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Changing Unwanted Behavior

Why would you do that? What were you thinking? What did I just tell you? Are you trying to upset me? How many times do I have to tell you? What’s going on in your head? Would it ever occur to you to help me? Is that what you’re wearing? How can you be so irresponsible? What’s the matter with you?

Try asking yourself these questions. Do you feel like answering or defending yourself? Historically, questions like these have been considered a good way to grab another person’s attention, at any age, and get them to stop doing whatever we find objectionable. It’s hard not to burst out with feeling when we see upsetting behavior. However, you may remember from your childhood that queries like these, no matter how forcefully expressed, don’t change our hearts or our desire to continue what we’re doing. They are referred to in psychology as a harsh start-up.

Luckily, we have psychologists who have shown us a more productive way to inspire children to listen and change course. Child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott, author of Between Parent and Child, urges people ease into tricky interactions with a statement of understanding. (“I see you’re having fun, but we need to leave in five minutes.”)

In How to Talk So Children Will Listen and Listen So Children Will Talk, Ginott’s students Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish offer effective techniques to connect meaningfully with children and change unwanted behavior. They suggest saying what we see. (“I see clothes on the floor” rather than “Why haven’t you cleaned up your room all week?”)

In Transforming the Difficult Child, psychotherapist Howard Glasser suggests giving intensity to the positive rather than misbehavior and setting limits by simply saying “Reset!” in a way that doesn’t provoke defensiveness.

The common theme in all these resources is helping us remember that the key to good communication is going around a person’s defenses, preserving their self-respect, and finding a way to maintain loving connection.


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