Therapist’s Tips on How to Change Behavior

Therapist’s Tips on How to Change Behavior


Changing someone’s behavior can be looked at in two different ways. One is how we can diminish undesirable behavior, and the other is how we can encourage desirable behavior. 

Let me give examples for each. 
A child throws a dinner plate on the floor. The intent is unclear, but the behavior is not acceptable. The parent tells the child to get down on the floor and clean up the mess. The child begins to cry, says, “I did not mean it,” and does not want to follow direction. The parent saw the child intentionally drop the plate, negating the accident explanation. The parent says clearly and directly, “You will clean it up now. You may not continue to eat.” The child intensifies the crying. The parent acknowledges that the child does not agree with the demand, but says it is not negotiable. The parent indicates the expectation remains and uses a firm voice. The child gets down, crying, and cleans up, not perfectly, but acceptably considering age. The parent thanks the child for following the direction. 

The parent handled the situation well. Acting strong and determining an appropriate consequence will typically lead to behavior change. It does not often work with one experience, but as a commonly used intervention, the child does begin to take the parent seriously. 

Children can be very clever to avoid a consequence. Selecting one that fits the situation is wise. Children do learn that a parent is unrelenting. There was not a lot of conversation which tells the child this is not going to be an attention-getting opportunity. 

Thanking the child at the end clarifies positive regard to following a direction. And it was wise for the parent to verbalize an awareness of the child disagreeing with the direction.

Thanking the child leads to the second example of reinforcing that a behavior continues. Most people have clarity of what is not acceptable. We are told what we did wrong, but we are commonly not told what is wanted from us. 

A woman complains about the amount of responsibilities she has when she is not at work. She commonly has comments about requests that are made of her. At times this leads to confrontations and arguments. The discussions lead to each person making a list of the responsibilities common to them. 

One day, the partner comes home and discovers that items had been purchased that he had put on a list on the refrigerator. It was done without any discussion. It was never indicated who would do the shopping. When his partner comes into the room, he thanks her for doing that and tells her how much he appreciates it. And that it was nice that the list was acknowledged and acted on.

We like being acknowledged and appreciated for what we do that pleases someone. We don’t hear it often enough. Commonly, we will try again.



Dr. Natalie Gelman is an Alameda-based therapist. Please submit questions at or through Gelman’s web site,