The Kazdin Parenting Method
In Chapter 5 of The Call to Love I introduce our journey through parenting strategies. There are a lot of different ideas and opinions out there. Some will tell you to have more structure, others will tell you to be more carefree. Some will tell you to have a trauma informed approach, others will tell you to treat all your children equally. It can be overwhelming!
One of the reasons I include so many different parenting strategies in The Call to Love and this blog is because I don't think parenting is a simple, one size fits all approach. Especially when it comes to kids from hard places. Foster & adoptive children come with different levels of trauma and are at different stages of healing. Combine that with the fact that each parent comes with their own strengths and challenges and it is really complicated.
It is important to find what strategy works for you, in each season of your child's life.
So, in the interest of variety and diversity, and wanting to help you make an informed decision, I am going to start with the parenting strategy we used the most in the early days of our family, The Kazdin Method.
Dr. Alan E. Kazdin is a psychology and child psychiatry professor at Yale University and Director of the Yale Parenting Center. He was the 2008 President of the American Psychological Association and is the author of 49 books on the topics of parenting and child rearing, child psychotherapy, cognitive and behavioral treatments, and interpersonal violence.
So, he knows some stuff!
The essence of The Kazdin Method is:
Attention to bad behavior increases bad behavior
while attention to good behavior increases good behavior
1. Notice good behavior and give attention to it. Anything you see that you want to happen more often, let the child know you like it. "You guys are doing so well playing together today!" This will help make it happen more often. The more enthusiastic, the better! Positive attention to good behavior can be a smile, a touch or praise -- or all three -- but do it right away and be specific. "Great job taking your dishes to the sink!" works better than "Great job!"
2. Identify the target behavior you want to work on reducing. What are the couple of things that you really cannot tolerate any longer. Then, find the "positive opposite" of that behavior. What do you do want the child to do instead. So "Don't leave your socks on the floor!" becomes "Please put your socks in the hamper." Gently and calmly focus your words on the positive opposite. And when they engage in the positive opposite behavior, praise it like crazy! "I'm so glad you put your socks in the hamper!" "I love it when all the socks are in the hamper!" This works for most behaviors. "I love it when you use your words and help me understand what has you so upset." "I'm so proud of you for keeping your seat belt on in the car". As a parent, the focus is on eliminating the "Stop" and "Don't" kinds of phrasing from your vocabulary. The focus becomes less on what the child is doing wrong and more on when you "catch them being good". It might be difficult at first. Your child may be really challenging and you might be really good at focusing on the bad, but look for it and when you find them making a good choice, reward it with a smile, verbal praise and physical touch.
3. When you are both calm, playfully introduce the idea of a reward system. As a parent, identify the target behaviors you want to introduce, but create the reward system as a visual point chart where they can earn points for engaging in the positive opposite behaviors. To set it up, practice giving a pretend request like "Please go to bed." Then give him praise when he pretend goes to bed the first time you ask him to. The key is, if you just put up a point sheet and tell him about it, he may not be able to follow. But, if you practice and role play ahead of time, in a fun manner, he will be more prepared to earn a point when the actual moment arrives. At bedtime, if he doesn't do what you ask the first time calmly say, "I can see you're not ready to do it right now, you don't earn a point tonight, but we'll try again tomorrow." And they don't earn a point. If the child then turns it around and does what you asked, praise enthusiastically, but don't give a point. You want to get the child used to doing what you ask on the first try.
The key is practice and role play. Practice often. Give reward points for doing a successful pretend. Show him the rewards he can earn by doing what you ask right away without complaint. Make it a fun game.
Rewards can be anything a child really wants, and don't always cost money. Some ideas would be an extra story at bedtime, choosing the meal or dessert for dinner, getting to go shopping with Dad, popcorn & cuddles with Mom during a movie of their choice, building Lego together for an hour or anything the child can pick that would motivate them to change. This also will work for older kids. Some reward ideas for teens could be having a friend sleepover, Starbucks with a parent or friend, later curfew, car privileges, increased screen time, and of course, the go to... gift cards.
4. Give an instruction only once. Don't foster greater disobedience by giving it a lot of attention. Calmly identify and label the disobedience and then move on. If you focus on their defiance, it will actually increase.
5. Learn to ignore annoying and aggravating behaviors. When you stop giving attention to these behaviors, there's nothing in it for the child. There is no reward or gain. When you first start doing it, your child may actually throw even more tantrums -- because they're upset that their usual way of getting what they want isn't working. Eventually, they will see that it doesn't work anymore. They will begin to see what they can earn from engaging in the positive opposite.
6. Your goal in a tantrum is to get past it. Stay calm yourself, and your child will calm down faster.
7. Only punish when something greater than annoying and actually intolerable. When this occurs make it a brief and immediate. Don't add punishment if the child complains. If they can't or won't do time out, take away a toy or privilege for a specified time. Longer and harsher punishment doesn't make it more effective.
Ideally, you should be
praising your child's behavior 90% of the time
& punishing only 10% of the time
Now, there are some obvious struggles with this parenting strategy that more trauma informed therapists would argue with. Some parents feel that the reward system is all about buying your kids toys or spending money. Some feel that this focuses too much on behavior and not enough on attachment and relationship. Some parents are not organized enough to keep track of a point sheet. These are all valid and need to be balanced when looking at this parenting strategy.
In our home, we have found that this strategy has worked with some of our kids, some of the time. I would encourage you to take a look at it. Then, with an informed perspective, determine if you feel it is the right approach for your child, in this season of life. I'd be happy to help you work through some of these decisions. If you want to talk further on a video chat, feel free to schedule a session by emailing me at, firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional free resource links:
A short Youtube video of Dr Kazdin explaining this strategy.
Dr Kazdin coaching a mom on his strategy on the Dr Phil Show
A 9 minute Youtube video of Dr Kazdin explaining the praise technique
Dr Kazdin is currently offering an extensive, free online parenting course, Everyday Parenting: The ABC's of Child Rearing. According to the website, "Everyday Parenting gives you access to a toolkit of behavior-change techniques that will make your typical day in the home easier as you develop the behaviors you would like to see in your child. The lessons provide step-by-step instructions and demonstrations to improve your course of action with both children and adolescents... Subtitles available in Chinese and Spanish." If you are interested in this course, click the link above then then after selecting the "enroll" option choose to "audit" to get the training for no charge.