Can your Thoughts Impact your Child’s Behavior?

Have you ever been frustrated with your child’s behavior and found yourself thinking something like, “It really doesn’t matter what I do…my child is just not capable of understanding or behaving better,” or “I must not be a very good parent if I can’t handle this”?

When those thoughts crossed your mind, did you find that you behaved differently? For example, did you get angry with yourself or your child, give in to your child’s unreasonable demands, or retreat from the situation altogether? As parents, negative thinking can significantly affect our expectations, reactions, motivations, and follow-through. When discouraged, we may deviate from our preferred parenting practices.9Upset1

A  five-year study by Mark Durand, Meme Hieneman, and colleagues explored the impact of parent beliefs on interactions surrounding child behavior and the outcomes of behavioral intervention. We compared simply providing parents education in positive behavior support in an effort to support management practices with the same program combined with a cognitive-behavioral approach called “optimism training.” That component helped parents explore and adjust their thinking, as well as their behavior. Not surprisingly, parents who learned to understand and overcome negative thinking made more positive gains with their children and felt better about themselves in general. This article will briefly describe this optimism training which, when combined with effective behavior support, can improve child behavior and family life.

Optimism training comes from work by Dr. Martin Seligman related to learned helplessness. Here is a summary of the process and some examples of each step:

  1. Identify situations that provoke negative thinking and beliefs. Consider events, activities, or circumstances that upset you. For example, going grocery shopping may be particularly difficult because your child grabs or demands items and refuses to remain by your side. His behavior is disruptive and embarrassing. You are frustrated and have lost hope. As a result, you think, “I can’t take him anywhere and everyone watching thinks I have no control of my child.”9StayCalm
  2. Determine the consequences of your negative thinking. Look at how your thoughts affect your behavior both in the short term and long-term. For example, you might start yelling at your child or force him to sit in the cart. You might just hand him a box of sugary cereal to placate him even though you know this is just feeding into the problem. Or you might start avoiding taking him shopping, inconveniencing you and limiting your child’s opportunities to learn to function well in public.
  3. Assess the accuracy and usefulness of your beliefs. Consider whether your thoughts are true (both in part and in entirety) and useful. For example, it may be true that taking your child to the store is difficult and that he has not yet learned to request items appropriately or accept being told “no”. His behavior may very well be disruptive in the store. It is probably not true, however, that you cannot take him anywhere. There may be other places in the community where he is well-behaved or you may have had a couple successful shopping trips when you needed fewer items. Some, but not all, other patrons may be bothered because they do not understand your circumstances. More generalized or exaggerated thinking such as believing that problems will occur always or forever and blaming yourself or your child is not helpful. Those thoughts leave you feeling stuck and reacting in ways that are not beneficial.
  4. Replace negative thinking with positive alternatives. If you determine that your thought patterns are interfering with productive responses (e.g., believing that your child doesn’t know better results in you inadvertently rewarding problem behavior, you find yourself establishing unreasonable expectations that lead to power struggles), it is important to stop those negative thoughts in their tracks and fill the void with more encouraging beliefs. For example, you may think “CUT” when you think things such as this is always a problem or things are out-of-control. Instead, you may say something like “My child can learn to accept limits”, “I need to stick to my guns, even though it is difficult”, or “The opinions of strangers do not matter”. These positive thoughts may give you the support you need to follow through with behavior support strategies such as reviewing expectations prior to entering the store, providing rewards for not grabbing or demanding, and withdrawing to a quieter area to regain composure rather than giving in to your child’s demands.27

Negative thinking can lead to an escalating, self-perpetuating cycle in which we start avoiding circumstances or responding to behavior in unproductive ways. These thoughts can also transfer to other circumstances, causing a feeling of helplessness. Replacing these thoughts with positive affirmations provide us with the motivation to follow through and make a difference in our children’s, families’, and personal lives.

Reprinted with permission from Parenting Special Needs Magazine, February Issue, Copyright 2014 by Parenting Special Needs LLC