Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

Setting the Stage for Your Child’s Good Behavior: Step #1

Children want to do what is right.  They want to please you.  When expectations are laid out clearly in advance and are realistic, children typically meet them.  It is when the goal line keeps shifting, the guidelines are vague or the demands are too high that children may falter.   Front load your behavioral expectations with your child.  Be a pro-active rather than reactive parent.  Frequently, a solid, up front discussion of goals and guidelines for behavior can prevent a whole host of behavioral messes after the fact.

There is a subtle difference between cooperation and obedience.  When kids are acquiescing to you, they are submitting to your will which may lead to power struggles.  Cooperation, on the other hand, means that your child is willing to work in tandem with you.  The goal of cooperation is mutually satisfying for both of you.   Distinguishing between obedience and cooperation is critical.

At the same time, and part of what makes parenting so tricky, is that kids also need limits.  They may not WANT limits.  As a matter of fact, they may react to the word “no” with these all-too familiar whiney protestations and fits of temper:

  • “All the other kids’ parents let them do it!”
  • “Please. Please. Please.  Just this once. ”
  • “You can’t make me.”
  • And the killer.
  • “I hate you.”

Regardless of the fuss, your child still NEEDS limits.  When your boundaries are unclear, you may be making your child feel uncomfortable, unwittingly encouraging him/her to push the edges of the envelope seeking your limits.  Your child will continue to push until you are able to communicate clearly where the edge is. It is no easy task to stay firm and consistent when there is so much pressure to give in, relent, make things easier on everyone including yourself.  When you do, things are peaceful for a few minutes.  Your child is happy again.  You are the hero, not the bad guy.  Setting limits is hard, requires tremendous self-restraint, and the upside is rarely immediate.

So how can a parent navigate this difficult terrain, set the stage for ongoing cooperation and, at the same time, be clear and firm in their boundaries?

The good news for you is that there are no perfect parents.  Parenting is an ongoing process, and parenting competencies are learned, practiced, and improved upon like any other set of skills.  There are steps you can take to help your child cooperate, and there are certain behaviors you can steer clear of if you want to avoid power struggles and loss of control:

Step One:  Reverse the Negative to Positive Ratio in Your Parent/Child Communication

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to correct, criticize, and nag your child than it is to praise him?  There are several reasons for this phenomenon, not the least of which is that you may feel it’s your job to make sure that you raise a well-behaved, productive member of society and, when you see your child misbehaving, your automatic parental reaction is to fix it, stop it, and correct it.  The problem is that some children require more “direction” than others.  These are the kids who may have trouble learning from the first time he is reprimanded or even the second.   As a matter of fact, for some of you, it can feel like your life is filled with a never ending supply of behaviors to instruct, correct, and shape.

  • “Use your indoor voice.”
  • “Don’t hit your sister.”
  • “Stay in your seat during dinner.”
  • “Say ‘thank you’.”
  • “Chew with your mouth closed”.

When your child’s undesirable behavior continues despite your best efforts, it’s not long before many parents feel discouraged and may even question their adequacy as parents. It is at these points that you are most vulnerable to home in on the bad vs. the good in your child’s behavior.

Kayla and Mark are seeing me for parenting help out of sheer frustration and exhaustion.  “I feel like I’m always yelling,” Kayla reports.  “Why don’t they ever listen to me?” (Referring to their 8 year old twin boys, Jack and James)  These parents agree.  Their home life is stressful and negative.  Mark, looking dejected, says, “Sometimes I just want to stay at work.  The minute I step in the door at night, I’m confronted with total chaos.” Both parents report that trying to discipline the boys is totally useless.  They play off each other.  As soon as Jack is chastised, James misbehaves. The whole evening is spent criticizing and punishing bad behavior.  All Mark and Kayla can do is look at each other and say, “What are we doing wrong?”

Mark and Kayla are not alone.  Like many parents, they are overwhelmed by their boys’ behavior and are discouraged that their family environment is skewed in the direction of negativity.  After all, it is so much easier to fall into the practice of criticism rather than praise; and not just because bad behavior is so much more “in your face” than good behavior.  It’s also because when parents like Mark and Kayla are feeling fatigued and frustrated, it is somehow strangely satisfying to find the negative in a situation, especially one involving your child.  Kayla says that she gets so upset some days that she just can’t stop herself from, “losing it” with her boys.

Kayla: “How many times do I have to tell you NOT to throw your towel on the floor?  Is it that hard to hang it up?  If I haven’t told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times that I’m sick and tired of cleaning up after you and your brother. Can’t you just once give me a break!?”

In my experience, the more pent up annoyance you feel with your child, the more words you are likely to use when criticizing.  The opposite is true of praise.  The more exasperated you are with your child, the less likely you are to find words of praise.  While undesirable behavior is difficult to ignore, it’s so easy to “let sleeping dogs lie” with cooperative behavior.  On the rare occasions that boys are quietly working on homework, Mark thinks to himself, “Why interrupt my few moments of peace and quiet with praise?  I might jinx it.”

The problem is that all kids need attention regardless of how the attention is packaged.  If a child is unsuccessful at getting positive attention from you, he’ll take negative attention; it’s equal opportunity. And, if there is one way a parent can insure a behavior continues, it is to pay attention to it.  Jack and James understand this phenomenon all too well.  As soon as one boy gets in trouble with Mom or Dad, the other jumps in to pull the attention away from his brother.

Before they knew it, by focusing on the behaviors they would like to change and ignoring the behaviors they wanted to continue, Mark and Kayla unwittingly helped establish a negative pattern of communication at home with Jack and James.

All behavior needs an audience.  You’d be amazed how many undesirable behaviors are stopped by simply ignoring them.  Mark and Kayla were able to generate a list of annoying “ignorable” behaviors the boys regularly exhibited. These behaviors included whining and bickering.  They then agreed to consistently and wholeheartedly ignore those behaviors.  When I say “ignore”, I mean disregard these identified behaviors verbally, physically, and through eye contact.

When you ignore, however, you must ignore challenging behavior for as long as it lasts.  This is no simple task.  When ignoring challenging behavior:

  • Make sure the behavior qualifies as “annoying” i.e. whining, foot banging, begging.  Unsafe or immoral behavior is not to be ignored.
  • Determine realistically whether or not you will be able to stick to ignoring for however long the behavior lasts. This means maintaining no verbal, physical, or even eye contact with your child.  If you can’t stick to it, don’t try it.
  • You must ignore the behavior each and every time you witness it.
  • Refrain from saying “I’m ignoring you…” which will only serve to reinforce the bad behavior.
  • Make certain to praise as soon as more desirable behavior appears.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.  If you can’t carry it through because of the surroundings i.e. church, don’t ignore.

The following are some suggestions I made to Kayla and Mark In order to create a more optimistic and cooperative environment at home.  I suggested that they reverse their negative to positive ratio of communication.  Here is what their list looked like:

  • Use fewer words when you correct than when you praise.
  • Disconnect from your child’s annoying or venting behaviors.  Respond with silence.
  • If you think of yourself as having a daily parenting word bank, begin to use more words to praise than to criticize.
  • Try to praise ten times for every time you say something critical.
  • Look for opportunities to catch your child doing something right.  Praise immediately.
  • On particularly challenging days, you might find it tricky locating any constructive behavior to reinforce. Be creative and keep at it.

We practiced “Try Saying This” exercises to help them shape their boys’ behavior.

Try Saying This : I see that you are both sitting quietly at the table like I asked. I really enjoy talking to you when we are at the table together.

Instead of: How many times do I have to tell you to sit down at the table? You drive me crazy when you do this night after night!

Try Saying This: Thanks for picking up your toys the first time I asked.  Now we can move on to something more fun.

Instead of: You never pick up your toys after you play with them. I swear. I will never buy you another toy as long as you live!

Try Saying This: You get so much more accomplished when you finish your homework right     when you get home from school. Because you finished, we can relax a little after dinner instead of stressing  about school.

Instead of: I come home every night and you haven’t finished your homework. You are never going to make it in life if you procrastinate like this, You’ll never get into college. Never!

You make your child feel special in many ways.  You spend time with her.  You write notes, offer words of encouragement, and use loving terms of endearment.  Praise is another way to build attachments, self-esteem, and positive behavior.  Positive feedback encourages an increase in desired behavior and facilitates your child’s acquisition of new knowledge and behavior.

When you praise your child:

Be specific.

“When you do what I ask after the first time I ask, it makes feel really good.”

Praise your child immediately following a positive action.

“Thank you for giving the dog a bath just now.  That helps me out a lot.”

Make sure you praise genuinely.  (Your child will detect if you are being insincere.)

Praise steps in the right direction, rather than just the end result.

“I can tell you have spent a lot of time on this drawing.  The colors are intense, and I can see so many details.”

Check back tomorrow for Step 2

Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP

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