The Easiest and Fastest Way to Change Your Child’s Behavior (Based on Scientific Research)
Many teenagers are able to stop being lazy and begin hitting the books in order to get good grades all on their own – they don’t need a parent nagging them to study.
It is well documented that many adults stop drinking or doing drugs without the help of counseling or a 12-step group. These are the people that seem to “quit overnight”.
I’m sure you can think of a moment when you, or someone you know, had an “a-ha!” moment that caused you to live life differently. Many people report that near-death experiences have caused them to live their lives a whole new way after dodging an early death.
My point is that many Modern Parents that I speak to are struggling with figuring out how to get their child to change in some way – to get better grades, to be more sociable with their peers, to behave better, to stop feeling so bad about themselves, etc – but nothing they do seems to work.
This article is all about how science is beginning to show that behavior change is actually a natural process that is innate in all of our kids, and Modern Parents can either sabotage this change process or subtly encourage it to begin – and succeed.
First, I’ll point out several errors in the way that many Modern Parents think that could be harming their child’s natural tendency to change. Next, I’ll go more in-depth and explain why some kids are able to make positive changes without intense involvement by a parent, teacher, or expert. And finally, I’ll give you specific tips on what you can do to speed up and influence your child’s natural ability to make a behavior change that will positively impact their life.
My overall goal with this article is to teach you how to help your child make an important behavior change, while also encouraging a strong parent-child relationship. This article will help you stop being a nagging, overbearing parent, and, instead, will show you how to be a subtle (yet encouraging) participant in your child’s natural change process.
Errors In The Way We Currently Think About Behavior Change
There are many reasons explaining why kids decide to change their behavior that are currently accepted as fact today. Here is a sample of some common reasons that I hear all the time:
- Kids only change when they get uncomfortable enough
- The more you pressure kids, the more likely they will change
- Kids just don’t understand why they need to change, so the more you lecture them, the more likely they will change because eventually they’ll “get it”
- Kids haven’t changed yet because they haven’t suffered enough or encountered “real life” enough
- Kids don’t change because they’ve got it too good in these modern times, so parents need to “get back to the basics”
The problem with the above statements is that they presume that change happens TO our kids, but in reality, change is something in which they MUST be an active participant.
As a child psychologist, I’ve found that the biggest mistake parents make when trying to enforce a behavior change in their child is that they think THEY are in control of their child’s change. These parents just think that if they make their child feel bad or embarrassed enough (aka the parent who destroys their child’s belongings and then posts the video on the internet), or hand out the right amount of punishment, or give their child the right lecture, then their child will finally give in and change.
Forcing your child to change just doesn’t work – especially in the long-run.
I’ve written before about how forcing the child to change has a tendency to backfire . Research on motivation has shown that when parents force change, kids act in either one of two destructive ways: they either become defiant or compliant. Both of these reactions have been shown to have some short-term change effects (the child will change in order to gain a reward, avoid a punishment, or go back to their desired behavior once the parent isn’t looking) – but our goal is to inspire long-term positive behavior change.
So if we’re not in control of our child’s ability to change their behavior, then what can we do? Just wait around until they change?
Absolutely not! We CAN be an active partner in our child’s natural ability to make positive, long-term changes.
New Understanding of Behavior Change
Behavior change is actually a natural process. As I said before, many people change bad or destructive behaviors without any kind of help at all.
There is even research to suggest that people who seek therapy to get help changing a destructive behavior – such as overeating or smoking – eventually improve , but not because of the therapy. There are decades and decades of studies that have investigated the effectiveness of therapy on behavior change. Study after study has shown that the same amount of people undergo behavior change whether or not they entered treatment, read self-help books, or didn’t do anything special at all.
Simply put: if people want to change, then they change.
The most interesting trend that these studies discovered, however, is that clients who sought therapy tended to have a higher rate of behavior change if their therapist displayed confidence in the client’s ability to change., These therapists promoted change talk (as opposed to focusing on all the reasons why it would be hard or difficult to change). When clients worked with therapists who secretly predicted their clients wouldn’t actually follow through on the behavior change and/or spent a lot of time in therapy talking about the difficulties of the behavior change, then these clients tended to not follow through on the desired behavior change.
Another important trend that scientific research has identified is that kids change when they connect the reason behind the change to an internal reason, such as completing a important personal goal, making loved ones proud of them, or because they believe it’s the right thing to do.
I’ve written several in-depth articles before about the importance of intrinsic motivation and its impact on motivation, so it makes sense that this psychological ingredient is necessary for long term, positive behavior change.
Finally, research has also identified that behavior change is an interpersonal process – kids often become motivated to change (or not) through their day-to-day interaction with others.
For example, a young, shy child might want to join a dance class, and overcomes their fear to join the class when encouraged by a positive adult. On the other hand, this same child might give up on the idea of joining the dance class if influenced by a discouraging adult.
As you can see, while Modern Parents might not be in control of their child’s behavior change, they certainly can act in ways that influence their behavior change for the better or worse. But before I share specific tips with you on how to influence your child’s natural ability to change their behavior, you have to understand the important elements that must be present for behavior change to begin.
Elements of change
The three elements that I am about to share with you are all adopted from the psychological treatment model called Motivational Interviewing (MI). The MI method has been shown to be effective with helping people resolve ambivalent feelings about change in order to find the internal motivation they need to change their behavior.
According to this theory, kids need 3 elements in order to be ready for any kind of behavior change: willing, able and ready.
It should make sense that a child who is not willing to undergo the difficulty of behavior change most likely will not change.
Part of willingness is an internal understanding of the importance of the behavior change. For example, a child who doesn’t understand the long-term rewards of putting down the video game controller in order to study for a test, won’t be motivated to go through the hard work of behavior change.
As such, if your child isn’t willing to change, then they won’t change.
Let’s say that your child is willing to put the work into undergoing a behavior change – but do they have the skills and knowledge to make the behavior change? Do they believe that they are capable of being successful with the behavior change?
Self-confidence, or the belief that one is able to accomplish a goal, is important when undergoing behavior change. If your child doesn’t believe that they can carry out the steps needed to accomplish the behavior change, then they are likely to quit very quickly when things get tough.
Many kids are willing to change and have confidence in their abilities to change, but they just aren’t ready to follow through on the change. They have different priorities for their motivation and energy.
A lot of times, our kids are plagued with the idea that they have plenty of time for procrastination. They erroneously think that they can put off studying for the current test because there are lots of tests to study for in the future. Or they keep telling themselves that they’ll stop playing so many video games tomorrow, but today they’ll continue playing.
If your child does not prioritize the importance of the behavior change, then they will not be successful with changing their behavior.
So the 3 elements of change – willing, able, and ready – must be present in order for your child’s behavior change to be successful, and the Modern Parent is a big influence on encouraging these elements to develop in the child.
How To Influence Behavior Change
Create a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Research shows that when people believe they can change, then change is more likely to occur. Furthermore, when other people in your child’s life believe that they can change, then they have more of a tendency to be successful with behavior change.
This is called the Self-fulfilling Prophecy. To put it simply, a self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, due to the positive feedback between belief and behavior.
For example, teacher expectations regarding student performance has long been shown to be a big predictor of student grades. The students that the teacher believes to be smart, tend to get better overall grades. These studies have also shown that teachers tend to spend more one-on-one time with students that they believe are smart, which gives these students an advantage towards getting better grades. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy in action.
You can create your own self-fulfilling prophecy with your child’s behavior change by acting in a way that communicates that you believe they will be successful in their behavior change goal. You need to be consistent with this confidence as well – even when they stumble with their goal (which is inevitable).
Communicate Your Confidence
Today’s kids are suffering from more self-esteem problems that ever before, which eats away at their confidence when they must undergo behavior change. (There are a multitude of opinions on why today’s kids are more prone to self-esteem issues, but I won’t delve into that in this article).
Most kids gain confidence as they mature, but Modern Parents can speed up a child’s confidence for behavior change by adopting a consistent attitude that communicates belief in the child’s ability to successfully change.
The key word here is consistent. As your child begins the path to behavior change, they WILL stumble. It is more important than ever for you to communicate belief in the child during these setbacks.
Communicating your confidence to your child can be done in many different ways:
- Not overreacting when your child messes up; instead project a calm confidence in your child while they continue going down the path of behavior change
- Avoiding the knee-jerk reaction of stepping in to “rescue” your child; it is better for your child in the long run to allow them to struggle with finding their own solution
- By praising the small steps on the path to behavior change – success is success
- When talking about their future behavior change, phrase the conversation as if you have no doubt they will succeed (i.e. instead of “hopefully all this extra studying will get that grade up by the end of the year,” instead say “you’ll be so happy when all this extra studying pays off with that awesome grade at the end of the year”)
Our Modern Kids are very smart and they can pick up on subtle intonations and phrases that might hint that you do or don’t believe that they’ll be successful in their behavior change. Throw yourself wholeheartedly into your belief that your child will be a success.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Focus on Arguments FOR Change
Evidence shows that that how someone talks about change heavily influences whether or not they will change.
For example, research has shown that clients who speak about their intended behavior change in therapy are more likely to make the change if they talk positively about it; conversely, clients who spend time discussing the many reasons why they shouldn’t change, generally don’t.
Therefore, when talking with your child about changing their behavior, focus on the positives of the behavior change – things like how they will feel after making the change, what positive effects will come about due to the change, etc.
It’s far too easy for kids (and parents) to get bogged down in all of the reasons why making the behavior change might not work, and doing so makes it more likely that your child will fail with the intended change.
A very powerful way of getting your child to speak positively about their intended behavior change is to challenge them to make arguments FOR the change. For example, many kids have a tendency to tell you all about the reasons why making the change will be difficult, hard, or not worth it, but, instead, have them speak about why making the change will be good for them in the long run.
The following are some helpful questions to elicit positive change talk in your child:
- “I’ve heard lots of reasons why changing will be hard, but what are some reasons why changing would be good for you in the long run?”
- “How would you feel about yourself if you did make the change?”
- “If your friend wanted to make this change, what are some reasons you would give them to help them decide to change?”
- “What’s the worst thing that could happen if you made the change? Would it be better or worse than the reward you would earn for making the change?”
There are lots of ways to encourage your child to focus on the positive aspects of making a behavior change – be creative and keep on trying. This simple change in your behavior might be all that is needed for your child to make an important change in their behavior.
The Take Home Message
One of the biggest frustrations for the Modern Parent is knowing that their child needs to make a behavior change in some way, but not knowing how to effectively help their child make this change.
Current scientific research shows us that most people can make behavior changes on their own, without intrusive interventions from parents, teachers, or other professionals. If given enough time, kids eventually will make positive behavior changes all on their own.
The question, then, is this: How do we speed up this natural tendency for change that resides in our kids?
We can do this by realizing that our kids need to be willing, ready, and able to change. These three elements MUST be addressed before change is possible.
In addition, the parent can indirectly influence their child’s willingness to change by focusing on their own communication style with their child: they must create positive self-fulfilling prophecies, communicate confidence, and focus on arguments for change.
If you accept that your child has everything they need right inside of them to change, and all you need to do as a parent is to create an encouraging environment for the change process, then your child will likely make the desired behavior change faster than you thought possible.
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