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  • Writer's pictureRachelle Zemlok, PsyD


In my grad school research, those who grew up with a police officer parent reported feeling as though there was less room for error, higher standards, and many worries about getting into trouble. It’s also common for me to hear spouses of officers discuss irritability and overreactions that come from the officer parent when their children are too loud or do not comply. Not only does the job physically remove officers from the lives of their children with the long and odd shifts, but the experience of the child walking on eggshells around his parent might also create an emotional distancing between parent and child. Stressors of the job itself and the high contacts with law breaking citizens can decrease a police officer’s general tolerance for normal family interactions if they aren’t consciously paying attention to what they are bringing home. I cannot stress enough how important it is to very purposely operate in two different worlds for first responders (work and home). Why? Because research tells us that the way our legal and justice system handles behavior is not an effective approach for childrearing.

When it comes to child behavior and guidance, it is important to be aware of and use research based techniques that work, support strong emotional connections, and promote healthy self-esteem and problem solving in our children. No amount of forcing them or scaring them into compliance is going to help do that. We must remember, they haven’t broken the law (usually), they aren't going to end up on the streets (usually), and no it’s not important that they make every right decision from here on out. They are kids! Your kids! Kids that have to sacrifice time and special moments with their parent for the greater good of our communities. They deserve the same chances in making mistakes and guidance as every other kid. Did you know that our brains are not fully developed until 25- 30 years old? The last area to develop is our decision making center. That means that a lot of patience is required of us as they will inevitably do things that we wish they didn't.

Let’s review what 30 plus years of research tells us about effective parenting and how to change and influence behavior. The great child psychologist Dr. Kazdin has conducted some of the longest term and most respected research on children’s behavior. He’s a professor and director of Yale’s Parenting Center. He knows his stuff! Here’s a summary of my favorite part of his book “The Kazdin Method” Chapter 1: “Seven Myths of Effective Parenting.”


Myth 1 PUNISHMENT WILL CHANGE BAD BEHAVIOR “ after study has proven that punishment by itself is relatively ineffective in changing behavior. Why? Because it does not teach a child what to do, nor does it reward the desired behavior.” Punishing gives attention to behavior, attention is always reinforcing. You may be also adding additional reinforcement for that behavior if you like to also tack on a lengthy discussion afterwards about why. Also, we know punishment tends to lead to an increase in a child’s aggression.

Myth 2 MORE REMINDERS LEAD TO BETTER BEHAVIOR Studies clearly show that “saying it fifty times is usually less effective than saying it once or twice. Nagging makes the desired behavior less likely to occur.” The goal is fewer but more effective commands. Better results come from specific, clearer, calmer, and more gentle asking and telling them what you’d like them to do.

Myth 3 EXPLAINING TO YOUR CHILD WHY A BEHAVIOR IS WRONG WILL LEAD HIM TO STOP THAT BEHAVIOR Though explanations improve understanding “Doing so is very unlikely to change your child’s behavior.” In fact, “Verbal instructions have proven to be the weakest interventions in changing behavior.” Think about it… even though we understand we should eat healthy and be active every day, it doesn’t mean we follow through with it… even if we’re reminded each day.

Myth 4 LOTS OF PRAISE JUST SPOILS YOUR CHILD Praise is one of the strongest ways to influence your child’s actions! This isn’t just for kids this is ALL behavior... your spouse, the dog, the mouse they use in the lab… “...praise, properly used, is one of your most reliable tools in changing your child’s behavior.” Research shows that most parents do not praise their child’s behavior that much even when they think they do. Also, praise can oftentimes be used ineffectively such as praising too generally “good job” or throwing in a negative comment which dilutes its effect like “I’m glad you cleaned your room. Why can’t you do this everyday?” Your goal is to catch your child doing the behavior you want them to increase (or steps that lead to it) and praise them on it very specifically about what they are doing!

Myth 5 DOING IT ONCE OR TWICE MEANS YOUR CHILD CAN DO IT REGULARLY Consistency of performance has to be trained. Again, “Do you eat healthy meals everyday? You might mean to… but doing it consistently is another matter entirely.” Parents tend to assume that if their child knows information about something and they are not doing it then it must be intentional or malicious, an act of defiance aimed at them which may cause more conflict between you two.

Myth 6 MY OTHER CHILD DID NOT NEED SPECIAL TRAINING OR A PROGRAM SO THIS CHILD SHOULDN'T NEED THEM EITHER “Studies of parents’ attitude toward their children show that they typically do not appreciate just how great the differences can be between siblings or between children of the same age- even between identical twins. The rate and level of learning varies wildly from individual to individual. All kinds of genetic and environmental factors go into this variation.”

Myth 7 MY CHILD IS JUST BEING MANIPULATIVE Research shows that this is not likely the case “...since coming up with a strategy for getting one's way by anticipating and managing the behaviors of others is beyond most children’s abilities.” What might be happening actually is that we have unintentionally reinforced the wrong behaviors. “If screaming has proven before to be a reliable way to get attention, he’ll go to screaming as a first option… If we have parents ignore screaming and pay a lot of attention to asking nicely the child will switch to asking nicely as the better, more reliable way to get attention.” It has to be just that though, more reliable than the incorrect way!

Decades of research supports that you don’t help establish a habit in your child by berating them or punishing them when they don’t do it, you establish it by praising them and rewarding them when they actually do it! The best way to do this is to identify a very specific behavior you’d like them to do, then for a period of time very intensely create many opportunities for them to be able to do this behavior and reward them for doing it!

I provide parent consultation sessions that target behavioral issues in children of all ages. I can also help get you and your spouse on the same page which is very important in tackling behavioral challenges. You can contact me through my website if you’re interested!

Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD is a child and family psychologist and specializes in supporting first responder families.
Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD is a child and family psychologist specializing in supporting first responder families.

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