Parenting can be a personal and a touchy subject. Many parents would do anything to help their children, and there are few things more painful than the thought that their parenting may have been less than perfect. But here's the truth: Every parent can improve. The ones sitting in front of a therapist may just be the ones with the most difficult children, or the ones who were brave enough to ask for help. A parent visiting a therapist is not an indication of failure.
This guide will cover the best practices for several common parenting techniques. When counseling, an emphasis should be placed on the parents' consistency and their adherence to the techniques. In some cases, a small oversight can cause a strategy to be totally ineffective.
Most of the advice in this guide—unless noted otherwise—is effective for teenagers as well as younger children. Of course, parents and their therapists should use their best judgment to adjust their actions according to their child's level of development.
The Challenges of Parent Training
"I've tried that."
Before asking for help, most parents have tried it all. They've tried rewards, and they've tried punishments. They've been more strict, and they've been less strict. It didn't help. Visiting a therapist is usually the last resort.
As a therapist, it's important to take special care listening to what a parent has tried, what has worked, and what hasn't worked. If you jump in with strategies that the parent feels they have already attempted, your wisdom will fall on deaf ears, and you will lose credibility.
That being said, the challenges of parenthood are often the result of how a plan is implemented, and not the plan itself. For example: Rewards, when used correctly, are very effective. Rewards that aren't well implemented are useless.
Because of this, you may be tasked with motivating a parent to try something a second time, with only small changes. You know that the adjustments make all the difference, but if you haven't adequately listened to the parent, they probably won't trust you. If a parent doesn't believe you understand the situation, they won't be motivated to implement your adjustments.
Parents who have lost the trust of their children by not following through with rewards or punishments are in for a struggle. These cases are difficult, but not impossible. Special effort will need to be made to rebuild trust, and to have a parent show their children that they are serious.
These parents should be advised that it might take time for interventions to work, and sometimes their child's behavior will get worse before it gets better. Children in these situations might test their parents' willingness to use punishments, and they may not believe that promised rewards are real.
For families with older children and teenagers, it'll be difficult to make progress without having them present in session. It will be especially valuable to have family sessions that involve everyone.
This guide covers rewards before punishments for a reason. Generally, rewards will do more to improve a child's behavior than punishments. In this section we describe how to use a token economy, which is a common reward system. We've also compiled a list of best practices when it comes to using rewards, which can be used with or without a token economy.
Creating a Token Economy
Even if you don't think you've ever heard of a "token economy", you have. Our society runs off of a type of token economy called currency. In a token economy a parent will give their child points for good behavior, which can later be exchanged for rewards.
The huge advantage of a token economy is that rewards can be easily given at any time (e.g. "I'll give you three points if you help me in the garden for one hour"). If implemented correctly, this will allow children to receive immediate gratification for good behavior.
As we'll discuss later in the Using Rewards Effectively section, frequent small rewards are more effective than infrequent large rewards. A token economy will allow you to provide frequent small rewards (points) that also allow your child to work toward something bigger that they're really excited about.
There are a few things that need to happen to develop an effective token economy. Your child should want to participate. This means it should be easy to understand, fun, and rewarding. Oh, and come up with a new name for the system ("Token Economy" sounds like some horrible homework assignment).
First of all, keep the system as simple as possible. Give out points and record them somewhere visible to your child, and they exchange them for rewards. It's a good idea to have consistent daily goals, such as 1 point for doing the dishes, and 1 point for having a clean room at bedtime. Don't get complicated, or it'll become too much of a chore.
For young children, you can make the system more fun by using stickers to record points. A simple sheet of star stickers will really add to the allure. Therapists: It may be helpful to give parents a chart and some stickers to help them get started.
When you start the token economy, speak with your child to come up with a list of rewards and their point cost. Rewards should not be impossible to achieve, but be careful to not dig yourself into a hole with rewards that are too expensive, or too easy to achieve. Come up with some small rewards (10 points to stay up later on a weekend), and some that are bigger (100 points for a new toy). The ideal system will allow your child to get a frequent small reward, while saving a few points to work toward something bigger.
Your token economy will be as powerful as you make it. If you take the system seriously, you give out points, and you follow through with rewards, your child will get involved. If they honestly believe this is an opportunity to get what they want, they aren't going to pass it up.
Using Rewards Effectively
The following tips for using rewards effectively are appropriate for children and teenagers of all ages (and honestly, for adults too). You can download a printable version of the tips here:
How to Use Rewards Effectively
Like rewards, there's a right way and a wrong way to use punishments. If used incorrectly, punishments will cause bad behaviors to become even worse. If punishments have not been used consistently in the past, the sudden implementation may also result in a temporary worsening of behavior as children test limits, and challenge their parents.
In this section we discuss how time-outs can be used with younger children, and then we provide a list of best practices for punishments which can be used with all ages.
For younger children, time-outs are usually enough of a consequence to manage unwanted behavior. Follow these instructions for a good chance at success.
- Decide on a location for time-outs. This should be a place where you can easily monitor your child and make sure they're distraction free (no phones, games, or toys). A chair or mat in the corner will usually be perfect. Never send your child to their room full of toys and games—this is more of a reward than a punishment!
- If your child breaks a rule, send them to time-out immediately. Children won't connect their bad behavior from an hour ago to the time-out they are experiencing now.
- Tell your child why they are going to time-out in two sentences or less, and leave it at that. Anything longer than two sentences, and it will be forgotten. For example: "I asked you to turn off the TV after your show finished, and you didn't. Go to time-out for 5 minutes." Done.
- Set a timer so you and your child know exactly when the time-out ends. Time-outs should last 1 minute for each year of age. So, a 2-year-old will be in time-out for 2 minutes, a 5-year-old for 5 minutes, and so on.
- After the timer rings, move on. Have a brief conversation with your child, let them know they did a good job completing their time-out, and be done with it. Your child has earned a clean slate.
Instructions: Using Time-Outs Effectively
Using Punishments Effectively
You can download a printable version of the tips here: