As parents, we tend to get hung up on our kids’ shortcomings. He can’t sit still. She whines when she wants something. He’s behind in school. She stays up past her bedtime. We constantly worry about the ways our children are not living up to our hopes for them. It’s exhausting, not only for us, but also for our children.
It’s natural for parents to get bogged down by these concerns. But the more our children struggle, the more that’s all we see. We are so taxed by the emotional and physical toll of caregiving that when our children fall short of our expectations, we essentially develop blinders to what they’re doing right. This robs us of the joy and relief of celebrating our children’s strengths, and it robs our children of the opportunity to feel good about themselves.
Children who receive a lot of attention for their faults are at risk for perceiving themselves as fundamentally flawed.
Many parents of children and teens who struggle with behavioral and/or academic issues report that they have heard their kids describe themselves as “bad.” By internalizing the persona of a “bad kid,” it decreases their motivation to do “good” and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—one that can lead to increased disruptive behavior, rifts in the parent-child relationship, and a breakdown of their self-esteem.
Additionally, children who receive attention for undesirable behaviors (e.g., yelling, hitting, rule-breaking) are likely to keep doing them, even if it gets them in trouble. Kids crave social contact and are often willing to accept getting yelled at or fighting over the absence of interaction; the more attention they get for things they’re doing wrong, no matter what that attention looks like, the more they’re likely to engage in those behaviors.
Focus On What’s Right
To help break this cycle, parents need to redirect their attention. Following are guidelines on how to tip the scales back in the direction of things that your children are doing right instead of focusing on the ways they’re falling short.
- Make a list of ways your child is thriving. Remind yourself that she is more than her weaknesses. And make sure to give her that feedback. Help her identify, recognize, and feel good about her strengths. This will help her integrate all aspects of her identity rather than focusing only on the “bad.”
- Reconceptualize the “bad.” Try to identify any positives within the area of difficulty. For example, consider the child who struggles with defiance and finds ways to work around limits. When his parents say, “No running,” he skips, hops, or rolls. While this behavior is unquestionably problematic, it could be viewed as clever, resourceful, or indicative of a good sense of humor. Whatever positives you can find, add them to your list of strengths and find appropriate ways to foster them. The more attention your child gets for using these traits in socially effective ways, the less he’ll resort to the behaviors that drive you crazy.
- Pay attention to effort. Give your child a boost by commending her efforts to work on something that’s hard for her. If she struggles with reading, offer praise for any attempts to read—even if it’s just opening a book. It’s important for kids to feel good about themselves while working on something that usually makes them feel lousy. The more she’s buoyed while deep in the struggle, the more she will persist with the challenging task, and the more opportunities she’ll have to master it.
- Attend to the “positive opposite.” This one really takes some planning, but is well worth the effort. So many rules we establish for our children focus on the absence of bad behavior – No yelling! No hitting! No interrupting mom when she’s on the phone! That makes it really hard to notice (and give positive attention) when they’re doing something right because “right” has been defined as the absence of “wrong.”
Think about the behavior you want to see less of, then write down what the opposite of that behavior is using positively worded language (say what to do rather than what not to do). If your child is not allowed to run inside the house, what can he do? If you decide the positive opposite is walking you are more likely to notice anytime he walks while in the house. Now that you’ve made the good behavior visible, lay on the praise whenever he does something right, which will reinforce that behavior and make him feel good about himself.
- Let it go. It’s worthwhile to discuss with your child what she’s struggling with, especially if she’s engaging in risky behaviors or you’re seeing a drastic shift in emotional health. But focusing too much on how she’s let you down is only going to make both of you feel worse about yourselves and each other. Since attention is reinforcing, do your best to reserve it for the things that are going well, and for both your sake and your child’s, let some of the other problematic behaviors go.
By following the above guidelines and showing enthusiasm for your child’s strengths, championing his or her efforts, and celebrating their wins, you can show your child that you believe in them, which will help them believe in themselves.
Caroline Segal is a psychotherapist and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sasco River Center in CT. She specializes in the treatment of child and adolescent anxiety, depression, trauma, and behavioral issues.