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Using praise to prevent your child’s outbursts

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It may sound surprising, but praising your child for what they did correctly when they got upset can help prevent future tantrums or meltdowns. 

Watch or listen to this five-minute episode of “What Now? A Parent’s Guide,” where psychologist Dr. Andrew Kahn explains how to notice your child’s self-calming efforts and give detailed praise so they’ll know what you want them to do again in the future.

Timestamps

  • (0:40) Why the right kind of praise can make a big difference 

  • (2:38) How to praise proactively 

  • (3:45) What you can practice ahead of time 

Related resources

Episode transcript

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns."

I'm Dr. Andrew Kahn. I'm a licensed psychologist who has been working with kids, teens, and adults for more than 20 years. I'm also the father of a teenager, so I have a lot of personal and professional experience when it comes to parenting. I'll be your host.

Today's episode explains how to prevent tantrums using proactive praise.

You're probably thinking, "preventing tantrums" — that sounds good, but what the heck is "proactive praise"? Stick around, and I'll explain what it is and how to use it.

(0:40) Why the right kind of praise can make a big difference

OK, so let's talk about why the right kind of praise can make a big difference. You see, praise can be a roadmap that shows your child precisely how to get the good stuff, like your positive attention or meet your expectations, and so they can get there again in the future. 

Being really specific in praising your child for what they did correctly will help them know exactly what it is you want them to do next time. Psychologists call this kind of praise "labeled praise" because you're putting a label on it.

This kind of detailed praise helps with all aspects of parenting, from managing challenging behavior to getting your child to do homework or daily tasks. 

Praise without specificity is like a game of "Pin the tail on the donkey." Getting praise feels good, but the child is spinning around in the dark, guessing how to get that praise again in the future.

Specific praise is about creating a clear, direct path to positive behavior that we want to see. That's what I mean when I say "proactive praise." It's the right kind of praise that helps your child know what to do again in the future. 

So, it may seem a little counterintuitive, but praising a child for how they manage a challenging behavior or situation can help your child learn how to replace that challenging behavior.

So, let me give you an example. You can say: "I really like the way you took three deep breaths when you noticed you were getting upset." 

Any time a child can know what you want them to do in advance and feel rewarded for it, the more likely they are to meet those expectations.

Praise also helps with motivation and self-esteem. You see, kids who have a lot of tantrums or outbursts — they often get a lot of negative feedback and attention. So praise can help motivate kids to keep trying. Praise can also help kids build self-esteem.

But today we're really focused on the proactive aspect of praise.

Remember: Praise can be a roadmap to showing your child how to meet your expectations and be successful in their daily lives.

(2:38) How to praise proactively

OK, so let's talk about how to praise proactively. So, first:

  • Notice when your child does what you ask.

  • Praise your child for what they just did. 

  • And be specific to help your child know what you want them to do again.

Here's a daily-task example: Doing the dishes. If you just say "Good job" when your child finishes doing the dishes, your child may not know what exactly they did to be successful next time.

  • Did you like that they did the task without being reminded?

  • Did you like that they scrubbed the dishes thoroughly? 

  • Did you like that they wiped off the counter afterward so everything looked nice and neat?

  • Which part of doing the dishes went well? 

You see, detailed praise helps your child know what to do in the future.

In the previous episode, I talked about how a mutual time-out can help de-escalate a tantrum or outburst. So, if you say "Good job" after a successful mutual time-out, your child might not be sure what exactly they did right. But if you say "I really liked 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" — now that's how praise can be a roadmap.

(3:45) What you can practice ahead of time

Let's talk about what you can practice ahead of time.

Practice praising your child for doing even the smallest things right. So, for example, packing their backpack, or getting their clothes or shoes ready the night before school, bringing their dishes to the sink after eating dinner.

Be specific when you praise your child. For example, "I really like the way you took a break when you were getting upset. That helped us come back together to talk about it."

Give proactive praise five times this week.

OK, folks, that's it for today's episode. 

I hope you'll join me for the next episode on how to identify your child's triggers.

If there's one thing you take away from this episode, it's that praise can be a roadmap for showing your child how to meet your expectations and be successful in their daily lives. 

You've been listening to "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns," from the Understood Podcast Network. 

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. 

We include more resources, as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.


What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also edited the show. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show.

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Host

  • 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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