How to change your child's behavior, according to parenting expert Becky Kennedy : Life Kit It all starts with the assumption that your kids have good intentions and want to do the right thing, says Becky Kennedy, a psychologist and host of the Good Inside parenting podcast.

How to change your kid's behavior, according to the host of a hit parenting podcast

How to change your kid's behavior, according to the host of a hit parenting podcast

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Tilda Rose for NPR
Illustration of a mother kneeling down on a carpet in a living room. She sits between two feuding children, separating them with a hand on each of their shoulders and an empathetic look on her face. The three are surrounded by toys on the floor, a green couch, a fish tank and some of the children's artwork on the wall is behind them.
Tilda Rose for NPR

This is a typical morning with my three kids, all under age 10. The youngest one wants help putting on her shoes. The oldest is whining about how she has "nothing" to wear. And the middle daughter is growing increasingly anxious that we are "GOING TO BE LATE!"

My initial reaction in this scenario — before they start smacking each other — is to sanction my kids. I might threaten to take away their screen time or make them sit alone in their rooms.

But clinical psychologist Becky Kennedy, author of the new book Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, says parents should try another approach. Rather than using timeouts and consequences to change a child's behavior, parents should make an effort to understand why their kid is acting out in the first place.

To do that, says Kennedy, parents have to assume their child is inherently "good inside" – that they have good intentions and want to do the right thing. This mindset can help parents avoid making assumptions about their child's character — and focus their attention instead on unpacking the root reasons of the behavior. Doing so, she says, creates an opportunity for parents to show validation and empathy to their child and encourage their personal growth.

Kennedy, a mother of three based in New York City and host of the hit parenting podcast and online community Good Inside, talks to Life Kit about strategies for common behavioral issues in young children. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Additional context has been added to the questions.

Becky Kennedy is a clinical psychologist, the host of the podcast Good Inside with Dr. Becky and the author of Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. Left: Photograph by Melanie Dunea; Right: Harper Wave hide caption

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Left: Photograph by Melanie Dunea; Right: Harper Wave

How does the "good inside" mentality help when a kid is, say, acting out?

Let's say my three-year-old son just hit his sister. That is not at all good behavior. But if I base my mindset on the idea that my kid is "good inside," then I can activate curiosity. Why is my kid hitting his sister?

When I don't operate from that foundation, it's easy to put frustration, anger and judgment in the driver's seat and think, "What is wrong with my kid? Do I have kids who are never going to get along?"

The idea of "good inside" [helps parents] see the identity of our kid as separate from a descriptor of a behavior.

So let's walk through how you would deal with your son in this situation. Your first step, you say, is to address the hitting.

Right. So I might say [to my son], "I'm not going to let you hit your sister." Then I'd look at my daughter and say, "Ouch, I know that hurt. That wasn't OK."

And instead of disciplining the kid who's hitting, which is what my instinct would be as a parent, your approach is to actually connect with that child. To you, that means making an effort to understand what's going on and help them feel confident, capable and worthy. What does that look like in the real world?

So let's stay with the hitting example. A "connection-first" experience [from a parent would be like]: whoa, it's clearly not OK to hit and also I have a good kid. He's struggling. I should connect to him. [To do that], I'm going to look at my son and say, "You're having a hard time. I'm here. We're going to figure it out together." I am connecting to the kid having a hard time.

I'm not hearing any consequences to your son for hitting his sister. Some parents might take issue with that — for many, disciplining is a way to show kids that what they're doing is wrong. Why do you prefer connection over behavior correction, as you say in your book?

[Chastising a child when they exhibit bad behavior] only increases their shame and belief inside of, "See? This part of me is so bad and so unlovable."

What happens if a parent chooses the discipline route and yells at their child for hitting? How can they repair the connection with their kid?

The key elements to a repair — or some version of saying you're sorry — is sharing your reflections with your kid about what happened, then saying what you wish you had done differently.

Something like, "Hey, last week something happened and maybe you're not remembering it, but I'm remembering it and I want to bring it up again. I yelled at you big time. I was having a lot going on at work and I was having big feelings that came out in a yelling voice. And just like we talk about you learning to manage feelings, well, guess what? I'm still learning that too. It's never your fault when I yell. I love you."

Listen to the full interview with Becky Kennedy on Life Kit.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.