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Behavior: What is it and how can parents affect it?

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Many parents think about behavior as something negative, a problem they don’t want to deal with. However, behavior is really a form of communication.

On this episode of Parenting Behavior, Dr. Andy Kahn explains the truth behind kids’ actions. He also shares how parents can respond to their kids’ challenging behaviors.

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Episode transcript

Andy: So, when people are talking about behavior, they're talking about behavior like something they want to change or misbehavior. And at the core here, behavior is a form of communication. 

This is "Parenting Behavior," and I'm your host, Dr. Andy Kahn. I'm a licensed psychologist and I'm a parent, and I've been working with families for over 20 years, helping them navigate challenging behavior. 

Today's episode is about understanding your child's behavior and how you as a parent can affect it. 

I'm assuming you're here today because there's something your child is doing, there's some behavior that you want to affect, something you want to change. Now, remember we said this before, behavior is a form of communication. And we want to figure out, what are our kids trying to tell us with their behavior? 

Keep in mind we pay attention to behavior or meaning, misbehavior, primarily because it grabs our attention. It makes us frustrated and upset. What happens in turn is that when our children are doing what we want them to do, they do expected things, we tend not to pay a lot of attention or don't say a lot about it. And that becomes problematic because the most reinforcing thing that we do is pay attention to our children. 

So in turn, our kids don't know the difference between good attention and bad attention. So, the key here is what can we do to help kids navigate showing us the behavior that we want by paying attention to it and teaching them what we want them to do, rather than paying all the attention to the things that we don't? 

So, folks, one of the keys here is to practice analyzing behavior during a state of calmness. And that usually happens away from the moment. When we have big emotions, it doesn't let the brain do what it's supposed to do, and it's not something we can do simply. Giving yourself permission to wait and look at it afterwards is key. 

Again, when we think about "How do we help our child reduce that emotion?," we have to think about helping them cope. And coping is about having very specific strategies. First and foremost, help your child take a break. Step away from the situation, give them a chance to do some breathing or to take a walk. And it doesn't have to be some big conversation. It can just be something simple. 

Another option is to offer your child a big hug or some physical squeeze to help bring that tension down in their body. Again, be aware not all kids like physical contact. So, if your kid is one of those, don't stress about it. Those are things that don't work for everybody. But it's good to have options that you can individualize for your specific child. Also, when you're stuck, when in doubt, distract. Step away. Change the topic. Sometimes it's good enough just to break up the big emotions. 

Remember, the long-term goal is to come back to what's going wrong and talk about it when you're calm. Another thing to think about is that again, when you have big emotions as a parent, you've got to think about how to keep it simple in what you say. So little phrases, things like "Let's step away," or "Let's take a break." These are really helpful things to do, even if you're just gritting your teeth and holding it inside for that moment. Those breaks are good for you too. 

Also, one of the things that can be really helpful for your child is to talk about noticing what's going on with them. Something like "I noticed this is making you really upset," and just validating where your child is in that moment. You're not asking them to change, you're not insisting they do anything different. And sometimes when a child feels that you validate them, it brings the emotion down. They don't feel alone in that emotion. So it's really important to have that opportunity. 

Obviously, for you, being aware that you have an opportunity to model through what you do. So, if you take some deep breaths, model stepping away with your child present, you teach them the expectation of what we can do to stay calm. 

So, when you have big emotions, this is a really important phase to show your child that you're going to try to do something to stay calm and keep in mind, sometimes you're going to fake it till you make it. Practicing some deep breaths and modeling for your child the effort to calm yourself down. 

So, save the most complicated stuff for after the event. Because obviously, as we said, when the big emotions are there, that brain isn't going to be working as you need it to. 

Practice being calm by doing things like meditation and deep breathing and be intentional. Schedule time to practice these skills. Set a timer on your phone. Put something on your desk calendar, or blotter. These things don't happen by accident. Learning new skills is something we do intentionally and takes practice. And it's hard. It's really hard. 

Finally, make a plan for yourself for next time because, yeah, there's going to be a next time. This stuff is going to happen again. Maybe not the exact same thing, but you know that when you have big emotions, these new strategies are going to be things that you can bring into play. So, practice. Think about when I hit that big emotional wall, what are the things that I can do or things that I should have done that I can practice now? 

So, changing behavior, it can be hard and it certainly takes time. And let me tell you something, it can be painful. It might be surprising, but it absolutely can be painful. If you think about starting any new treatment, we have things like side effects. So, if you're starting a new treatment, you might feel worse for a period of time, or you might feel like, "You know, I don't really want to keep doing this because it's getting harder and my life's more challenging." 

Any time you commit to making change, it's going to take effort and intention. So, just keep that in mind. That's expected in so many of these situations. If you don't see the changes automatically, that's actually what's supposed to happen. You need to look over time and practice day-by-day strategies that you're going to be able to integrate into your life and give yourself some grace, because you may have been struggling for a long time. So new behaviors take time to take hold. 

If you've been trying things for quite a while and you're not having success, it's a great opportunity to consider getting some professional support. Counseling or therapy can be really helpful for folks who are just struggling to get over the hump and to learn new ways to change behavior. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of "Parenting Behavior" with Dr. Andy Kahn. We'd love to hear from you if you have any thoughts on the show. You can email us at I'll put that email in the show notes too, where you can also find more resources and links to anything we mentioned. 

"Parenting Behavior" with Dr. Andy Kahn is brought to you by It's produced and edited by Cody Nelson. Editorial guidance by Rae Jacobson. Music and mixing by Justin D. Wright. Briana Berry and Ilana Millner are our production directors, and Neil Drumming is our editorial director. For, our executive directors are Laura Key, Scott Cocchiere, and Seth Melnick. 

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. Learn more at 


  • Andrew Kahn, PsyD

    is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.

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