Engaging in the individual behaviors I describe in this post will not lead to your child's destruction, but like any disaster, a combination of factors can set in motion a series of "lessons" you'd rather your child not learn. Planes typically don't fall from the sky because one part failed. We've learned that it takes a cascade of failures that end up crippling a craft. Such is the nature of childrearing...or shall I say child education? Frederick Douglass is credited with saying, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men". Prevention is much less painful and expensive than intervention. Think about those uncomfortable exams you get every year in your attempts at "damage control".
This topic is typically one of those "standing room only" presentations I give. I have often wondered what people think I am going to say?!?
Parents repeat and repeat and repeat to children. This pattern is dangerous because it teaches your child several things:
- They don't really have to listen to you.
- We adults don't really mean what we say.
- We don't really expect them to follow our directions so why listen in the first place?
The world of work will not tolerate such behavior on a consistent basis. In order to effectively teach children to listen to and follow directions, we need to:
- Improve our communication skills. Don't holler at them from another room and expect your message to be heard. Approach them, physically, to a point where their eyes come up to meet yours. If you value the effort to communicate, so will they.
- Be SPECIFIC. "Brush your teeth now" versus "Brush your teeth". It's not the War of 1813, it's the War of 1812. Details count.
- If the direction is not followed within a reasonable amount of time, swift and meaningful consequences must be implemented. Consequences could include having them turn off the "screen" for 15 minutes, sit on the grocery store floor for 3 minutes or pull the car off the road (I am famous for this one...) and be still for several minutes. Why is this effective? Nobody, nobody likes to have their forward motion thwarted or to have boredom forced on them. If you stop a kid in their tracks and you do it frequently enough, it will become so noxious to them that they'll think twice when you start talking. Don't overdo the time. Brief and consistent "consequences" are required. If you make the punishments too long, it will lose its power. But, if you are not making progress, prolong the time period by 30 seconds. Again, be CONSISTENT! If you let any event lapse, you'll have to start over...Ugh!
- The consequence is not nearly as important as the child learning that YOU are paying attention and that they will not get away with avoiding the command/request.
- Deliver the "consequence" language clearly and without judgment. "You chose not to follow my direction, so you need to sit here on the floor next to me for 2 minutes". Avoid saying "...because you did not listen to me". We want them to both listen to and comply with our requests. And, how DO you know they've heard you unless they comply?
- No matter how small the direction or request, it must be followed.
Parents. You have to ask yourself if you can live with the consequences of not training your child to listen to you. The consequences could be life threatening.
IMPORTANT! If you are the kind of parent (usually us Mommas) who is always always talking, your child has been trained to bail out as soon as you open your mouth. Make your communications count. The "Honey, sweetie, lambie pie, love of my life, you make Mommy so unhappy when you cross the street without me because you could get hurt and I would just be so sad that I would cry everyday"-type of verbal diarrhea styles that makes me just want to tell you to "zip it". If this situation or a similarly-dangerous event happens, cup their face in your hands and get close enough for them to feel your breath and calmly state, "You did not wait for me and you crossed the street alone. Take a seat on the sidewalk for 3 minutes". They don't relate to being hit by a car. They have no ideas of the horror of things that CAN happen. What they DO know is that they are now sitting when they want to be moving forward. Case closed. Be quiet.
If your child has a language, auditory processing problem or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, you'll have to change your expectations a bit, but the concept is the same. They are likely to require more intensive training.
2. SCREAMING VERSUS MAKING ASSERTIVE STATEMENTS WITH A STRONG VOICE
"How many times do I have to tell you to get in there and wash your hands and face?"
"What's the matter with you? You know NOT to do that."
These are the kinds of statements that are typically shouted at a child out of frustration. Anger is the behavioral result of frustration. Screaming statements are typically judgmental and teach a child nothing except to be angry right back at ya'.
Let's go to the meat of this. Children enjoy controlling parents' emotions and when you lose it, they take your power right away from you and a very dangerous precedent begins. Eventually, they will become remarkably powerful teenagers and you want this process stopped in its tracks. Don't be bait. There are no manipulative people, only those people who are willing to be manipulated. If there's no reward (such as you going nuts), the behavior will stop.
Don't attack them ("What's WRONG with YOU?"). You already know what's WRONG with them. They're kids and they are learning. They are not perfect! Teach them what to do instead of what not to do. Making them feel defective with this kind of comment dooms you to a continued cycle of hurt.
Don't label them ("You're just a slob!"). If they called you a slob, they'd be in for it (or they should be) so play fair. When you shame them by name calling, the dynamic will be all about anger "ups-manship" instead of learning from the situation.
Don't leave the situation hanging ("Stop it!"). They may be doing a couple of things that are annoying and not even be aware of it. Tell them. Be specific. Don't ask them to read your mind. Separate the kid from the conduct and let them know their behavior is not helpful or healthy.
If you are angry and screaming, it takes a great deal of time and emotional energy to "repair" the situation and get back to where you were before the skirmish, so why go there? If you make assertive statements with a somewhat stronger voice, it calls attention to the behavior and you can go on with your relationship instead of having all of the "attitude" and ugliness. You can be the confident parent who is in charge instead of regressing into "one of them"...a kid, that is.
3. DOING THINGS FOR YOUR KIDS THAT THEY SHOULD BE DOING FOR THEMSELVES
Not to point fingers, but how many of you have mothers-in-law who still cut up their son's meat?? OK, stop laughing and let's move on. (Thanks for indulging me...heh, heh, heh...).
Unless there are physical limitations, your kids should tidy up their rooms, put their clothes in the hamper, pick up their toys and generally, do their age-appropriate share. They CAN bring in the groceries and help put them away. They CAN change the roll of paper towels and toilet paper. They CAN clear the table and scrape plates.
So, what's the issue here...it's US. We parents don't take the time to train them. Start now, start now, start now. TODAY is never too late. Don't wait until they are 10 minutes away from going to college or moving out to teach them how to do the dishes or do their laundry. Here's the problem...we end up doing it for them because they put up such a fuss and because they don't do it the way we want it to be done...here's the cure.
- Ignore the fuss. Make clear and assertive statements (see #2) that communicate you have confidence in their ability AND in their willingness to help the family to "get the job done". Don't fall into the trap of "Sam doesn't have to do this" or "How come I have to do everything? It's not fair". Ignore it. Keep moving.
- Accept a genuine effort as "good enough". Do not go behind them and "fix it". You know when your child is giving it their best or not. If you feel that it is a half-hearted effort, tell them they need to give it a "genuine effort". Spell it out for them what it looks like when someone gives the task a genuine effort. The next time you serve a great dinner, just say, "I gave this dinner a genuine effort. We will all enjoy it". A wink in their direction will drive the point home. Doing this several times will teach them. If they spend twice as much time doing it poorly and then having to repeat it, they'll learn soon enough to to it right the first time. Oh, what a life lesson. Give them a printed sheet, large type with a numbered sequence of how to do the job correctly. Once they master it, they will be skilled and can do it quickly.
Take on one task at a time otherwise, they will feel overwhelmed and there will be conflict. Start with their room or whatever is driving you the craziest. Make the list:
- Clothes off the floor and put in your dresser (you don't care if they shove them in there...they'll wear the rumpled clothes) or hang them up. You'll just have to be OK with your child wearing wrinkled clothes.
- Vacuum (or Swiffer) the floor. Get under the bed. The Dust Bunny Barracks are there..
- Make the bed (bedspread covering the bed and pillow at the top of the bed). If the sheets underneath are a mess, oh well, you're not sleeping in it and they can tolerate some things that we adults find annoying.
- Get the food out of your room. All of it, or there will be a $1 deduction from your allowance.
- Take out the trash. The trash can HAS to be clean.
- Put your sheets in the wash. I'll finish them up for you. Over the washer and drying, make a list of how to wash and dry sheets. Just start with sheets, typically, a set of sheets fills up a washer so you are not wasting water. They are fairly indestructible and nobody sees them!)
- Whatever else you can think of them to do...
Give them a specific amount of time to get the work done. We don't want dawdlers. They have to practice being industrious. They need to start the task and stick with it until completion so they can move onto something they want to do. Don't schedule one "chore" after another. It's guaranteed there will be a brawl. The goal is to develop an "approach" mentality.
If your child's failure to do their part spills over into your life by making you late for work because they are dawdling, they might just miss breakfast and have to settle for a protein drink or breakfast bar that they eat in the car. Let the teacher know about the "life lesson" that is going on and that you are not being an "unfit" mother. Give the teacher some "language" to reinforce your efforts. "Yes, Mom e-mailed me about your difficulty getting out of bed and ready for school. I guess you'll have to make a decision to get yourself ready for school like other 9-year old boys do". Bam! Nowhere to go there! NO escaping responsibility. It's not Mom's fault.
If you don't spend the time to teach your child age-appropriate independent and "family responsibility" skills, we are telling them that they are entitled to everything without working for it. This is NOT the real world. Cut your own meat...
4. ONE PARENT PUTS THE RESPONSIBILITY ON THE OTHER PARENT
If you do this, here's what your kids hear..."I have no control over you. I have no idea what I am doing. I have no confidence in my skills as a parent. You are in charge...". You are in such trouble and your child knows it.
There's absolutely no harm in sitting down with your child and calmly and firmly stating, "This is a situation that is best discussed between Mom/Dad and I before we tell you how we are going to handle it. For now, the best thing you can do for your yourself is to stay in your room until we can speak with you so that things don't get worse". That statement is NOT an abdication of your parenting role, but a measured and reasonable approach to a serious situation. You are immediately putting boundaries on your child's behavior (verbal restraint, if you will) and it gives a clear indication that you are a united parenting couple and there's no "daylight" between the two of you for the kid to squeak through.
When the parent comes home, there is no frantic and immediate reporting of the events. Catch a breath, take your time, let you child cool their heels in their room and discuss the event and the consequences. Don't make the Mom or Dad all "nervous and jerky" as soon as they arrive just because the kid has dropped the ball.
5. WHEN PARENTS ALLOW THEIR CHILDREN TO MAKE THEM FEEL GUILTY
This is an issue that seems to be coming up more frequently these days. It's as if children have been given permission to be entitled and narcissistic.
This dynamic frequently occurs in divorce situations where parents may feel a need to compensate their children for failing to maintain a healthy marriage. You don't owe them a thing except a safe and loving home where their needs are met and where a confident parent guides them toward maturity. Know that as soon as you "buy" in to this (pun intended), you're toast. It's like blackmail and will never stop. Reality alert. If they want something, they have to work for it just like you do. Big life lesson.
"Condemnations" include: "You're never at home; you are always at work" are serious provocations especially when you are tired from a long day at work and have to make dinner, help with homework, do the laundry, return calls and e-mails...on and on and on. In light of your responsibilities, you are not having pleasant thoughts about your child. Instead of ranting about how ungrateful they are, you might want to try, "Yes, it's hard for us right now. I love you and we're a family and this is what some families do". Of course, the "comeback" will be something like, "Susie's mom doesn't work; she's always at home" which is the one-two heart punch. "Gee, Susie and her Mom are lucky, aren't they?" even though you know that the family is struggling financially and Susie's Mom would love to have a job. Don't defend/justify yourself. Be a mirror and reflect her feelings. Your child does not understand the adult world, so don't punish them for not understanding. Remember those stories our grandparents/parents told us about how hard their lives were when they were kids and we couldn't relate? Your children will appreciate you when they are older...much, much older so don't hold your breath. Keep moving and do the best you can.
6. GIVING YOUR CHILD MONEY TO BUY THINGS AS NEEDED VERSUS HAVING AN ALLOWANCE
I discussed this topic extensively in the August 19 post. The major points included:
- Giving an allowance ($1 a year) gives children the chance to learn how to manage money and develop a "sense" of how much items actually cost.
- Can be tied to improving behavior.
- Can be tied to consistent demonstration of "family behavior".
- Reduce the amount of uncomfortable and usually loud skirmishes in the market where your child suddenly "gotta gotta gotta have it have it have it". You are now traumatized from being reminded about those times. You don't have to live with it. "You want that. Do you have enough left over from your allowance?" You do? OK, I'll buy it and you'll pay me when we get home. Do you agree?" You get home, as you stop the car, you remind them they are to first help with unloading the groceries. Once that is accomplished, tell them that you are to be paid right away. If they don't have enough money, an IOU will be created and the monies immediately deducted on allowance day. The next time you prepare to go out, ask them to determine how much money they have (they may need your help for this). When you get to the market and they "gotta gotta gotta have it have it have it have it", you ask, "Do you have enough?" to pay for it and the process begins anew until they learn it. Rational, reasonable, no drama.
7. ARGUING WITH YOUR CHILD
Let's face it, some of them are just lawyers in the making, but "jousting" with a parent makes for more efficient problem-solving skills both now and in the future, so don't resist altogether. Structure it. At some point, enough is enough already. Here's an idea:
- If they want to present their side, they have to introduce their disagreement. They have to get out the 2-3 minute egg timer (the one with the sand in it) and make their best case in the amount of time allotted. If they go over time, they automatically default. Remind them of that rule. No "do-overs" and no "but, but, but, I need to finish". NO. The rules are the rules.
- You don't have to respond immediately. Tell them when to expect your decision (10-15 minutes..don't be cruel) and keep to your agreement about getting back to them in a timely fashion. Carefully consider their argument from a neutral perspective. Let them know your decision and ALWAYS point out the aspects of their arguments that were sound as well as where it fell apart..if they are ready to hear it. If they are upset, wait for this "critique" part. Give them a few hints (put it in writing) as to how they can make their case stronger the next time. This might take the sting out of any contrary decision. This skill is GOLD when they get older and are out and about on their own or when they want to go somewhere and you are "iffy" about it. I followed my own parents' lead..."Claudia, if you want to go to the Three Dog Night concert, Dad will go with you or you can't go". The terror of it all. As it turned out, my other friends were allowed to go because my Dad went! They loved him. He kept calling us "Ladies"...sweet memory.
8. DON'T GET INVOLVED IN SIBLING FIGHTS
You've seen the Animal Planet shows about the lion cubs "fighting" with each other and you wonder why the lioness doesn't take one of those big paws and send them reeling across the savannah? That's because she knows "stuff". She knows that these behaviors are precursors to the critical hunting skills they will need when they are on their own. It's the same with your kids. If they don't learn how to get along with their siblings, what skills will they have when they have co-workers, roommates or lovers? Research indicates that brothers and sisters are closer as adults when parents had the least involvement in their relationships. When it comes to their conflicts, don't be a cop or a grand jury. There's no way to know exactly what went on to start the conflicts, so put it back on them! [I loved the book, Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish that I read many years ago. Their writing is insightful and hilarious.] Consider these strategies:
- If the verbal fight (not physical fighting) goes on for more than 30-60 seconds at a fever pitch, stand in their presence and in a loud and firm voice announce that "if this continues, both of you will have consequences" (a "fee" deducted from allowance or whatever you come up with...just give them fair warning).
- Because many of these skirmishes are attention-getting in nature, don't get involved. Call them to the table or other "serious" location and tell them BRIEFLY, "If this happens again today, I'll administer consequences and you won't know what they are right away. Most kids who are 12 and 14 years old don't act like this. I expect better from you." Don't let them start in with the accusations.
Always intervene if a physical confrontation is in the making. There are laws about sibling-on-sibling abuse and if your child goes to school with a bruise and says that his "sister is always beating" him up, teachers and other mandated child abuse reporters have no choice but to report the sister to the state protective services and now, you are in the social services blender.
If one of your children has a diagnosable disorder (ADHD, bipolar, depression, anxiety, cognitive deficits, aggressive/narcissistic/sociopathic tendencies), you'll need to adjust your approach. Under no circumstances will you allow the child without the disorder to become a victim of the other child. There will be NO relationship between these siblings once you are gone. We leave the "keys to the world" to our children when we peel off the face of this earth. Make sure you help them to create the healthiest relationship possible.
I've seen a number of situations where one child is so disturbed that it is highly unlikely that any future, independent relationships will be possible. Therapeutic intervention is necessary to help all involved to develop realistic expectations and to develop coping strategies such as safety plans, along the way. [When Madness Comes Home by Victoria Secunda.]
9. DON'T HIT YOUR KIDS
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on corporal punishment and moral development. I chose that topic because of the incidences that happened in my first teaching assignment in a public elementary school. I won't go into details, but just let me say that at that time (and it might be true even now) that the law in Florida was such that corporal punishment in the schools could not be outlawed. I would not allow it to take place in my classroom which put me in immediate and serious disagreement with the principal. Hearing the teacher next door beat the children caused me to put a radio in my room and I would turn it up when the beatings began in order to calm my 3rd graders.
The laws regarding hitting your children are different in every state. What "style" of swatting is legal varies. Here's my advice. Don't hit your kids. If you hit your kids, it's your problem. You've just lost control of yourself and have sacrificed your relationship to your anger. We can do better. Learn more effective parenting techniques. Understand your child's disabilities and/or stage of development. Have appropriate expectations. If you are under so much stress that you have started hitting your kids, get help. You can get pastoral counseling at your church or find free or reduced cost therapy in your community. You don't have to have megabucks for a therapist. Get a full physical exam AND get some sleep or eat better. Take a minute to breathe. Do just ONE thing to make yourself into an adult who is more in control. Don't attempt to restructure your entire life. Those "global" efforts will end in failure.
You can't beat a child enough to make them comply. HItting kids is like drugs...there is a tolerance level. It takes more frequent and more severe corporal punishment to achieve the previous level of compliance and after about the age of 12, they fight back. Then, you are really in trouble. Don't go there. Be smart. Children who live under authoritarian parents become independent and easily influenced. Yeah, we want more of that in our society.
10. NO MATTER WHAT, NO PUT DOWNS OF THE OTHER PARENT IN FRONT OF YOUR CHILD...
You make no points whatsoever with your child when you criticize the other parent. Remember that your child has a different kind of relationship with the other parent than you do. While they are great observers of life, kids are lousy interpreters of "what" it all means. Keep it to yourself. If you need to vent, call your friends, call a hotline, pray, go out to the garage and do some laundry, change the oil in the car, take a shower, make pudding or brownies to blow off steam until you can have a calm and rational discussion with the other parent. You may forget the argument, but your child may not. This process DOES get easier the more you practice because practice is designed to help you get better at whatever it is you practice.
If your primary style of dealing with these angry feelings is to lash out, it causes anxiety in your child. Who's next? Me? When will SHE start treating me like that? The diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder includes that you don't have to be the victim. You only have to be in the presence of a life-threatening situation and it's their perception, not yours, that counts. Think about the emotional environment you are creating because your children will start using those tactics on YOU and you've got no defense. You have sanctioned the behavior.
It is said that the greatest gift a man can give his child is to love its mother. Ditto on the "mother" side of that. A rabbi once told me that it's more important for parents to love each other than to love the child. I was shocked until he said that it naturally follows that if mother and father care for and respect one another, the child will grow up in a loving and nurturing environment. Focusing on your marital relationship will allow your children to flourish. Married couples with teenagers report the greatest level of marital satisfaction...makes sense to me! After all, they live in Conflict City, USA!
When your kids are acting out, ask yourself, "Where is this coming from?" and do a "heart check" on the quality of your marriage and the message that you are broadcasting to the kids. Is it loving? Is it supportive? How do you speak to your spouse? As Wayne Dyer says, "Does it sound like love?" Your children may be the "canary in the mine" telling you that the level of toxins is growing. Slow down and pay attention to this. You are teaching your children how to be healthy partners and boy oh boy, are they watching you!
I realize that this is a long post with a lot of information. Thanks for hanging in there. The icon on the left side will allow you to print this post if you like. Keep up the good work.
Join me on Facebook at Dr. Claudia McCulloch
At drclaudia.net, click on the "Ask Me" button and submit a question!