The Power of Positive Attention
How to use it (instead of negative attention) to change behavior
When kids are misbehaving, it is natural for parents and educators to want to correct them, pointing out — sometimes not too calmly — what they are doing wrong. Though this may seem like common sense, it can actually backfire.
Experts have found that giving kids positive rather than negative attention is much more effective in changing behavior. Research shows that praise for behavior you want to encourage gets more results than calling out things you want them to stop doing.
So what do we mean by positive attention? And how is focusing on the positive, instead of the negative, different from “looking the other way” and letting kids off the hook when they misbehave?
What is positive attention?
It’s easy to respond harshly when kids are doing something they’re not supposed to and not react at all when they’re doing what we expect of them. Positive attention requires a lens shift in which we call out kids for good behavior and ignore (at least in the moment) the not-so-good.
The idea is that for children, parental attention is so powerful that whatever behavior we pay attention to will increase, even if we’re telling them to stop.
Essentially, rather than chiding them for what they’re doing wrong we want to catch kids doing right. It’s a simple shift, but one that goes against centuries of parenting norms and takes some practice before it becomes second nature.
How to implement positive attention
So what does this look like in practice? Positive attention can take many forms, including verbal praise, hugs, kisses, high fives or rewards. It may look different for a three-year-old than it does for a teen, but the basic idea is the same.
The key, explains Lindsay Gerber, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, is being as descriptive and specific as possible in your praise so that children know exactly what behavior they should replicate. Experts sometimes call this giving “labeled praise.”
Instead of saying “great job!” or “I love how you’re doing that,” try to spell out exactly what they are doing well. For example, you could say “I love how you are sharing your crayons with your sibling” or “it’s awesome that you finished your homework before asking to use your tablet.” No matter their age, letting kids know that you appreciate their behavior will make them feel good, and when they know exactly what they are being praised for they will be more likely to do it again in the future.
But what about bad behavior?
This is the part that may be the most challenging. If a child is behaving in a way that is unsafe for themselves or others, then of course an adult should intervene. Otherwise, do your best to ignore the behavior then provide positive attention when they stop. Child behavior experts call this “active ignoring.” By withdrawing your attention, you are sending the message that acting out is not the way for them to get what they want. You reinforce this message when, as soon as you see them calming themselves down or obeying an instruction, you do give them your attention.
Just because you are ignoring a behavior in the moment doesn’t mean that you don’t ever address it or that you are pandering to your child; quite the opposite. “When you’re seeing a behavior that you want to decrease, that’s really not the time to interact with the kid,” says Dr. Gerber. “That’s a time to take a deep breath, notice it, maybe gently try to redirect them to something else or actively ignore it.”
Redirecting them can be anything from asking if they want a snack to pointing out something fun coming up on the family calendar. Later, when things have calmed down, you can circle back around to talk about it.
Positive attention in action
How does the framework of positive attention work in a challenging situation? Let’s take a scenario any parent will experience at some point: your child throwing a tantrum in the check out line at the grocery store because they want a candy bar. Giving in and letting them have the candy bar would likely stop the tantrum quickly, but it would also guarantee that the behavior would repeat itself. Negotiating (you can have a brownie when we get home) would likely have the same effect.
Many parents feel judging eyes on them in a public space and feel that they need to make a show out of being firm with their child by telling them to stop, raising their voice, or issuing ultimatums. Chances are this kind of response won’t make you or your child feel very good, and also won’t prevent the behavior from reoccurring, since you are inadvertently reinforcing the behavior by feeding it attention.
If you are practicing positive attention, however, you would ignore the tantrum until it’s over (which is of course easier said than done). As soon as the child is calming down, that’s the time to give positive attention and praise. “I’m really proud of you for calming down, for taking a few deep breaths, and for understanding that this is not something we could do right now.”
When you’re back home and things are less emotional, then you can address the tantrum. Dr. Gerber says to use a lot of validation when talking with your child in this scenario. For example, saying “I saw in the grocery store that it was really hard for you when I told you that you couldn’t have the candy. When I say no to something, that means that we can’t have it in that moment. So next time something like that happens, what do you think we can do? How do you think that we can better manage?”
In this way, Dr. Gerber says, “you’ve acknowledged and reflected back their emotional experience and their wants and needs in that moment, and you’re also reaffirming your expectations and your boundaries and priorities as a parent.” She says that an interaction like this also helps teach kids to problem solve by modeling, and increases their agency and ownership over their behavior.
It’s important to note that ignoring something like a tantrum won’t make it stop immediately. In fact, Dr. Gerber tells parents to be mindful of the “extinction burst” — in other words, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. So the intensity of the tantrum may increase before it stops completely, and it also may take a few times of ignoring tantrums or other behaviors before they cease.
What to do if the behavior doesn’t stop
If you continue to see behaviors you are trying to extinguish, then Dr. Gerber says it may be time to team up with a mental health provider to create an individualized plan of action for you and your child. Something like a behavior chart can be very effective, especially if the reward is positive attention. If the end goal is too challenging for the child to start out, you can break it down into smaller, more manageable goals that can help pave the way to achieving the desired ultimate outcome.
Sometimes all it takes for a teen to change their behavior is a little appreciation. Teenagers are self-absorbed by nature, but that doesn’t mean your teen doesn’t care how you feel. If it’s important to you to eat dinner as a family, sans phones, say so. “It really meant a lot to me when we all ate together the other night. It was so nice having no phones or distractions, it made me feel like we were able to really hear each other.”
Creating a stronger bond
Transitioning to a model of positive attention takes patience and practice on the part of the parent. Sometimes you might backtrack and lose your cool, and that’s okay. We’re only human. If that happens, turn it into a teachable moment by apologizing, expressing your own frustrations, and talking about what you can do differently next time. Dr. Gerber says that the mental health provider you’re working with can be support for you, too. “We’re also providing support to parents, because whenever we’re thinking of changing a child’s behavior, a parent really plays a very big role,” she says.
Another thing that can be helpful in the long run is carving out even just 10 minutes a day of check-in time. During this time, a parent can give their child undivided attention doing an activity they enjoy, whether it’s playing a card game, doing a puzzle, building with LEGOs or making some art. “We want to build that into their schedule on a daily basis, and to make sure that we are giving them attention in a positive way,” says Dr. Gerber. “Because if they’re not getting that attention, they’re going to seek it another way.
In the end, beyond addressing behavior, utilizing positive attention can create a stronger bond with your child. “And what we know about children’s mental health in general,” adds Dr. Gerber, “is that having a positive relationship with any adult — whether it’s a parent, a grandparent, a caregiver, or someone in the community — is just an overall protective factor against other mental health disorders or symptoms.”