Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

Setting the Stage for Your Child’s Good Behavior: Step #3

Step Three:  When you want to alter behavior, make your statements short, direct, and focused on behavior 

Your words are very important to your child.  Even after you have established a positive communication pattern with your child, you will still need to actively shape behavior from time to time.  When this happens, take the minimal approach. Keep it clear.  Keep it simple.  Keep it cool.  Your child needs to know that you are in charge and in control of the situation. The tone of your voice sends an important message. Take a few deep breaths if it helps you.  Just be certain you know how you are feeling before you deliver any correction.  Try to tell your child what “to do” rather than what “not to do”.  Whenever possible use Do’s rather than the Don’ts.

Try Saying This:    “Hands and feet to self.”

Instead of:  “Don’t hit your sister.”

Try Saying This: “Please put your shoes in the closet.”

Instead of:  “Don’t leave your shoes here.”

Try Saying This: “I can’t hear you when you are yelling. Please use your indoor voice.”

Instead of:  “Stop screaming!”

Try Saying This:“I like it when you and your sister get along.  Please find a game to play together”

Instead of:   “Stop fighting, you two!”

When David was a boy, he remembers following his parents’ instructions.  When they asked him to pick up his room, he picked up his room.  When his mom needed help with dinner, he helped.  When he was a teenager and his dad asked him to mow the lawn, he mowed it.  It didn’t even occur to him to do otherwise.  So, when his son completely ignores his requests, David is puzzled and hurt, then angry?  Typically David asks very nicely the first time, “Hey, Ben, let’s pick up your room today.” Ben’s response is usually a grunt or a sigh before returning his attention to his video game.  David gives him a little time to finish up what he’s doing before he asks Ben again, “Ben, did you hear me?  How about if we clean up your room today”? By the third or fourth request, David is angry.  He is incredulous that his son doesn’t recognize how little David asks him to do around the house.  His one request is met with silence and passivity.

David falls into a common parent trap: he thinks that when he asks Ben to do something for him, his son will jump up and do it; and not only will Ben do it, but he will actually be happy doing it.  Wrong.  There are few perfect angels out there. Most children will try to get out of completing unpleasant tasks when given the opportunity and the choice.  It is incumbent on the parent, in this case David, to communicate his requests firmly and effectively, offering no opportunity for flight or choice to resist.

The following is a step-by-step approach to getting your child to do what you tell him to do when you tell him to do it:

  1.  Make sure when you tell your child to do something, you mean it.
  2. Make sure you have your child’s attention (look your child in the eyes) before you tell them to do something.
  3. State your command clearly and calmly.
  4. Wait silently for compliance.
  5. Impose an immediate consequence if the command is not followed.

Try Saying This

“Turn off the video game and clean your room.”

Wait 30 seconds for compliance.

“You have not done what I have asked. For each minute I wait for you to begin cleaning, you lose a minute of screen time tonight.”

The following are ineffective commands:

String Commands: too many commands in one command

Dad: “Ben, clean up your room, make your bed, pick up your toys, clean out your desk, dust the bookshelves…..”

Ben thinks:  “What does he want me to do exactly?”

Repeated Commands:  over and over with increasingly frustrated tone in the voice

Dad:  “Ben, clean up your room.  Clean up your room right now.  Ben, did you hear me?  Clean up your room right this instant!”

Ben thinks:  “I’ll start paying attention when he really means it.”

Interrupted Commands:  instructions are followed by too much talking

Dad: “Ben, clean up your room.  Did you know that when I was your age I would never have ignored my father’s wishes?  As a matter of fact, I happen to know that other boys your age clean their rooms and also help with the dishes?  Have you ever done the dishes?”

Ben thinks:  “Really? No.  What are we talking about it?”

Vague Commands:  not specific to a particular behavior

Dad:  “Stop that right now.  Quit it.  I  have had enough of this.”

Ben thinks:  “Stop what?  Had enough of what?  What am I doing and what does he want me to do?”

Question Commands: making a request vs. stating a command

Dad: “How about if we start to clean up?”

Ben thinks:  “How about not?”

“Let’s” Commands:  tricking your child into getting started

Dad:  “Let’s clean your room”.

Ben thinks:  “Let’s not and say we did.”

Psychotwisters:  unreasonable threatening in order to motivate

Dad:  “If you don’t clean up your room right this minute, you are grounded for a month.”

Ben thinks:  “Yeah, right.  He’ll never follow through on that. He has never grounded me before for more than a day.”

As parents we are all vulnerable to engaging in “Disciplinary Don’ts”.  My personal Achilles’ heel is sarcasm, especially with my teenager.  Your child may be experimenting with sarcasm to express evolving wit, but you also know that sarcasm is an indirect form of communication that frequently hides feelings of hostility, anger, and frustration.  As tempting as it may be to join in, try to resist and instead express yourself directly.  For instance, instead of saying to my daughter:

“Congratulations, Lyana, you actually made it on time to the bus stop one day this week.”

I need to say:

“You need to set your alarm clock earlier in the future.  I won’t be driving you to school anymore if you miss the bus.”

Disciplinary Don’ts:

  • Don’t use threats
  • Don’t use putdowns or insults
  • Don’t yell or cuss
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Don’t be sarcastic
  • Don’t lecture
  • Don’t arouse guilt

Tomorrow Step #4

Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP



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