When it comes to disciplining her generally well-behaved kids, Heather Henderson has tried all the popular tricks. She’s tried taking toys away. (Her boys, ages 4 and 6, never miss them.) She’s tried calm explanations about why a particular behavior—like hitting your brother—is wrong. (It doesn’t seem to sink in.) And she’s tried timeouts. “The older one will scream and yell and bang on walls. He just loses it,” says the 41-year-old stay-at-home mother in Syracuse, N.Y.
What can be more effective are techniques that psychologists often use with the most difficult kids, including children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. Approaches, with names like “parent management training” and “parent-child interaction therapy,” are backed up by hundreds of research studies and they work on typical kids, too. But while some of the approaches’ components find their way into popular advice books, the tactics remain little known among the general public.
The general strategy is this: Instead of just focusing on what happens when a child acts out, parents should first decide what behaviors they want to see in their kids (cleaning their room, getting ready for school on time, playing nicely with a sibling). Then they praise those behaviors when they see them. “You start praising them and it increases the frequency of good behavior,” says Timothy Verduin, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.
This sounds simple, but in real life can be tough. People’s brains have a “negativity bias,” says Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center. We pay more attention to when kids misbehave than when they act like angels. Dr. Kazdin recommends at least three or four instances of praise for good behavior for every…