For Parents: An All-Purpose Program for Increasing Psychological Skills

  1. The general strategy for this program is 1) to figure out which “psychological skills” are the opposites of whatever the child’s psychological problems are; 2) to get in mind a bunch of positive examples of those skills, especially those that the child actually does occasionally; 3) to try to furnish models of positive examples of the skills; 4) to watch closely for any positive examples the child does, and 5) to use “social reinforcement” of those positive examples in an effort to help the child feel good about them and to have them come more frequently.

  2. Please see a handout on positive goals for mental health for explanations of the following “psychological skills”: productivity, joyousness, kindness, honesty, fortitude, good decisions (individual and joint), nonviolence, respectful talk, friendship-building, self-discipline, loyalty, conservation, self-care, compliance, positive fantasy rehearsal, and courage. Think about specific instances of problem behavior or emotion, and ask, “What skill would have helped in this situation?” For example, the child has a tantrum when having to get off a screen; the child talks about wishing for death when a friend has criticized them; the child cries when a birthday present isn’t to their liking. In all these, the skill of fortitude, the ability to handle not getting what they want, would have helped. So improved fortitude skill goes on the wish list.

  3. You generate a list of specific positive examples of the skills on your wish list. You are going to be looking for behaviors like this to “reinforce” when your child does them.

  4. You furnish positive models of examples of those skills in any way you can: your own behavior, your own narratives of other people’s behavior, stories you read to the child or otherwise present, speaking out loud your own positive examples of thought processes. You also try to reduce the number of negative models in the child’s fantasy diet – for example the examples of destruction and violence in video games.

  5. The word “reinforcement” means an event that comes after a behavior that makes it more likely that something like that behavior will happen again. The word “reward” is similar to reinforcement. But in this program we are not talking about the more obvious rewards like food or toys or screen time, but attention and approval – getting noticed in a positive and happy way.

  6. The first way to provide social reinforcement for a positive example is to remark on it right after it occurs. Especially with younger children, the comment is usually much more reinforcing if it’s delivered in an excited, enthusiastic tone of voice. For example: Child asks for something. Parent: You’re going to have to wait till later for that. Child: OK. Parent: Congrats! A fortitude triumph for you! Part of the challenge for the parent is to notice the positive examples. They are usually much less attention-grabbing than the negative examples.

  7. The second way to provide social reinforcement is for the parent who saw the positive example to tell the other parent, or some other person, about it, in the child’s hearing. Having people talk with each other about the good things you do is usually quite reinforcing. The person who hears about it should be primed to respond positively (and not, for example, to say something like “They should have been doing this a long time ago.”) (Another way of messing this up is to tell a sibling, and then to say, “Why can’t you do more things like that?”)

  8. The third way to provide social reinforcement is to have a “nightly review” of positive behaviors. At bedtime, the parent goes over with the child the child’s positive examples the parent remembers. In addition to this most essential part of the nightly review, the child can also tell the parent about positive examples (or “celebrations”) that the parent didn’t see. And to add more positive models, the parent can celebrate with the child any positive examples the parent did during the day. All family members can celebrate the positive examples that any of them have done or experienced at the hands of anyone else.

  9. Parents who use the following fourth way to provide social reinforcement deserve a medal for productivity and self-discipline. In this, you write down the story of the child’s positive example, in an ever growing file of positive example stories. Then you read these to or with the child periodically. For younger children, you can print out these stories in 3 or 4 pages with one or two sentences on each page, let the child illustrate them with crayon or colored pencil drawings, and staple the story down the sides for a little illustrated book that you and the child can read together.

  10. You don’t expect overnight miracles. But if you do this over a long time, in a way that your child enjoys, the chances are very high that you will gradually see an increase in the frequency of the positive behaviors and a decrease in the frequency of the negative behaviors that are their opposites. The process of watching for the positive examples and cheering them on is generally much more pleasant for all concerned than the strategy of watching for the negative behaviors and giving reprimands or criticisms in hopes of lowering the rate of negative behaviors with that strategy.