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How to Shape & Manage Your Young Child’s Behavior

​Helping shape your children's behavior is a key part of being a parent. It can be difficult as well as rewarding. While at times it can be challenging, a few key principles can help.

Modeling Behavior

Children learn by watching everyone around them, especially their parents. When you use manners and good coping strategies, you teach your children to do the same.

  • Point out sharing among adults. Children often feel that they are the only ones who have to "use your manners," "share," and "take turns." So when adults share, point it out to your children. For example:

    • "Daddy is sharing his drink with Mommy. Good job sharing, Daddy!"

  • Model good ways to calm down. Teach your children how to calm down when they are upset or frustrated. For example, if you are frustrated about sitting in traffic, you might say:

    • "Mommy is really frustrated right now. Please help me calm down by taking 10 deep breaths with me."

  • Teach children to say how they feel. If you are really frustrated, you might want to say, "You are driving me crazy right now." Instead, try to express your actual feelings: "Mommy is really frustrated right now." This teaches children to say what they feel instead of making critical or hurtful statements. Then help your children do this when they are upset. For example:

    • "It looks like you are feeling sad."

If your guess about how they are feeling is not accurate, allow your children to correct you.

Behavior + Attention = More Behavior

If you are like most people, you'll leave your children alone if they are behaving well, but when your children are misbehaving, you'll direct your attention to them. This tends to backfire. The attention around the misbehavior actually increases the misbehavior as a way to get more attention from us!

The best way to improve behavior is to give children a lot of attention when they are doing something you like and remove your attention when they are doing something you do not like.

An easy way to increase good behaviors is by describing their behaviors and praising them when they make a real effort. For example:

  • "Good job listening the first time!"

  • "Good job using your inside voice."

It can be hard to get in the habit of doing this, but it gets easier and easier as you do it.

The Attention Meter

When children get enough positive attention from you, they don't need to act out to get attention. Remember to fill your children up with plenty of love and affection throughout the day, every day. A very easy way to do this is to spend quality time with them. Playing with your children for just 5 minutes will go a long way, especially right after getting home from work or after an errand. When playing with your children, let them pick the toy and lead the play. It's tempting to tell your children what to do or ask a lot of questions, but it is best not to do that. Try instead to just describe what your children are doing ("You are working so hard to build a tall tower" or "You are stacking those blocks") and give praise: "Great job sitting so still while we are playing."

Another way is to give attention to children for good behavior, yet not distract them while they are behaving, is to gently touch them in a loving way; for example, simply touch their shoulder or back. It is recommended you give children 50 to 100 brief loving touches every day.

You can decrease bad behaviors by ignoring them, but this only works if you are giving your children lots of attention for their good behaviors. The simplest way to do this is through planned ignoring. Ignoring means not talking to, looking at, or touching your children when they are behaving badly. The key to ignoring is making sure to give your children positive attention as soon as the bad behavior stops, like saying:

  • "You are quiet now; it looks like you are ready to play."

It is important to not ignore unsafe behaviors that need immediate attention from you.

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"Bring Out the Best in Your Children" (PDF)

Additional Information:

Last Updated
Trauma Tool Box for Primary Care (Copyright © 2014 American Academy of Pediatrics). Project funded through a grant (UC4MC21534) from the Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau.
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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