Decreasing Behavior Problems Through Positive Attention and Play

Why use positive attention and play to decrease behavior problems in your child?

Why not just focus on using behavior management and discipline strategies, such as how to make your child do things or stop doing things using rewards for appropriate behaviors or consequences for inappropriate behaviors?

Parents can get into a negative cycle where they issue many instructions, corrections, directions, disapprovals and criticisms to their child to get them to do or not do certain things and neglect to provide more positive forms of attention. Children then begin to feel negatively about themselves and will continue with or escalate their inappropriate behaviors. This leads parents to even more instructions, corrections, directions, disapprovals, and criticisms, thus continuing and deepening this negative cycle.

Using positive attention and play will break this negative cycle and is based on the rationale that a positive relationship between parent and child is essential for improving and correcting children’s problems and preventing problems in the future. Research shows that improving the parent-child relationship will impact the cause of a child’s misbehavior and thus decrease the misbehavior.

I like to tell parents that using positive attention and play is like filling up their child’s emotional bank account. This is very important because parents will frequently need to withdraw from their child’s emotional bank account by, for example, saying “no” to something their child wants, by correcting their child’s behavior, or by enforcing rules and limits with their child. If a parent has deposited lots of positive attention and play into their child’s emotional bank account, then withdrawing from the account, which is necessary for parents to do, will not deplete their child’s emotional bank account. A depleted or deficit emotional bank account for a child will result in low self-esteem for the child as well as increasing behavior problems.

Some of the skills I help parents master are skills that allow them to provide positive forms of attention to their children. These skills have been proven to facilitate the development of strong and healthy parent-child relationships. Using this approach, parents will focus on developing skills to strengthen the parent-child relationship rather than on techniques to correct misbehaviors. The end result is that their child’s emotional bank account will be filled up and in a healthy state, ready for the necessary withdrawals that will inevitably take place.

Skills for Using Positive Attention and Play to Decrease Behavior Problems:

Skill #1: Notice Your Child’s Behaviors

Throughout the day, pay attention to your child and notice what your child is doing.

If your child is doing something normal or appropriate, make a comment out loud to your child that shows you notice what he or she is doing. For example:

YOU ARE MAKING A STATEMENT about what you notice your child doing (notice the word “you” in each of the above statements).

YOU ARE NOT ASKING A QUESTION, for example, you would NOT ask, “What are you doing?”, “What is that?”, “Why did you do that?”

If your child is doing something inappropriate you would, of course, step in and deal with the inappropriate behavior using whatever behavior management strategies work for you.

Skill #2: Notice Your Child’s Feelings

Throughout the day, identify what feeling your child is experiencing and say it out loud to him or her.

Here is a list of the most common feelings that you can use: happy, sad, worried, excited, frustrated, proud, angry, scared, afraid, safe, loving, relaxed, disappointed, interested, silly, nervous, confident, strong, surprised, confused, jealous, lonely, shy, hurt, guilty, embarrassed, bored, brave, relieved, disgusted

YOU ARE MAKING A STATEMENT about what you notice your child is feeling (notice the word “you” in each of the above statements).

YOU ARE NOT ASKING A QUESTION, for example, you would NOT ask, “How are you feeling?”, “Are you feeling sad?”, “Why are you angry?”

For this skill, you are acknowledging feelings, but you are remaining firm with your limits, for example,

Skill #3: Notice Your Child’s Likes and Dislikes

Throughout the day, notice what your child likes and does not like and say it out loud to him or her:

Again, you are acknowledging wants or desires, but still staying firm with limits, for example

Skill #4: Give Your Child Encouragement or Praise

If your child is doing something that you are particularly happy about, or would like to encourage, say something to encourage your child or to indicate your approval. For example:

Be careful in how you use praise, however. If it is overused, or if it is focused only on high achievement rather than effort, too much praise can be detrimental, and may cause children to feel they are okay only if they perform to a particular high standard.

Skill #5: Suggest An Activity or Game to Play With Your Child

Spend 5 to 30 minutes playing with your child where you choose a game or activity and explain to your child how to play the game or do the activity. This can be any short activity or game that is fun for your child.

For example, you could say:

Remember to keep it fun for your child. Don’t be too rigid or demanding. The goal is to have fun together.

Skill #6: Follow Your Child’s Lead in Play

Spend 5 to 30 minutes doing child-directed play with your child where you let your child choose what to do and you follow your child’s directions. In this kind of play, you describe out loud what your child is doing, wait for your child to tell you what to do, and refrain from asking questions (other than “What do you want me to do?”)

For example you could say:

If your child engages in any unsafe or destructive behaviors, you would, of course, not allow these behaviors.


Try using the above skills consistently for several weeks and notice that your child will likely become more cooperative. Notice also that the emotional tone of your relationship with your child will also become more positive.

By using these skills, you can feel confident that your child’s emotional bank account is being filled so that when you must say “no” or make corrections or enforce rules with your child, you will not be depleting his or her emotional bank account.

Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2015. All Rights Reserved.


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Kathy Eugster, MA, RCC, CPT-S

MA, Counselling Psychology
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Certified Play Therapist – Supervisor
Child and Family Therapist

Kathy Eugster