When I specialized in psychiatry in Finland in the 1980s, child psychiatry looked very different than today. Now-outdated Freudian ideas were still very much in fashion; the use of psychiatric drugs was rare; individual or play therapy were the treatments of choice; and currently popular diagnostic labels such as ADHD, ODD, or childhood depression and bipolar disorder were only starting to appear on the scene.
The new kid on the block in the ‘80s was family therapy, a ground-breaking way of thinking that advocated the idea that the focus of therapy should be not just the child but the child’s family, or better yet the child’s entire social network.
I became fascinated by this way of thinking, devouring the emerging literature on family therapy along with videos of world-renowned family therapists working with extended families to help them deal with serious problems such as anorexia, attempted suicide, and psychotic breakdown. The term “family therapy” didn’t refer to any particular technique, however. Rather, it was an umbrella term embracing several diverse approaches to therapy that shared the belief that “psychiatric” problems can best be treated by influencing relationships rather than individuals.
In the ‘90s, I was offered an opportunity to put my fascination with family therapy into practice. Two kindergarten teachers who worked with a group of special-needs children approached me to help them find more effective ways to help these students and to improve collaboration with their parents.
Within a few years, we managed to design an approach that we were proud of. It was based on the idea that children can overcome all sorts of difficulties by learning specific behavioural or emotional skills with the help and support of their social network. We assumed that whatever problem a child has, there is always some skill that the child – with the help and support of their family, teachers, and peers – can learn that will help them to overcome that problem. When all the important people in the child’s life are actively involved in helping a child to develop a particular skill, change is not limited to the child but affects the entire “ecosystem” of which that child is an integral part. Thus, the skills-based approach we developed was in concert with the principles advocated by the family therapy movement.
Whenever I teach this approach to parents, mental health professionals, or educators, I find that my audiences often struggle with two challenges. The first challenge is to figure out which skill(s) the child needs to learn to overcome their problem and, once an appropriate skill has been identified, the second challenge is how to motivate the child to learn that skill. In this essay, I will assume that you already have an idea of what skill your child would benefit from learning and that you are currently more occupied with the question of how you can motivate your child to learn that skill.
Let me explain what I mean. Suppose your son suffers from what parents often call meltdowns. The popular term refers to uncontrollable outbursts of anger that cause havoc and shame not only to the child’s parents but also to the child themselves. If you decide to use the skills approach to help your child overcome the problem of meltdowns, your first step is to figure out what skill your child needs to learn to overcome the problem. Once you have given it some thought, and perhaps even consulted the free multilingual Kids’Skills app that offers suggestions for skills to learn to conquer specific problems, you may have figured out a skill that you think your child would benefit from learning in order to overcome their meltdowns. This skill could be, for example, the ability to stay calm and composed in certain situations that the child finds particularly challenging. Identifying a skill for the child to learn is merely the first step, or the stepping stone, for a learning process that is contingent on motivation, or whether the child wants to learn the skill or not.
My colleagues and I have identified several motivational tools that are consistent with a skills-building mindset rather than the all-too-familiar reward-and-punishment mindset. I hope you will find at least some of them useful as you strive to help your child to learn a specific skill to overcome a specific problem.
1. Start by talking with your child about skills that they have already learned
Before you propose that your child learn a new skill, talk with them about the many skills they have already acquired. “Honey, you have already learned so many skills. You have learned to snowboard, you have learned to speak a bit of Spanish, and you have even learned to be nicer to your baby sister. You are good at learning whatever you decide to learn.” By making sure that your child feels proud of the skills that they have developed or managed to improve, you increase the likelihood that your child will be willing to talk with you about potential skills that they would benefit from learning next.
2. Use “we instead of “I”-messages
When you propose a skill for your child to learn, say “we” instead of “I’” whenever possible. For example, “We think it would be good for you to learn…” rather than “I think it would be good for you to learn…” Children are more likely to abide by your wish if they understand that it is not only you who thinks the skill is important, but something that everyone else who cares about them would also want them to learn or become better at.
3. Find out what skill your child wants to learn
If your child shows no interest in learning the skill that you would like them to learn, don’t worry. Instead, ask your child if they can think of some other skill that they would benefit from learning and that they would rather master. By inviting your child to start by learning a skill of their own choosing, you provide them with a positive learning experience, which in turn will prepare the child for learning further skills.
4. Discuss the benefits of learning the skill with your child
To be motivated to learn any skill, your child needs to see that there are some benefits of doing so. Therefore, I advise having a conversation with your child about the advantages of mastering the skill not only to your child, but also to various important people in your child’s life.
Too often, when parents and educators try to convince children of the benefits of learning a particular skill, they often do it by pointing out the many negative consequences and problems that the child will escape by learning it. A better motivational strategy is to help the child become aware of the positive consequences, or benefits, of learning the skill. For example, rather than saying something like, “If you learn to be quiet during lessons, your teacher will no longer scold you,” consider saying something along the lines of, “If you learn to be quiet during lessons, you will earn the respect of your teacher.” Or instead of saying, “If you learn to be calm in the supermarket even if I don’t buy you things you want to have, then I will not have to be ashamed of you,” you might begin your sentence in the same way but conclude with: “…then we will all be proud of you.”
When discussing the benefits of learning a particular skill with a child, it is also important for the child to feel that the benefits you are talking about are relevant and meaningful to them. For example, if your child is passionate about football, it would make sense to talk with them about how learning a particular skill will help them to become a better football player, or if friendships are extremely important to your child, it would make sense to talk with them about how the skill you would like them to learn will help them improve their relationships with their friends.
5. Join your child in learning new skills
You can reinforce your child’s willingness to learn skills by deciding to learn some skill of your own simultaneously. It is easier for your child to say yes to the proposal to learn a skill if you, and possibly other family members, are also learning some skills. I am reminded of a 10-year-old boy who was supposed to learn the skill of finishing his homework in time, who told his mother, “Mom, you also need to learn a skill. You yell at me. You need to learn to talk softly to me.” The mother’s decision to learn the skill of “not yelling,” or better, expressing her wishes in a gentle way to her son, added to the son’s motivation to learn the skill that his mother wanted him to learn.
6. Reinforce your child’s self-confidence
Another useful motivational tool is to tell your child that you are convinced that they will be able to learn the skill you want them to learn, and to explain to them what makes you think so. You may say, “I am sure you can do it” and then continue by saying something like, “because you are so good at learning new things,” or “because you clearly understand why getting better at it will be good for you,” or “because we will all help and support you,” or “because you have already made some progress,” or “because you are so persistent that if you decide to learn something, you certainly will.”
7. Make sure the skill is not too big
Your child may back off if you propose they learn a skill that appears too difficult. It is important to divide challenging skills into smaller, or incremental, skills that seem possible for the child to learn easily. For example, if your daughter suffers from selective mutism, or the fear of talking to anyone beyond the nuclear family, you can help her by starting with baby steps. You may, for example, engage her in a conversation with a hand puppet that impersonates her teacher, or by helping her to answer her teacher’s or her classmate’s chat message on the school’s online message board.
8. Ask your child to give a name to the skill
Encourage your child to give a name to the skill you want them to learn. Children are more motivated to learn skills if they get to decide what their skill is to be called. In addition, a good name for the skill helps to stimulate the child’s creativity. The child’s creativity is an important building block in figuring out what the child can do to practice and improve the skill and how other people can best support them in their learning process.
9. Ask your child to appoint supporters
Children need other people’s support to learn new skills. They will benefit from all the help and encouragement they can get. Having a team of supporters adds to their optimism, which in turn boosts their motivation. So, invite your child to think about which people to ask to be their supporters. You or other family members are an obvious choice. Other children, particularly if they are a few years older than your child and your child looks up to them, also make good supporters.
The supporters can help your child in many ways. They can, for example:
- help your child understand why it pays to learn the skill
- admire your child when your child masters the skill
- offer ideas about how to practice the skill
- remind your child of the skill if your child sometimes forgets it
- join a celebration at which your child is acknowledged for having learned the skill.
10. Encourage your child to have an imaginary supporter, too
Suggest that your child choose or invent an animal, creature, or superhero that will support them in learning the skill. Once they have chosen their imaginary supporter – say, a Pokémon character–don’t hesitate to ask your child, “How will the Pokémon help you?” You may be surprised at how creative your child is at inventing ways in which their imaginary supporter can help them and motivate them to learn their skill.
11. Plan to celebrate learning the skill
For many children, the idea that there will be a celebration when they have learned their skill is a powerful motivator. Bring up the possibility of such a celebration well in advance and allow your child to have some say in how such a celebration should look, where it should take place, who should be invited, and what should happen during the event. The idea of celebrating learning may seem like just another way of rewarding the child, but I prefer to think of it as an important step in the process of growth: honouring the child for their accomplishment and thanking the child’s supporters for their help and encouragement.
12. Help your child come up with a fun way to practice the skill
To learn any skill, children need to practice. This is a challenge since children are not automatically motivated to practice their skills. Therefore, it is important to invent fun and rewarding ways for the child to practice the skill, ways that add to the child’s motivation to master it.
Would it be possible to turn learning the skill into a game that your child finds motivating? For example, small children are often highly motivated to show how good they already are at performing their skill. Showing how good you already are is more rewarding and fun to the child than practicing the skill, but from the point of view of learning, showing counts as practicing.
Consider asking your child what they would want to do to acquire their skill. “What can you do to learn your skill?”, “How can you practice your skill?”, “How will you remember your skill?” Your child may surprise you by coming up with creative ideas for developing their skills. Another possibility is to find a way to use your smartphone to make learning more interesting and rewarding for your child. For example, “Show me your skill and I’ll shoot a TikTok video of you doing it!”
In the case of younger children, you may want to find a way to involve a puppet or a cuddly toy in the learning process. “Look at this hippo. Can you see, his diaper is wet. I think he is old enough to learn to wee in the toilet. Let’s help the hippo learn to wee in the toilet. What shall we do to help him learn to do that?”
13. Discover diverse ways to praise your child
Ask your child how they want you to show your appreciation when they manage their skill. Some children respond positively to direct verbal praise, while others prefer to be acknowledged with a gesture or some other inconspicuous signal. Invite your child to participate in working out a unique and age-appropriate way to praise them that fits their personality.
14. Find a way to remind your child of the skill
Children do not acquire skills overnight, even when they are committed to learning them. Sooner or later, they are bound to experience setbacks or instances when they forget the skill they are learning and fall temporarily back on their previous pattern of behavior. Instead of calling such incidents “setbacks,” though, it may be better to think of them simply as moments of forgetting their skill.
Children are sensitive to the way in which you remind them of the skill they are in the process of learning. Reminding them of their skill in a way that makes them feel criticised tends to have a negative effect on their motivation while reminding them in a gentler and mutually agreed-upon manner can help enhance their motivation.
Try to find a way of responding to “forgetting the skill” that fits with the skills mindset. Ask your child what they would want you – and other people – to do to help them remember their skill: “How do you want me to remind you of your skill when you sometimes forget it?”
15. Offer your child an opportunity to help someone else learn the skill they have learned
You can tell your child, “When you have learned your skill, you can help someone else, maybe another child in your class, to learn the same skill.” Children take satisfaction in teaching skills that they have acquired to other people. The mere idea of teaching their skill to others in the future is reinforcing and serves as an additional incentive for your child to want to learn the skill they will benefit from learning.
* * *
Adapted by Ben Furman for Mad in America from a chapter in his upcoming book, The Solution-Focused Parent: How to Help Children Conquer Challenges by Learning Skills (Routledge, 2023).
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.