How to use proactive praise with your child

By Andrew Kahn, PsyD

Updated November 14, 2023

A child high-fives an adult.

At a glance

  • Be specific when you praise your child.

  • Vague praise like “Good job!” can leave kids guessing what they did right.

  • Proactive praise helps your child know what you want them to do again in the future.

It may sound surprising, but praise can be a great tool to help manage tantrums and outbursts. Being really specific about what you’re praising can help your child learn how to replace challenging behaviors.

This kind of praise is called proactive praise because it helps your child know what you want them to do again in the future.

Why the right kind of praise can make a big difference

When kids know what you want them to do — and feel rewarded for it — they’re more likely to meet your expectations.

Vague praise like “Good job!” can leave kids guessing what they did right. But specific praise helps your child know exactly what it is you want them to do next time.

Psychologists often call this kind of praise “labeled praise” because you’re putting a label on it.

Here’s an example: “I really like the way you took three deep breaths when you noticed you were getting upset.” 

Proactive praise is about creating a clear, direct path to the positive behavior that we want to see. And this kind of detailed praise can help with all behaviors, not just tantrums.

How to praise proactively

There are three key parts to proactively praising your child:

  • Notice when your child does even the smallest thing right.
  • Praise your child for what they just did. 
  • Be specific to help your child know what you want them to do again.

You can practice proactive praise during everyday tasks. For example, if your child just cleaned the dishes, you could say: “I really like how you finished up by drying off the counter.” 

Here’s an example of using proactive praise after a tantrum or outburst: “I really like the way you went to your calm-down space when I asked you to and how you told me you needed more time before we came back together.” 

Practice praising your child

Practice praising your child every day for small things, like packing their backpack, getting their clothes ready the night before school, or bringing their dishes to the sink after eating dinner. 

The more you practice, the better prepared you’ll be to use proactive praise during challenging situations. 

To learn more about proactive praise, and how to help your child manage big emotions, check out Understood’s podcast, What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns.

Key takeaways

  • Using the right kind of praise can help prevent tantrums and outbursts.

  • When kids know what you want them to do, they’re more likely to meet those expectations.

  • Praise your child for taking even the smallest steps to help manage their behavior.

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