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The Key to Developing Healthy Relationships with Your Children


​A widely cited study from Dr. John ​Gottman has suggested that the key to a successful marriage is to strive for a “positive exchange” ratio of 5:1. The study indicated marriages were more successful when both parties focused on enhancing the number of positive exchanges between partners. It makes sense, right? Everyone prefers to be around people who notice their positive qualities instead of nagging all the time.

This research from Dr. Gottman and additional research were later used to create a method for improving relationships between parents and their children. Ultimately, the positive exchange ratio developed was 4:1. This means that every time parents correct their child, they should strive to offer four positive interactions as well. These positive interactions can take the form of:

  • Compliments
  • Hugs
  • Completing an activity together
  • A small treat or favor
  • Kisses
  • Praise

Not surprisingly, the 4:1 method is also central to the residential care program at one of the best facilities for troubled youth in the country — Boys Town. In the program, for each problem behavior a youth’s Family-Teachers address, they must address and reward at least four good behaviors. Research conducted at Boys Town by Dr. Patrick C. Friman has shown this method is effective even with children in the Boys Town program who have the most seriously poor behaviors. With practice and patience, there is no reason it shouldn’t work in your own home.

As a parent, you are going to see more good behavior when you praise your child for doing the right things than when you focus only on the bad. Praise is a very valuable tool. If you achieve your 4:1 goal, your kids’ behaviors will reflect that.

The next time your child ignores your directions, take a deep breath, teach them the proper way to listen (found here if you need a reminder) and find four things throughout the course of the day to highlight how awesome they are. Give them a hug, tell them they did a great job putting their backpack away, play outside together and take a moment to highlight the good, in addition to correcting the bad.

This content was created by Boys Town expert Pat Friman. To learn more about him, visit his expert page here.