I've been a kid psychologist for 27 years and write a lot of articles and ebooks on various psychological subjects. Here's one on a principle that everyone should know, not just parents.
It took me about a year to figure this out. When I first started working with families, I noticed that some families just "clicked." They worked better with each other, whereas other families only partially succeeded, or even failed. I didn't know why. It didn't seem to matter if they were positive--all of them tried speaking and acting positively because we are all know we should "think positively." When comparing the successful to the less-than-successful families, it didn't matter what was their socio-economic status. Race, education, religion and other factors
made no difference. What turned out to be the deciding factor wasn't
whether there was positive communication among family members because I saw that all the families did that.
It was the ratio of positive-to-negative messages that was different in the successful families. It turns out that we, as warm-blooded, nurturing-needing, social mammals just need a greater amount of positive feedback to feel good about ourselves, plus respond to changes in our environment, hence, survive. Positive feedback makes us feel good via experiencing positive reinforcers. ("Other" feedback is anything else--negative, or just neutral. These have "other" effects, as you might guess.)
The 4:1 rule is about the ratio of rewards or positive things we say
or do to our teenagers compared to the number of negative or other things we say or do. In all interactions, there should be four positive messages for every "other" (usually but not always negative) message.
A more general way to think about this is that there should be four
positive messages embedded in our conversations with anyone, anytime,
relative to any other statements. The 4:1 rule should be common to all these aspects of communication, because we seem to need that much to nurture our good behaviors. It's the way we are wired. This is where the rubber meets the road.
Create a worksheet of target behaviors, with positive behaviors on the left, and their opposite negative behaviors on the right. (Details of this procedure can be found in my ebook on How To Change Teenager's Behavior, which can be found as a link off of my website, below.) The idea is to pick the most important positive behaviors in the left column and work them into your conversation with your teen as you interact. You do this spontaneously but genuinely.
(Don't make up stuff because being fake will act as a turn off--subtle
punishment for interacting with you. Punishments are negative experiences
and will reduce the behaviors you want to increase.) Work into the
conversation four positive comments about real or past positive behaviors
for every one "other" comment you might make.
In general, it helps to do this when talking to anyone, anytime, regardless of whether you are trying to get them to change a behavior (or two or three), but for now, make sure to work these comments into the conversation referencing specific good behaviors you have witnessed in your teenager. You are putting a positive message into your teen's brain about his or her positive behaviors, or beginning positive behaviors, four times as often as you are mentioning anything else. Or, put more generically, you are speaking of his or her positive attributes in four out of five comments you make, no matter what, where, when or how you speak. You are reinforcing what you already like, thus strengthening the good behavior, or you are shaping what you see coming, thus encouraging the incipient positive behavior to become more robust.
The "four part" of the 4:1 rule is about building into the conversation natural aspects that are positive that you choose, thus influencing the extinction of old behaviors in your teenager by reinforcing the opposite, positive aspects of some "bad" behavior, or by encouraging or strengthening not-quite-fully-developed new behaviors (shaping, modeling, cueing).