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How I Saved My Relationship With My Preschooler

When things started going south, I used the science of behavior to save us both!

Preschool child

Last week was a hard week in my stay at home mom life. My preschool daughter was acting more like a preteen daughter. I had a vision of the future: arguing, not doing anything Mom wanted her to do, all around not super fun to be around.

I was frustrated with her and frustrated with myself for not handling each and every situation better than I had. You see- I happen to be a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. I *should* be able to handle behavior better. I KNOW all the evidence-based practices, research applications, and principles of behavior. I promise I do.

Real life gets in the way sometimes, doesn’t it? So did I just lament my failings as a mom and as a behavior analyst? Of course, I did! But not forever. I stepped back, tried to look at things objectively through my behavioral lens and made some changes.

Just whose behavior did I change? My daughter’s? No- mine. I made changes to my behavior. And it worked! What’s the secret to our success? How did I manage to get my sweet 4-year-old back and say goodbye to the sassy preteen persona (for now)? Positive reinforcement.

As a parent coach, I say this phrase over and over and over again: “Turn it positive.” When things are stressful, not working, altogether ugly in your family and in your parenting- turn it positive. When you are punishing, arguing, raising your voice- turn it positive. When you are not enjoying time with your child- turn it positive. When you are in the thick of it, down in the muck- turn it positive.

Why do I say “turn it positive” so much? It’s my catchphrase. That’s how catchphrases work. AND because the methods work!! Using positive reinforcement to teach and build up desired behaviors has been proven successful over decades of research with about every single population and behavior you can think of!

How did we turn it positive in my house last week? We started a new reward system. We used a sticker chart app on my phone and titled it “Obey”. We told both children (little sister can’t be left out) the clear target behaviors that earn stickers. This was not a lecture. I’ll show you.

“Things aren’t working super great around here, are they? We need to make things more positive and more fun. We are starting a new sticker chart so you can earn rewards and not get in trouble so much anymore. To get a sticker on my phone you need to: follow directions from Mom & Dad without being asked more than twice and talk nicely.”

I asked my kids what they would like to earn as a reward when they fill the sticker chart. I offered outings, activities, or our prize bag- a bag of things I pick up in the dollar spot every once in a while. They chose prize bag- we hadn’t used it in so long I had to double check what was in it after they were in bed that night.

As soon as we started the new chart, I put effort into paying attention to catch both kids being good. I had to find opportunities to give them stickers and make a big deal out of each one. I told them specifically why they earned that sticker and had my older daughter explain back to me why she was being rewarded. I gave out hugs, praise, and enthusiasm all over the place.

It only took a couple of days to earn prize bag by getting all the stickers on my phone. In that time frame, I chastised less, didn’t raise my voice (much), and felt more at ease and relaxed at home.

It only took a couple of days to turn things positive in my family and in my parenting again. I had my confidence back as a mom and behavior analyst. I had repaired my relationship with my daughter. We went from both being less than respectful in our communication to having genuine conversations that we enjoy- usually pretty silly conversations when my children are involved!

When we focus on building up the positive- it’s not only wonderful for our kids, it feels pretty darn wonderful for us as parents, too.


Leanne Page is a parent coach, behavior analyst and the author of Parenting with Science. She uses the science of behavior analysis to save parents’ sanity every day. Learn simple behavior strategies at ParentingwithABA.org.

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