when one of my older students raised his hand and asked, “Where were you when I was a new parent 20 years ago?” He meant it in jest, and everyone in the class nodded and chuckled. Nonetheless, I still think about this student and his question on a regular basis.
I believe he was asking a couple of things: 1) Why wasn’t I armed with this information when my child was younger?, and 2) How can parents learn about these ideas? I can answer the second question by telling you that parents can consult with behavioral psychologists. You may ask, “Where are the behavioral psychologists who work with young children and parents?” Well, some work in pediatricians’ offices, some in hospital settings, and many are in private practice.
Unfortunately, most parents don’t regularly interact with a behavioral psychologist as they do their pediatrician. Sadly, I regularly come across parents who tell me their child has been demonstrating difficult behavior or developmental issues for years, only to be dismissed by their pediatrician or told it was normal and their child would grow out of it. This is not to say all pediatricians are this way or don’t have behavioral training, only that those parents who end up with me are the ones who did not get the information early on.
Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to parenting, there are some general truisms that can help all parents. The good news is that behavior tends to be predictable and reliable (even if it is challenging or maladaptive). In general, the following is true for all behaviors:
Behavior is communication. An infant cries when they want or need something, and parents learn to understand and often distinguish what those cries mean. As infants get older, their behavior becomes more complex, but still serves the same purpose. Ask yourself, what is my child trying to communicate? If I could give words to their behaviors, what would they be? For some kids, it is “I really want you to pay attention to me.” For others, it is “I don’t want to go to school; I want to be home with mommy.”
Behavior is a result of a child’s interaction with their environment. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum, nor is it ever just something a kid does because they are a “bad child.” Behavior problems occur when there is a mismatch between the child’s needs and communication style and the supports in the environment to help them. For example, many children require a predictable environment to keep them organized and calm. One way to support that is through a visual schedule.
Behavior occurs more often in the future when it is reinforced. This one is key and is often the most difficult to understand. A behavior is reinforced when the child gets what they want after engaging in the behavior. Well-meaning parents sometimes do things in the short term that make the behavior more likely to occur in the future. One example I have witnessed often is a parent giving their child something to help them calm down when they are having a tantrum in a store. In this scenario, the parent is likely feeling stressed about their child throwing a tantrum in public and concerned the child is also uncomfortable or distressed. As a result, the parent provides the child with, for example, a piece of candy another sweet item to help them calm down. The parent stops the tantrum and feels better because they and their child are now calm. Unfortunately, the child may learn that throwing a tantrum can lead to getting candy, making it more likely they will engage in this behavior in the future.
It is easier to reinforce good behavior than punish bad behavior. Punishment is a tricky and controversial topic. Many parents use appropriate punishment procedures (such as time out) to help reduce their child’s problem behavior. However, here’s the rub: a consequence is only punishment if it decreases the child’s problem behavior in the future. So, for example, if you send your child to time out every time he hits his brother, if it is truly punishment, he will hit his brother less in the future. If he is still hitting his brother every day, you either want to change up what you are doing for punishment (for example: blocking and ignoring the attempts or removing a privilege - note: if you do this, make sure the rule is spelled out ahead of time as if you hit your brother, you don’t get screen time today), or provide reinforcement for his appropriate interactions with his brother.
I hope the information I’ve provided is helpful. Parenting can be complicated and frustrating at times, but there are some generalities that can help you understand your child’s behavior. However, every child is different and every child reacts differently to their parents and their environment. As such, some children may require more support than others.
I often tell parents that working with me is like working with a fitness trainer. A good fitness trainer will ask you about what you want to work on, assess your current strengths, and provide a plan to help you with your fitness goals. They will then provide training sessions aligned to your goals and help you assess the effectiveness of the program. As a behavioral psychologist, this is what I do as well (just with parenting behavior, not fitness). So, if you feel your child’s behavior is long-standing and more difficult than you can figure out on your own, please reach out to a behavioral psychologist in your area.