Praise That Doesn't Backfire


Guidelines: People need at least five praises a day

DeMontfort University reported at the British Psychological Conference that parents who praised their children at least five times a day saw a boost in their children’s well-being and a drop in hyperactivity and inattention. 1

Praise effort, not trait

Praising a trait (such as art, music or sports) can lead to anxiety about performing that trait in the future. Instead, focus on praising the effort that went into the performance or behavior.

Try, “You worked hard on that and it shows,” instead of “You are a great artist.” When you praise effort, the recipient generalizes that praise towards efforts they can put into all endeavors. When a trait is praised, the recipient feels they are only good at the isolated accomplishment. They even begin to fear repeating the task in case it isn’t as good as the first effort.

Praise maturity, not just compliance

Many people are uncomfortable with praise because—in their past—praise always came with a spoonful of falsehood.

Following childhood, people quickly discount praise tied to compliance because it is obviously for the sake of manipulation. The need for praise is not dependent upon behavior—it is needed whether a person is compliant or not.

When you praise, seek to praise behaviors that indicate a person is making mature decisions in their life, not just the decisions of which you approve. In fact, it’s good to remember that praise is not about us— “I’m so proud of you”—it is about the actions of the recipient. “Your behavior truly indicates a deepening maturity in your life.”

Be specific about what you are praising

When praise is generalized, it has little to no motivational value and can even backfire. When a person walks into a room and says, “Good job everyone,” it really tells those present that the one giving praise never really took time to understand or explore the effort individuals put into the accomplishment.

Such praise is generally deemed as insincere and the person giving the praise is diminished in stature at the same time. People stop seeking their approval and may even seek to avoid it.

Praise the behavior you want to grow

Be adroit at seeking behaviors you want to grow and specifically complimenting them.

Used properly, praise can open up new avenues for growth. For example, I had a young lady who was indiscriminately defiant. While praising her “willpower” as a helpful trait in many situations, it helped us discuss in which situations defiant behavior was a plus and in which situations it might backfire for her. We then used her guidelines to measure our conversations and whether she needed to be defiant when we were communicating and to apply different behaviors for her to reach other desirable outcomes.

Grow your praise, reduce your sarcasm

This is a general rule I would give to any adult, in any situation. We live in a time when sarcasm is often mistaken for wit and cynicism for wisdom. Sarcasm comes from the Greek words, Sarkazein, which means to “tear the flesh” or to “feast on a carcass.”

Praise is a habit that can be grown and needs intentional attention to foster. People proficient at this habit are seen as sincere, trustworthy and thoughtful.

Sarcasm is especially damaging to children and young adolescents do not have the cognitive capacity to respond or categorize this type of humor. They make easy victims for our wit, but I would compare that practice to playing hardball with an armless child.

Find ways to create a life of praise instead of sarcasm—and if you’re part of a staff that works with young people, create a culture of praise in your workplace. Children will thrive because of it.

People need praise to increase their well-being—especially adolescents

The choice of words here is very important. It is time we stop seeing self-esteem as an end-all to teen woes. As a criminologist friend of mine stated in a presentation, “When we raise the self-esteem of youth making poor decisions, we wind up with young criminals who feel really good about the crimes they are committing.”

Well-being is not just how you feel about yourself, but also how you feel about your contribution to others. It is one of the primary reasons we ask these two weekly questions to the youth in our homes;

  1. “What can WE do to help you master what you are seeking in life?”
  2. “What can YOU do to help yourself master those goals?”

Asking only the first question leads to a youth who feels entitled or helpless. The second question helps a young person also feel committed and empowered. We are going to help them mature and they are going to participate as well.


Praise is a critical tool in the box of raising healthy young people but using any tool incorrectly can cause more damage than there was in the beginning.


1 Time Health, Amanda Macmillan, May 11, 2017, This Is How Much Praise Kids Really Need,


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