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Positive Parenting: 5 Rules to Help You Deal with Negative Child Behavior More Positively

By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

Do your kids drive you crazy? If you were asked to describe them, after saying, "He’s a good kid, but…" would you use words like “defiant,” “whiny,” “unmotivated,” “disrespectful,” “angry,” or “demanding,” with a few positives sprinkled in? If the negatives loom larger in your mind than the positives, the first thing to realize is that this is natural. We parents are human after all, which means we tend to look for what’s wrong with our offspring so that we can focus on what we should “fix” in them. Somehow this calms us down; we believe we are improving their chances of long-term survival in an often difficult world.

Putting a stop to searching for what we fear is an important parenting—and life—skill to learn.

The problem is, however, that if we spend most of our time worrying, fixing and trying to shape our kids up into what we think they should be, we miss the positives of who they actually are. The good news is that it’s actually more effective to look at the balanced picture if you want to positively influence your child and keep communication open between you. I’m going to help you “change the lenses in your glasses” so that you can see your child’s negative behaviors in a more positive light – or at least a more accurate one!

Related: Losing your cool and blowing up at your kids?

Here are five rules to get your started:

Rule #1: Stop Searching for What You Fear.
When tension rises, parents can have a tendency to search for evidence of what they fear. I had a friend who was so afraid that her son was a social loser that it kept her up at nights. She herself had struggled socially all her life. To deal with her fear for her son, she rode by the playground at recess to look for evidence to confirm her negative belief about him – that he had no friends. Of course, when you look for evidence to confirm your fearful beliefs, you’ll find things—and label them as such. As she drove up, there he was standing alone on one end of the blacktop while all the other kids were playing on the other end. She got out of her car and ran up to him practically frantic and said, “Jake, why are you standing here all alone and not joining in with the other kids? He said, “Mom, can you move out of the way. I’m the goalie and I’m in the middle of a game of soccer!”

This illustrates exactly what anxiety can do to us – it can lead us to look for evidence of what we fear, and then we begin to treat it as if is real—and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If this becomes a habitual way of responding to him, instead of helping him learn how to deal with others more appropriately, you may inadvertently help create more of the same in him. In other words, what you were trying to prevent will occur. We make it into a problem to worry about and lose sight of the logical and actual. When this happens, even positive traits can become negative ones. Putting a stop to searching for what we fear is an important parenting—and life—skill to learn.

Related: How to stay calm with your child, no matter what.

Rule #2: Change Your Lenses.
We also can turn positives into negatives when we are unable to see the good things buried within the annoying, obnoxious behaviors that drive us crazy. How often do we worry when our kids are defiant with us? We don’t like it when they go against us by disagreeing with what we want them to do. When they say no or refuse to do what we ask, it makes us mad. It’s natural to get angry with how difficult our kids are and label their behavior and attitude as a negative– something we need to fix in them. While we need to address the resulting behavior (refusal to comply) the actual characteristic in your child is not necessarily a bad thing.

By changing the lens in our glasses, instead of trying to change our kids, we can come to appreciate their oppositional tendency, even though it can be exhausting and difficult to deal with. Look at it this way: we want our kids to grow up and be self-directed and independent adults. The defiance and oppositionality you see can also translate to a kid who’s not afraid to say “no” to peer pressure, or who has strong leadership skills. Our job as parents is to direct this energy in an appropriate way by setting limits, knowing our kids, and trying to keep the lines of communication open with them.

Seeing the positive in our kid’s behaviors is a challenge when the behavior makes our life more difficult or is different from how we would like things to go. It’s easier to view things more positively when you allow and accept that your child is unique and separate from you. You don’t have to give your child his way, but it’s helpful to try to step back and see his assertion from a more positive mind set.

Related: "Parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had."

A Helpful Exercise: If your tendency is to see the glass half empty, what would it take for you to see the glass half full? Here’s my advice: Every time you find yourself focused on your child’s negative traits, write down three positives about that trait or behavior. Train yourself to see things from a different perspective. If your child is overly sensitive, note the positive: her empathetic nature. If she is argumentative, note the positive: assertion of self.

The key is to note the positives within the negatives of your child’s behavior, and then help her channel it properly. You might help her move from aggression to assertion by setting limits around her behavior, giving consequences for poor behavior (and not her emotions) and then having problem-solving conversations about how to manage things appropriately next time, for example. But at heart, your child’s assertiveness is a very useful tool in the real world, as long as she can channel it in healthy ways. Your job is to guide her and help teach her how to do that.

Rule #3: Visualize yourself in your child’s place.
Look at every behavior that drives you crazy, and ask yourself what you need to understand about it. To do this, you will need to take a look into your child’s developing brain as well as step into his or her shoes for a moment. With this new understanding, you’ll be able to see the behavior with less anxiety.

Let’s say your son in middle school wants to buy the sneakers that everyone in school is wearing, and throws a fit when you say no. Now you throw your own fit, yelling, “Just because everyone has them doesn’t mean you have to have them!” You think to yourself, “What happened to the values we taught him? What’s the matter with him? How did he get so selfish, demanding and rude?”

Now stop for a moment and really visualize yourself stepping into his shoes. What can you now see and understand that you couldn’t see when you were in your own shoes? Perhaps you can understand with more clarity that the issue is less about the sneakers and more about his need to fit in (or not stand out). Developmentally he’s at a place where he feels the urgent need to look and act like his peers.

Related: How to give consequences that really work to improve your child’s behavior.

Have you ever tried not to worry about what others thought about you? How did you do? Now try to be a teenager or pre-teen and do it. Nearly impossible, right? Don’t get me wrong, understanding the behavior doesn’t mean you should give in and go buy him the sneakers; it just means that you can empathize with your child, and see his angry outbursts and need to conform as understandable, rather than behaviors to worry or be angry about.

Don’t take it personally. In addition to helping you empathize and calm down before discussing limits around their behavior, this will also aid you in understanding that some of your child’s negative behaviors are normal and developmentally on target. This can also help you depersonalize what they’re doing and see the big picture a little more clearly. Bottom line: You may not like the behavior, but at least you’ll be able to see it for what it is, and not take it personally.

Rule #4: Ask yourself, “Is it negative behavior, or a reaction to something else?”
Sometimes we overlook the actual function of our child’s behavior and label it as negative. But once we understand its purpose, it no longer looks so bad. For example, let’s say a child’s parents are angry at each other a good deal of the time. The child senses their tension and acts out. If she becomes the emotional sponge in the family, she learns that when she acts out, her parents calm down. Why does this happen? They get to focus on her negative behavior rather than on their own problems with each other—and they feel calmer not having to deal with their own struggles. The child grows up and knows one way to keep her parents more harmonious is to have problems herself. This happens mostly without much conscious awareness.

Step back and try and see if the behavior is an expression of “family fusion.” Is your child’s behavior expressing what others in the family won’t voice to one another? Or does the behavior help others avoid focusing on themselves, their own struggles or negative behaviors? This is called “fusion.” Children “watch us for a living,” as James Lehman says, and will intuit what the family needs to keep it stable and functioning. This means they’ll act out and become the lightening rod if necessary. Once you see what function certain behaviors serve, you can see the behavior in a different light.

Related: Fighting with your spouse about parenting? How to get on the same page and present a united front.

Rule #5: Different is okay.
It’s natural to feel more positive about others when they are “like” us. Differences might make us uncomfortable, but keep in mind that different is not synonymous with negative. If your child acts, behaves, or thinks differently than you, instead of viewing this negatively, acknowledge the difference and move on.

It’s so easy to see others, particularly our kids, from a place of worry—and our imaginations can really run wild when we’re stressed. Try to see your children for who they are rather than who you fear they might become. When you can see them in a positive, reasonable and realistic light, it will help them shine, blossom and thrive.

Related: "Anxiety is contagious—but so is calm."

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About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

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