Here are the “Dirty-Dozen”: Twelve reasons why your behavior management efforts will fail. These are different types of common, yet irrational, factually incorrect patterns of thinking that will lead you to negative emotional states and poor behavior management choices. Check each that applies to you, and then tattoo them to your forearm to serve as a reminder of what NOT to tell yourself in the middle of a behavioral crisis with your child:
- “My child SHOULD NOT behave this way”: Where is it written that children should be well-behaved? It would be nice if they were well behaved. We would like it if they were well behaved. We wish they were well behaved. But this is life, and kids act poorly, bad, even rotten—sometimes. So, knowing that, I hope you can keep your expectations in line with reality. This is NOT a thinly veiled recommendation to condone negative behavior. Indeed, I am not recommending condoning or allowing negative behavior, but rather I am recommending acceptance of the fact that children have always, and will always demonstrate misbehavior, and it is our job as parents to set up contingencies and consequences that simply manage (not control) the misbehavior.
- “My child’s behavior should change quickly”: Where is it written that behavior should change quickly? Nowhere. Yet so often I hear, “I tried (such-and-such behavior management technique) and it didn’t work,” and when I inquire, the techniques were used for a week or so (often inconsistently). It takes a “long time” for children to learn (and unlearn) behavior, and none of us know exactly how long a “long time” is. So have patience, and some more patience, and then a little more patience.
- “I take things personally, and not only do I try to control my child’s behavior, but I also try to control my child’s emotions”: Although you as the parent set the rules about your child’s behavior (e.g., he is not allowed to hit, throw objects, run in the street, speak disrespectfully to you, slam doors, etc.), the fact remains that your child is allowed to be upset. Your child’s emotions are just that, your child’s emotions. He may not be allowed to behave in a certain manner, but when you cross the line and think that you can (or should) control the way your child feels, you are setting the interaction up for failure.
- “I use ‘All-or-Nothing’ thinking”: Over the past 10 years, I have conducted an average of 3 to 5 developmental evaluations per day, in addition to an average of 2 to 5 behavior management consultations per day. When tantrums or aggressive behavior is a concern for a parent, I always ask, “How many times per day does your child hit/have a tantrum?” By far, and I mean by far, the most common answer I hear is, “All day, it’s constant.” I press forward and politely ask, “I know it must seem like all day, but if you had to put a number on it, how many times per day would you estimate that your child hits/has a tantrum?” By far, and I mean by far, the most common answer that I get to my more specific, follow-up question, is the same, “All day, it’s constant.” I then try to help the parent objectively define the frequency, intensity, and duration of the hitting/tantrum behavior, and, happily, we always (yes always) find that the child does not behave negatively “all day.” Rather, the child often is able to behave positively during a lot of the day, but the child has periods (often many) of intensely negative behavior, and these periods color, if not completely dominate, the parent’s perception. This may seem like a semantic game, but, I assure you, this is an important first step in staying calm and in control as you discipline (i.e., both teach and manage) your child.
- “I use ‘Emotional Reasoning,’ I second-guess myself, I’m too soft, I feel bad, and then I give-in”: You may not always “Pick and Choose You Battles Wisely,” but once you choose to go “to battle,” don’t lose by giving in. By “giving in” you simply undermine your own authority. When you use ‘Emotional Reasoning’ (or, more accurately, a lack of reasoning) you rely on emotional considerations to undo an otherwise rational decision. Of course, the expression is a bit verbose, but we would be well advised to say, “Pick, Choose, and Win Your Battles Wisely, even though the battles may be emotionally challenging for both you and your child.”
- “I yell too much and my child ‘tunes me out’ or imitates my yelling”: We reap what we sow. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but all the good pills are tough to swallow. If you told me that “Yelling works,” I would tell you, “Great, if you don’t mind living in a home with a lot of yelling, I guess you have your behavior management strategy all figured out” (I would only say this, of course, if you were not being verbally or emotionally abusive to your children). The problem, as most parents will acknowledge, is that while yelling may indeed work in gaining short-term compliance from your kids, when overused (as it is so easy to do) your yelling will, no doubt, become the meaningless, unintelligible static that “Charlie Brown’s” teacher used for years.
- “I lead with anger”: While we always love our children, we don’t always “lead with love.” Of course, I am not suggesting that you condone negative behavior that must be corrected, but, rather, before entering an emotionally charged interaction with your child, try to take a second to remind yourself that your primary objective is to help (not hurt) him, and that your intention is to build him up (not knock him down). You will then find that you are much more patient and can “lead with love.”
- “I lose perspective.” My grandfather told me, “You don’t have to travel too far to find somebody worse off than you are.” There is good and bad in any situation, it just depends on what you choose to see. Your child has misbehaved. Now what? The ball is in your court. Will you make this a calamity, or a learning experience? Remember that you are the parent and you can be in control (if you want to be). Life’s greatest challenges are life’s greatest teachers. Can you recognize (and learn from) your “teacher”?
- “I cry over spilt milk – I take things too seriously” I am amazed at my own inconsistency as a parent over time. I reacted with great stress to my first child’s challenging behavior, but now I see my fourth child’s challenging behavior as a wonderful means of his strength and self-expression, and a great opportunity for me to teach him right and wrong. Anger and humor are mutually exclusive – one does not occur without the other – and humor doesn’t hurt. I’m not suggesting that you should laugh like a hyena when something serious occurs, but it’s not a bad idea to maintain a degree of “good humor” or at least the state of mind to perceive that which is good.
- “I am too stressed/tired – I can’t think clearly and use effective behavior management”: For years I have seen decorative plaques in many kitchens that read, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy.” I like the concept. It’s a little much with the co-dependence, but it’s very real-world. It’s what Oprah would say (and that is not some sort of condescending Oprah joke, because, in my opinion, Oprah’s brilliance is only surpassed by her compassion). Anyway, simply stated, how can you do anything well if you, yourself, are not in a good place? Know thyself: If you are too tired, stressed, angry, or depressed to “perform” good parenting, try to take a break and reach out to family, friends, and/or professionals for help.
- “It’s useless – My authority gets undermined by other adults”: When a child’s emotions become intense, there is a great tendency for others to “help” by ramming uninvited assistance down your proverbial throat. Children very quickly learn the differences between authority figures, and they will, of course, favor the less challenging path. For example, let’s say that Mommy tells Junior, “Put away your toys” and Daddy says to Mommy (right in front of Junior) “Leave the child alone, he’s too young to clean up, you should put away the toys for him,” how do you think your child will react to Mommy’s future instructions? It can be quite frustrating to have your parenting authority challenged by another adult (whether it is a spouse, a grandparent, a friend, a teacher), but you cannot afford to sacrifice that authority in the eyes of your child. This should not play out in front of your child as a power struggle between adults. Rather, the adults should privately resolve to avoid destructive patterns in one of the following ways: (1) rationally and respectfully discuss the issue in private and try to come to an agreement, or (2) agree to disagree (without harboring resentment) and let whoever starts the discipline, follow-through and finish the discipline.
- “It’s useless – There is something ‘wrong with’ my kid”: We want “success” from our behavior management strategies, but “success” needs to be realistically defined. A parent who expects quick and/or especially positive results may become frustrated due to “reasoning” that goes something like this: “Other children don’t act this way” so, therefore, “Something must be ‘wrong’ with my kid.” But what does that imply? Is the parent assuming that there is some sort of chemical imbalance or genetic problem with their child? These are factors within the child’s skin. Can we influence these factors? Let’s consider them one at a time. First, what about a “chemical imbalance”? We can medicate to influence the “chemical imbalances” within a child’s skin, however, there are only rare instances of accepted medication use for behavioral or emotional issues prior to age 6. Next, what about “genetic” influences on behavior? The field of genetics is rapidly advancing and we will no doubt enjoy great benefits in the treatment of countless physical illnesses (e.g., Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Spinal Cord Injury, Cancer, etc.). But will these genetic advances lead to behavioral treatments? Will we one day use stem cells to curb the aggressive behavior of a criminal, or to moderate the labile emotions of a Bipolar patient? Even if these “genetic treatments” come to be, would we be willing to use them with our children? I think not. So even when there is a genuine genetic predisposition toward “emotional intensity” or a “high-strung” temperament, we cannot (do not want to) exert influence on the genes within a child’s skin.
Of course, asking questions about your child’s behavior and development can be a fruitful and productive enterprise (please see Chapter 12). However, when parents succumb to the vague notion that “Something is ‘wrong’ with my child” they are often left with a feeling of helplessness that prevents them from using effective behavior management strategies. Furthermore, and perhaps most ironically, even if we assume that there truly is “something wrong” with a child (chemically or genetically), strong behavior management strategies are always indicated. For example, when a child has ADHD (a neurological deficit), behavior management strategies enhance the efficacy of the medication. That is, the medication helps the child with his overall ability to focus, but behavior management rewards and consequences help the child clean his room and finish his homework.