If you have been pleading, yelling, bribing, constantly explaining, threatening or even punishing your child to get him to do what is expected of him on a daily basis, maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that he may not have the skills. He may very well have the desire and the potential to carry out his daily responsibilities, but simply doesn’t know how to start a task or activity without being prompted to do so. Kids who have trouble initiating are not necessarily disinterested, noncompliant or unmotivated to perform well.
The good news is that you can help your child at school, at home and in his interactions with other kids his age by making changes in his environment and in his daily experiences. It does require your utmost commitment and time consistency.
A few years ago, a family asked for help in dealing with their oppositional and non-compliant thirteen-year-old son. They were eager to tell me they were strict parents and have always set limits. Their son was now sleeping on a bare mattress in his room, and anything electronic or entertaining had been taken from him. He had lost all privileges due to his defiance. When I inquired, “How is that working out?” they answered, “it wasn’t”. In fact, they were resentful towards each other.
Their goal was to have their son earn his privileges back, one at a time, by his willingness to comply and act more responsibly. Most interestingly, when I asked their son if he was willing to commit to earning his privileges back, he said, “No.” He felt there was “no way” he could consistently behave as they expected. He somehow always “messed up” and lost the privilege he had recently earned. After all, he has nothing else to lose and negative attention is better than no attention!
This type of defeatist attitude is not uncommon in children who:
- Are used to negative attention for their impulse-driven behavior
- Lack the ability to identify or express their feelings appropriately
- Perceive the expectations set by their parents or teachers as unrealistic and too hard to achieve
- Become easily overwhelmed by large amounts of information, due to lack of organizational skills
- Underestimate the time, the effort, and the level of difficulty involved in the successful completion of the activity
- Lack the ability to resist their impulses and to stop their behavior at the appropriate time
- Carry things too far, demonstrating behavior often described as impulse driven.
As parents, we all like to see our children happy, but permissive parenting—allowing them to purchase anything they want, eat whatever they crave, stay up late, spend too much time plugged into their electronics, allowing poor grades and permitting daily responsibilities to be forgotten—can do more harm than good. We may not like saying “No” to our children, nevertheless they need to hear it. In fact, it may be comforting to know research shows that when kids don’t hear “No” and receive limits set by their parents, they experience increasing stress. I’m not a proponent of indulging kids, but I certainly don’t believe punishment for their oppositional behavior at all times is the answer, either.
One of the simplest ways to set clear limits, and focus on the positive behaviors you want your children to demonstrate, rather than the negative, is to use individualized behavior charts and contracts, enforce them consistently, and “celebrate” your child’s efforts as a family. How you word things is important. For example, your child is more likely to respond positively if you stress access of a desired activity rather than lack of access. Instead of saying, “You can’t play video games until you finish your homework”, you can say, “ As soon as you complete your homework, and I check it, you can play video games”. By focusing your child on the incentive, the prize, it can help decrease your child’s task refusal and minimize power struggles. It is important to state the desired behavior that you expect from your child clearly, and be as specific as possible. Providing specific praise and recognition of your child’s efforts should be done frequently. Kids are always looking for approval and when they actually receive praise they are certainly more likely to repeat the behavior. Praise needs to be delivered immediately after the positive behavior occurs, and needs to be specific to the accomplishment and the effort the child demonstrated. For example:
- “Thank you for picking up your dirty clothes and putting them in the laundry basket without my having to ask you”
- “When you get yourself dressed for school in the morning without reminders, it makes our morning so much nicer”
- “ I saw how much effort you put on that project, I hope you enjoyed doing it”.
Giving kids something positive to look forward to also helps them engage in a chore or task that they may not be looking forward to doing. Breaking the task into smaller chunks, with more frequent breaks, can have a more energizing effect and create a more positive state of mind for the child in carrying out a more aversive task. Think about as adults how many times we say to ourselves, “I’m going to take a break and have some dessert after I finish writing this report”.
The daily behavior chart can be an effective tool where the child’s behavior is monitored by earning check marks for tasks completed, focusing attention on the desired behavior, and giving kids a chance to earn points toward a desired reward. The weekly reward which the child has preselected, comes from a menu the two of you have created. Take a look at the set of Daily Task Cards that serve as a visual cue for daily tasks you expect from your child, the Behavior Chart that corresponds to the task cards and the Celebration Menu for reward suggestions. Feel free to download the other samples of behavior charts, menus and contracts from our website, www.hangNthere.com. You can laminate them and use a washable marker for your daily monitoring.
Let’s think about and share what we can do to incorporate a more positive discipline in our homes and empower kids with the necessary skills to build their social and emotional resiliency and competence. Here are some principles to consider:
- Consistency and clearly stated rules and expectations are the key to a more positive discipline.
- Children thrive with positive feedback as they learn and practice appropriate behaviors and carry out directions given by important adults in their lives.
- Discipline needs to begin early for all children, including babies and toddlers.
- When you discipline your child, you are teaching and protecting him at the same time.
- When you teach self-control and what is acceptable or not, make eye contact with your child and say, “No” or “Stop.” Tell them what you expect instead. “I’m keeping you safe” should be repeated often.
- A “time out” or “brain break” will remove the child from the difficult situation, allowing her some time to relax or “cool off” before you address the problem.
- Teach him some self- calming strategies like deep slow breathing to the count of four or counting backwards slowly from 20 to one1.
- Once you and your child are calm, discuss the situation, express your disappointment, ask what he could have done instead, discuss and implement an appropriate consequence (consider asking the child what the consequence should be)
- Use natural consequences, on the spot. If your child decorated your walls with her markers, make her wipe up the mess, and say she can’t use them for the rest of the day. If she throws her spaghetti around during dinner, remove her from the table and say, “you can’t have anymore”. Dinner is then over.
- Logical consequences, logically related to the misbehavior, are another option. If your child does not put his toys away, let him know he will not be allowed to play with them tomorrow if he doesn’t clean up.
- Pick your battles. You may want to ignore some harmless behaviors, such as whining or meltdowns unless someone is getting hurt.
- Spanking is absolutely not effective. It makes the parent feel better and in charge for that moment, though in the long run only makes kids more physical and aggressive.
- The best approach is to catch your child being good, notice the positives, and reinforce and reward those behaviors as often as possible.
- Reinforce principles such as safety, punctuality, good listening skills, respect, and consideration for others as kids carry out their daily tasks. Such principles serve as reminders, a way to focus, and provide the necessary cue for your child to stay actively engaged in the task at hand.
My thirteen- year- old friend and his family had a positive outcome. I was able to assist them set more realistic expectations, and implement a behavior plan that focused on the positive, on task behaviors, that he had to successfully execute daily after one request. I involved him in setting up fair rules and expectations with his parents and opportunities to earn his privileges back. We even added some “freebies”, easy ones that we knew he could implement to experience some initial success. At times, when he did not have a good day, his parents learned to encourage him by saying, “Tomorrow is a new day and you get to try all over again”, “We know you can do it”. They spend more time modeling calmness by using slow deep breaths, brainstorming what he needed to do to complete a task, writing the instructions, and at times even walking him through it. For example, in order to teach him to clean and maintain his room, his mom spent a Saturday morning working with him on putting things away, hanging up his clothes, putting the dirty clothes in the laundry basket, throwing out papers he didn’t need, etc. and finally taking a picture of his room and posting it on the door. From then on, if mom said clean your room and he replied, “I did” all mom had to say was, “Does your room look like this picture?” “Keep working until it looks like this picture”. Insisting your child does the “have to” before he gets to the “want to” is a motivational process that takes time, but so worthwhile. Remember, you want to help your children learn how to do something not just teach them what not to do.