Catch Your Child Being Good this Holiday Season

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Spending time with family around the holidays can be wonderful, and for parents of kids with ADHD it can also be stressful. When you’re visiting family and friends that you only see a few times a year you want more than ever to have things go smoothly. It’s a tall order when your child’s routine is disrupted, and when he or she is so excited about the holidays! As a parent, when you are stressed, your child’s minor misbehaviors – the ones that you would typically let slide – may really get under your skin. So, you’re more likely to notice the things that your child is doing wrong, and overlook the things that he or she may be doing right. As a result, your child receives even more attention for his or her misbehavior, and this attention – even though it’s negative – often leads to an increase in challenging behaviors.

Making an effort to notice your child’s positive behavior, and praise him or her when he or she is doing something right can help break this cycle. When you “catch your child being good” you set them up for success. You start to lay the foundation for positive family interactions, you build his or her self-esteem, and you increase the chance of seeing more positive behavior in the future. In order for praise to be most effective, and actually lead to a change in family dynamics and your child’s behavior, you’ll need to be strategic about how and when you deliver the praise. The following guidelines will help you get off to a good start:

  1. Be Specific. Let your child know exactly what he or she did well. For example, “You did a great job helping your sister find her toy.” rather than “Good job!” When you’re specific your child knows exactly what it is that he or she did well, and will be more likely to do it again in the future.
  2. Be genuine. Kids respond well to praise when it’s heartfelt and genuine, and when your level of enthusiasm matches their behavior. For example, let’s say that your child does something that isn’t very hard for him or her, like tying his or her shoes, for example. You respond with over the top enthusiasm, “Wow! You tied your shoes, amazing!” You’re child isn’t going to find you very believable, and might even think that you’re acting strange. But, if you say something more genuine, like, “I noticed that you tied your shoes the first time I asked. Thank you.” Then he or she will be much more likely to accept your praise.
  3. Praise effort. Studies show that kids who are praised for their hard work and effort, rather than for their intelligence or abilities, are more likely to approach new challenges with a positive attitude and have the motivation to keep trying even when things are hard. So, if your child gets a good grade on a math assignment, rather than saying, “Nice job! You’re so smart at math!” focus on the things that he or she did in order to earn the grade, like, “You worked really hard on that assignment and double checked all of your answers before your turned it in. Your hard work really paid off! Nicely done!”
  4. Remember 5:1: It takes quite a few positive statements to offset the effects of negative feedback and criticism. So as a rule of thumb, aim for 5 positive comments for every negative statement. If this seems like a tall order, start with a smaller ratio, like 3:1 and work your way up.

Shift the balance in your home, from only commenting on the negative to really praising the positive. Noticing your child’s good behavior, and following these praise guidelines will go a long way in helping things go more smoothly this holiday season and throughout the year. Over time you’ll see even more good behavior and improved family relationships as your child continues to seek and receive more positive attention from you.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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