Reshaping Child Behavior with Positive Phrases

Oh boy, here comes the million-dollar question: How can you proactively convey effective, important life values without a long drawn out lecture and the subsequent fear of being ‘tuned out’ by your child?

You could try using consistent short questions or statements with a playful or neutral tone to reshape behavior. Ideally, these concise phrases have big meanings and they give parents, caregivers, and children the language to communicate, understand, and learn valuable life skills. The goal is to convey the message quickly and with as few words as possible while teaching the basic principle of mutual respect. You could refer to them as ‘gentle reminders’ to catch a smoldering behavior before it ignites into a raging inferno. These short, concise phrases help children from hard places find their voice while teaching them respectful and healthy ways to effectively communicate. Like most things in life, it takes practice, practice, and more practice. Here are some daily phrases to use to positively reshape behavior:

“Can you try that again but with kindness/gentleness?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“Can you use your words?”

 “Can you try that again with respect?”

“Yes, you may, with permission and supervision.”

“Would you like a compromise?”

“Good job accepting ‘no’!” -  This one needs to be said immediately after saying “no,” particularly with children from hard places as they often fear that their needs are never going to be met. Praising them immediately after a “no” can sometimes prevent the typical meltdown response, and oftentimes leaves them quite bewildered as they struggle to cope with simultaneous praise and disappointment. Again, lots of practice is necessary as your child begins to learn that it is important to be able to accept a “no” respectfully.

Modeling and reshaping good communication skills will not only teach your child good regulation skills but will also convey the important message that they can always say how they feel with respect. It is important to teach children from hard places a respectful way to voice their needs so that they feel heard, valued, and empowered. What are some of your family’s positive and proactive catchphrases to reshape behavior?

ACTIVITY: Playful Puppet Role Play

Choose a time when your child is calm and playful to model respectful behavior versus disrespectful behavior. Using two puppets, one parent shows the child a disrespectful interaction between a Mama Bear puppet and a Baby Bear puppet. <Mama Bear with pursed lips, eye roll, and frustrated tone> “Johnny! I’ve told you a million times to get ready for bed and you’re NOT LISTENING!” <Johnny, equally sassy, and waving hands frantically> “I’m not tired and bedtime is so STUPID!” Usually at this point giggling occurs when disrespectful behavior is modeled. Just roll with it. Kids learn best through playful interaction. The parent then models respectful behavior between the Mama Bear and Baby Bear. “Johnny, it’s time for bed.” Baby Bear respectfully responds: “Aw Mom, but I’m not tired.” Mama Bear asks, “Would you like a compromise? You can have 5 more minutes of reading time or 5 more minutes to play with your Legos before it’s time for bed.” Baby Bear replies, “Ok Mom. 5 more minutes of Legos” Switch places and have the child play the same scenes from their own interpretation. Make sure you as the parent praise the child saying, “Oh, that was a great job showing disrespect” and “Oh that was an even better job at showing respect.” This activity not only teaches the child about mutual respect but that parents can also have grumpy days and need redos too. Try acting out some of the respectful phrases above to model good respect and most importantly, have fun!

Written by Angie Woodhead, Adoption Social Worker at The Maine Children's Home for The Connected Community @ MCH.

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