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Ways to Foster a Good Relationship With Your Children and Influence Their Behaviour Without Intimidation or Violence

After reading the responses to the article Should Parents Spank Their Children?, some of which support spanking, it occurred to me that perhaps many parents just don’t know how else to influence their children’s behaviour. Some parents feel that spanking is the best way to teach their children not to misbehave. Some parents feel that everything else has failed and so, having run out of other options, they turn to spanking. If you are a parent, especially one who would like to begin learning about alternatives to spanking, please consider the following points.

When children feel well, they behave well

Every parent has experienced the difficulties in trying to calm a small child when the child is in physical discomfort. Suffering from a cold, teething, falling down and scraping their knee, having a stomachache - you name it, your child was probably hard to handle when they were in physical distress. Crying or screaming, waking up many times in the dead of night and needing to be comforted, constantly asking for attention - these are some of the tiresome ways in which children respond to physical problems. Parents tolerate this because they know these behaviours are in response to a physical ailment. Well, guess what? Children can also exhibit problem behaviours when they don’t feel well emotionally. If they are angry, hurt, sad, just don’t feel good about the relationship they have with their caregiver in any way, are bored or frustrated, they can act out through their behaviour. Many parents will endure their children’s behaviour if they know the children are in physical discomfort or pain, and they will try many different methods of making their children feel better. I’ve never heard of a parent spanking a child because their child was causing a ruckus due to physical distress. Many parents, however, use spanking or some form of physical punishment to curb their child’s problem behaviours when they stem from emotional pain.

Try empathizing

Empathy is a highly useful but underutilized, tool. To empathize means to try to understand another person’s situation and feelings from their perspective. Think about what it’s like to be your child and try to feel what they might be feeling. Imagine you are your child’s age. Your well-being is completely in the hands of your parents. You are financially dependent on them and, whether you show it or not, you have an extremely strong emotional connection to them. You want their approval, but you also want to try things out on your own – and sometimes these two things don’t work well together. You are in an inferior position. How would you feel if your parents spoke to you gently, but firmly? How would you feel if your parents yelled at you? When you make mistakes, try new things, or test your boundaries, how would you feel if they hit you in response?

Focus on feelings

In empathizing, it is important to stay focused on the feelings, nothing else. I’ve encountered parents who say things along the lines of, “when I was a child, my parents told me what to do and sometimes they yelled at me and I felt bad, but I still listened to them and did as they instructed because they were my parents.” In stating this, they have strayed from thinking about what it feels like to be a child, and what sorts of feelings their own child may be experiencing. They are focusing, instead, on their position as the parent and rationalizing the situation.

Once you’ve stopped focusing on feelings and are on the road to rationalization, you are on your way towards failing to influence your child’s behaviour in a positive way and repeating the cycle of misbehaviour and ineffective punishment.

When you empathize with your child and really try to see their perspective, this helps to broaden your understanding of their behaviour and why they behave in that manner. Empathizing also helps you soften your heart, have loving feelings toward your child, and think clearly about what steps to take.

What are some good first steps?

Notice good behaviour

All children, no matter what their age, basically want the same things. They want to feel like they belong, and to feel like they contribute in positive ways. If they don’t find these feelings within their family, they will likely look elsewhere.

How can you make your child feel like they hold a special place in your family and that you believe they make positive contributions to the household? Observe their good behaviour, no matter how small the action is, and then tell them you appreciate that they behaved in that way. For example:

“Thank you for sticking to your curfew."

“I appreciate that you cleaned up your room today. Thank you so much.”

“Wow, are the two of you playing quietly and nicely together? Thank you, that's very helpful to me.”

“I noticed that you turned the fan on while you were in the shower, and you opened the window after you were finished. I appreciate that a lot – it helps to clear the steam so mildew doesn’t develop. Very helpful, thank you.”

“You finished your homework already? Wow! You've been working hard!”

“I love that you washed your dishes after you finished eating your snack. Thank you for doing that.”

We all respond best to positivity and we are most likely to change our behaviour if we know that we will be rewarded for it. Children are no different. The rewards we should try to give them are feelings of belonging to a community (such as their family) and feeling that they are significant because others recognize their contributions.

Children will repeat the behaviours that get them attention. It often doesn’t matter if the attention is “good” (positive remarks) or “bad” (negative remarks or physical punishment). In light of this, we should strive to encourage good behaviour by paying attention to it. Paying attention to misbehaviour does not foster feelings of belonging, significance, or contribution. Paying attention to desirable behaviour does.

Noticing good behaviour may seem alien to some people, and it might even be a little bit “cheesy” to tell your child that you’ve noticed their positive contributions, especially when the good behaviour is seemingly very small. In our experience, it just takes a little practice and once it becomes a habit, you won’t think twice about doing it. Also, when you pay someone a compliment, no matter how small you think it is, it can make a huge difference to their self-esteem.

Use encouragement, not praise

When noticing your child’s good behaviour, do not praise them; encourage them instead.

What is the difference?

Encouragement focuses on the development of a child's abilities and the development of an internal sense of self and self-worth. Encouragement recognizes effort and improvement, and encouraging remarks recognize a child's constructive contributions in life. We can let children know that we think they are special by using encouraging remarks instead of praise. Encouraging remarks include:

I appreciate your help
You figured it out!
You reached your goal!
You are capable
You are unique
You did your best
I love you
I trust your judgment
Look how far you've come
You really stuck it out
I can see you worked hard
You can do it

Praise, on the other hand, focuses taking control away from the child and giving it to external sources. The child must depend on others for their sense of self and self-worth. The focus is often on personal gain - winning over losing - and the child is only rewarded when they complete work and when they do it "well" (according to other people's standards). Examples of praise include:

You are so smart
You are too cute
Good boy / girl!
You're the best player on the team

Ultimately, praise is discouraging because it is impossible to always live up to other people's standards. In addition, one cannot and will not always receive praise from others.

Talk less, listen more

In helping children develop a sense of self and self-worth, which helps them to behave positively and constructively, it is also important to ask them what they think of themselves and their accomplishments. Instead of automatically telling them what our observations are of them and their work, we can ask questions like:

What do you think about it?
How do you think you did?
Would you do anything different?
Can you tell me more about that?
And then what happened?

When asking these sorts of questions it's important to be genuinely curious and interested in hearing what the child has to say. Try not to judge or criticize; just let them talk while you listen attentively. Children don't just need to hear encouraging remarks to feel validated; they also need to know that they will be listened to, and that their thoughts and ideas are important.

So you want a good relationship with your child…

If you want to have a better relationship with someone, you can’t ask the other person to change. The relationship will begin to change once you change your own behaviour. Think about this:

There is a person who holds a position of authority over you whom you perceive to be very critical and judgmental of your behaviour. It seems you can’t do anything right, as they don’t seem to pay any notice when you try to please them. However, once you do something wrong, they’re all over you about it.

How would you feel about this person of authority? How would you feel about being in that situation? How motivated would you be to show kindness to them, and to do things to please them?

Now think about the following:

There is a person who holds a position of authority over you whom you perceive to be very empathetic and compassionate towards you. You feel like they hold a positive opinion of you and they are often pointing out things you've done that have been helpful and constructive. When you do something wrong, they give you the benefit of the doubt that it will not happen again, but mainly they focus on what you have done right.

How would you feel about this person of authority? How would you feel about being in this situation? How motivated would you be to show kindness to this authority figure, and how motivated would you be to do things to please them?

Clearly, this exercise is to illustrate that you, the parent, are the authority figure, and you have the power to change the dynamic between you and your child. It doesn’t matter if you think your child should change their behaviour first – the fact is that your child will not behave any differently until you behave differently. If you want there to be a change, then you have to make the first move. Changing your behaviour to foster a different relationship with your child might be difficult to do, especially at first, but it is rare for anything that's worthwhile in life to come easily.

Related Article:

Should Parents Spank Their Children?


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I appreciated what you had to say and hope others will read it with an open mind.

Thank you for this article. It came at the perfect time for me. I need to use a softer, gentler approach with my teenager. We had that kind of relationship before and the teen years have hardened me out of fear for her safety, well being etc.
Butting heads is not the answer, open communication is. Thank you again Dr.Kim.

When I took early childhood education classes at my local community college, one of the required textbooks was called, "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I was, and still am, a live-out nanny for a family. I continue to apply these theories daily to my 3 charges with consistently positive results.

What I found funny at the time was that the instructor explained that this approach works great with children, but was also easily adaptable and very effective for adults. (husbands, wives, parents, siblings, co-workers and so on...)
Now that I am married, I find her statements to be very true. We all have this same basic need to be understood, no matter our age.

Thank you, Dr. Kim, for making this concept so easily digestible for your loyal readers. It has changed my life, kept the lines of communication open in my marriage and will most definitely come into play when we start our own family.

I just read this article today and ironically I've just submitted a research paper for bullying prevention for college. This is key for all children, it should be incorporated into the school system as a standard. We all have the desire to belong and without empathy it can not be done harmoniously. Kudos for sharing it world wide!

I have to agree with this! I have had many years of struggles with my 7 year old, and this article really has given me something to think about. I am not really good at making a lot of positive remarks with my kids - but I do notice the negative stuff so easily. I hope that after reading this I will be able to make strides forward and see my little guy improve. Thank you to the Author for their incite.

Mom that has so much to learn.

Dear Mom who has a lot to learn,

I just want to encourage you. I have four kids - the oldest is 12. When I look back to the beginning, I feel I was so unready to be a parent. I made so many mistakes (and I still do).

However, I have persisted in personal growth and learning to cultivate and care for my relationships just like someone would take care of a garden full of plants. I've learned to invest in my relationships and continually "take their pulse".

One of the most helpful parenting books for me EVER was Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I read that and felt so overwhelmed. I was so far off track. However, I didn't let it get me down. I just kept re-reading it, working through the habits, trying to get my head around them and put them into practice in my lift.

Now, 11 years after first reading that book, I feel the changes in my life have been profound. Learning to be proactive, to put first things first in every area of my life - and so much more - has radically changed my approach to everything.

Remember: it is NEVER too late to make a difference with your child. Your son is 7 and with a good attitude (like you obviously have), the future is wide open.

I wish you the best of luck.

A mom who always has a lot more to learn...

Having raised three quite different children, I would like to share two insights with you that helped me quite a bit.

I learned that people live up to our expectations of them. This works with adults, as it did with the students in my classes while I was substitute teaching, and with my children.

Our expectations of other people are conveyed by our body language, our attitudes, and somehow just by what we are thinking. It is not so much what we say, but what we think that is conveyed to other people. If our thoughts are about those people, they will know what our thoughts are.

One of my children used to tell stories, quite believable, but yet not true. Rather than to spank this child, I would repeatedly say, "I do not tell lies. My children do not tell lies. You are my child. You do not lie." Now this child is grown up, and I believe is quite an honest person with integrity. In this case, I did use words to get across my excpectations, but I believe it was more the exception than the rule. But it did work.

In cases where my children made mistakes, we would talk about them. After some discussion, I would explain how I thought they should handle a similar situation in the future (expectation). Always, my message was if they wanted to discuss something they weren't too sure of, I would be available to listen. And I was, and they often came and talked with me. We would ponder together the options and the possible consequences of each. Always, I would tell them I trusted them to use their best judgement. They usually did.

One other concept which appealed to me as a parent was that children can not be expected to be perfect, never to make a mistake. They have not had much practice! Adults have had a lot more practice, and we make mistakes all of the time. Often, we do not even receive punishment for them. Children need mercy and forgiveness, just like the rest of us. With that reduction in stress, they act much better.

I realized one thing this year on the subject that I wish I had known 45 years ago.
Parents that are too demanding and criticizing cause their kids great harm. I was so worried as a child to do things right and that my parents would appreciate, that I was focusing not on learning the tasks at hand, but on whether it would satisfy my parents. So I realized 45 years later how little I learned from my experience because always in fear of doing something inappropriate. Even more, I realize how empty in so many aspects my life is. I feel rather handicaped by this and lack very much self confidence even ability to do regular things as most other do.
Unbelievedly both my parents were psychologist. I feel certain, that your children will be quite admirable people, that is already must be!
Thank you for such insight.