What is positive parenting and how can it be helpful within counselling?
Positive parenting is a parenting approach that notices and responds to positive behaviour in children and adolescents, instead of focusing on negative problematic behaviours. The approach is characterised by the saying "catch the child being good". It can be seen as a counter-intuitive approach as we seem to be programmed to respond to negative over positive stimuli! For example, if there are two children and one is sitting quietly and one is making some noise, our attention is usually drawn to the noisy child who we may tell off. The child then gets what we might call ‘negative attention’, while the quiet child often receives no attention. A positive approach would be to ignore the child making the noise and praise the quiet child; this is easier said than done!
Positive parenting is based on social learning theory which states that we role model how we want our children to behave. So, if we want to promote calm children, we should show a calm attitude towards them a good deal of the time. This is the 'do as I do, rather than do as I say' approach and is notoriously difficult to consistently achieve in real life!
An easy way to remember the positive parenting tools is to think of a ‘parenting pyramid’. Child-directed play or quality time, descriptive praise and tangible regards form the solid base of the pyramid. These are then followed by positive discipline techniques including rules and limit setting, selective ignoring, time out and alternatives to time out. The pyramid was developed by an American psychologist, Carolyn Webster-Stratton, who has written a popular parenting book called The Incredible Years.
The parenting pyramid reminds parents that the tools that promote cooperation should be used liberally, while the positive discipline tools are used more sparingly. These tools work best for children in the three to ten age range.
For teenagers, one can also use positive parenting tools in a modified way. For example, it is important to praise teenagers, but usually this has to be done subtly. Enthusiastic praise, as many parents will testify, it can be thrown back in one’s face!
One of the main qualities that parents need with teenagers, in my experience, is to show a calm front in the face of difficult behaviour. An approach that is becoming better known in the UK is called NVR (non-violent resistance) therapy. This approach has been developed by Haim Omer, and is broadly based on the political NVR movement espoused by Mahatma Ghandi and others. NVR offers many useful tools for parents to gain (or regain) parental influence over their teenagers. Again, the approach is counter-intuitive in that parents are asked to delay difficult conversations until a heated situation has calmed down. This is called the ‘strike while the iron is cold’ approach and is one of the central ideas of NVR. The more the ‘cold iron’ or de-escalatory approach is used, the more parental presence or influence is regained over time.
Some children and teenagers respond well to positive parenting techniques straightaway; others resist these changes. A third group may take to them (in what we call the honeymoon phase) and then rise up and test their parent’s commitment! Positive change is often characterised by an uneven process of ‘two steps forward and one step back’.
Counselling can offer a reflective space to think about how to support and maintain changes. In my experience, a supportive counselling approach helps parents to work with these new ideas in a more confident way, to manage setbacks and to learn how to keep positive changes in place over time. Counselling usually focuses on gaining a greater sense of well-being in oneself. Counselling, with the added ingredient of positive parenting, focuses on achieving greater harmony and well-being in family life.
The Incredible Years (2006). Carolyn Webster-Stratton.
Non Violent Resistance (2004). Haim Omer.
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About Pete Brown
Pete Brown is a family therapist working in the NHS and in private practice. He specialises in offering parenting advice, including positive parenting ideas within counselling and therapy. He also works with separated parents who wish to co-parent more effectively and with families who are all adults who wish to improve their relationships.