A dad brought his four year old to see me, explaining that “he just breaks everything.”
Exasperated, he explained that “…it isn’t funny anymore. He ruined my guitar and you don’t even want to see the back seat of my car…”
I could see what he meant. A few minutes later I watched father and son play together from an observation room. Through the mirrored glass I saw nearly all the toys in my office dumped out, stepped on, thrown, and pulled apart.
It was an amazing mosh pit of preschool energy, and most of the time dad was running interference, like a cop shutting down a loud party, with lots of “no”s, “don’t”s and “stop”s.
But I also noticed another thing. There were moments of calm. Eyes in the storm of aggression, in which the little boy was focused, peaceful, and cooperative. They didn’t last for long, but they came up every minute or so and lasted for about ten seconds. During that time, dad took a breather.
I stepped into the room and gave the dad one simple tip, then stepped out again.
Twenty minutes later, the boy was sitting at the table with his dad, gently pulling out pieces from a jenga tower, and high-fiving for being careful. At the end of the hour the boy helped cleaned up the room, and did a lot of it on his own.
What was the tip? Take a nice long break while he’s running around, then focus on him with lots of positive attention when he’s calm. In other words, reverse how you normally give attention.
I could see the lightbulb go off for the dad.
Focus on the positive opposites
In psychology the term “positive opposite” refers to a behavior that is in direct opposition to a problem behavior, such that the more there is of one behavior the less there is of the other. For example, the positive opposite of aggression is gentleness, the opposite of screaming is talking softly, and the opposite of grabbing is sharing.
One of the simplest ways to stop a problem behavior is to replace it with its opposite. And to do that, you need to give lots of attention and praise it every time it comes up, especially if it’s rare.
Focusing on the positive opposite isn’t as easy as it looks, because as parents we are in the habit of seeing the problem rather than its opposite. It’s no one’s fault, because we all have a well-demonstrated cognitive bias to focus on problems rather than non-problems, and if you are like most parents you may feel too busy to focus attention on things that are going right. So it takes some effort to reverse course and focus on positive opposites, but it is easy once you get the hang of it.
To push themselves to do this, parents I’ve worked with have set alarms on their phones to remind themselves, wrote the positive opposites on their hands, and set aside recurring times of the day (like mealtimes) to practice noticing and praising positive opposites. By putting in the effort you can make a subtle but important change in your own behavior, and make a big change in your child’s.
A parent I worked with once described it as “parenting judo,” referring to the martial art technique of using a partner’s momentum and movement to flip them around.
It takes a little patience and practice, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find yourself deftly focusing on the positive opposites and enlisting your child in reducing the problem behaviors. Your child will feel the difference, and be excited by the change.
With enough time, effort, and focus on the positive, you will see a shift in behavior, and you won’t want to go back to focusing on negative behavior.