By: Emma Shepherd
What are Externalizing Behaviors?
Externalizing behaviors encompass a range of maladaptive actions, including impulsivity, aggression, reactivity, and hyperactivity. They are the most prevalent type of problem behavior observed in children and adolescents. These behaviors often arise from unmet needs and emotional dysregulation, and are typically directed towards others or the environment. Although influenced by factors like school, living situation, and culture, researchers have identified parenting as a powerful influence in fostering more adaptive behaviors in children.
How Can Parents Help?
Authoritative parenting has been extensively proven to yield positive outcomes for children struggling with externalizing behaviors. Authoritative parents strike a balance between providing a warm and nurturing environment and setting high expectations with firm boundaries. Research highlights specific authoritative parenting skills associated with reducing externalizing behaviors. For instance, it involves setting clear and easily understandable limits while also offering explanations to increase the child’s motivation for cooperation. Harsh punishments are best avoided, but consequences for harmful behavior should be implemented. Crucially, authoritative parents identify the child’s unmet needs or emotional predispositions behind the externalizing behavior. Prior to imposing a consequence, they engage in discussions with their child to address concerns and understand the situation from the child’s perspective. In summary, authoritative parenting emphasizes responsiveness to the child’s needs while promoting autonomy through predictable consequences, positive reinforcement, and firm limits.
While authoritative parents avoid harsh consequences, it’s important to consider appropriate approaches for addressing externalizing behaviors. Consequences should provide opportunities for learning and be immediate, consistent, and well-defined. Delaying consequences for extended periods reduces the child’s ability to connect the behavior with its outcome. Consistency is crucial, as positive outcomes are most likely when the consequence is consistently applied each time the behavior occurs. Inconsistency disrupts the learning process, causing the child to not take the consequence seriously. A clearly defined consequence should be directly associated with the specific externalizing behavior, have a firm timeline, and include an explanation of why it is necessary. Furthermore, the use of positive consequences, such as praise, rewards, or positive attention, is also beneficial in fostering improvement in externalizing behaviors. Acknowledging and praising the child’s adaptive behaviors plays a significant role as they continue to develop more positive behaviors.
Reducing externalizing behaviors requires a balanced approach from parents, combining nurturing qualities with high expectations. The authoritative parent is predictable in their actions and consequences, aiming to teach the child about the consequences of their behaviors. Providing explanations for harmful behaviors and engaging in reasoning with the child helps them contextualize their actions and promotes problem-solving. Understanding the child’s unmet needs and emotional distress is equally vital. By working collaboratively with the child and addressing their internal processes before focusing on externalizing behaviors, parents can effectively support their child’s learning, growth, and adaptive responses.