Challenging Boys Blog:
Understanding Your Son, Yourself, and How to Bring the Best Out of Each Other
Challenging Boys Blog:
Understanding Your Son, Yourself, and How to Bring the Best Out of Each Other
We weren’t raised this way.
Although positive parenting ideas have been around for decades, most of our parents did not believe that respecting, understanding and empathizing with a child’s feelings lay at the heart of parenting; neither did they believe in collaboratively resolving differences with children. More typically, parents of previous generations ignored or dismissed the feelings of their misbehaving children. These parents, instead, focused on getting their children to “behave” through the use of punishments. Punishments are effective at establishing order and control in families, but by ignoring the feelings that lay behind misbehavior these parents left their child not knowing how to recognize his or her emotional states and without tools to manage negative feelings appropriately.
Parents of previous generations also generally did not work with their children to resolve differences. Listening to a child’s point of view, working out a compromise, or even apologizing to a child after a parent had made a mistake or acted hurtfully were all seen as actions that would undermine the parent’s authority. Unfortunately, these old approaches teach that ‘might makes right’ when it comes to dealing with conflicts. They don’t teach a child how to resolve differences. The ability to resolve the inevitable differences that arise in relationships is a key component of emotional intelligence, according to marriage and family researcher John Gottman, and this skill is ultimately associated with greater happiness and fulfillment in marital, friendship, and work relationships throughout life.
At a gut level, most of us feel our self-esteem enhanced when our loved ones devote the time and attention to understanding and validating our feelings. We assume this is true for our children as well. On a more practical level, most of us wish that we were better at recognizing what we feel and wish we had a greater capacity for managing our negative feelings constructively, rather than being overwhelmed by them. Most of us, furthermore, think that our lives and relationships would be happier and more satisfying if we were more skilled at resolving differences.
So, again, we are faced with the question of why the good and compelling advice of positive parenting books is so hard to follow? It is precisely because we weren’t raised this way. These practices aren’t instinctive or intuitive for us. Yelling, threats, and punishments (or giving in and withdrawing) are. We grew up with a model of parent-child conflict resolution that involves a dominant parent imposing his or her will on a child who is forced to submit (or fight back). To deal with a misbehaving child using a positive parenting approach – that is, by first trying to understand and accept the feelings behind a child’s misbehavior and then guiding the child towards a more appropriate expression of the feelings requires that we stop our automatic, instinctive response, step back, and think of a creative approach to the situation. To do this we must remain calm. However, maintaining a cool head in the middle of an escalating power struggle with a child is very difficult to do.
We aren’t wired this way.
One reason that it is so hard to think in moments of conflict has to do with the way our brains are wired. Humans, like all other animals, respond to threat by getting into fight or flight mode. Fight or flight evolved to help our animal ancestors survive in situations where quick action was required. An animal confronted by a predator has to decide in an instant whether to run or fight. Because thinking is slow, fight or flight includes shutting off reflective thinking to promote fast action. The animal that stops to calmly reflect on the situation and weigh its options before deciding what to do gets eaten. It is more accurately described as a fight or flight and don’t think response. Fight or flight mode is an adaptive response to physical danger, but it’s really unhelpful when it comes to resolving differences in our intimate relationships.
Getting into power struggles with our children is very stressful and, unfortunately, it can get us into fight or flight (and don’t think) mode. In these moments of stress we revert to our oldest, deepest memories of parent-child interactions. We get swept up in a battle of wills where we have only two choices: either we are dominant and enforce our will on our child (and dismiss our child’s feelings), or we empathize with our child’s distressed feelings and let our child dominate us with his or her tantrums. Even worse, many of us end up doing both. First we permissively attend to our child’s tantrum, then get fed up and shift to threats and punishments. Being both firm and empathic isn’t an option that occurs to us in these moments because we are stuck in our past where the either/or of dominance and submission are the only choices.
In fight or flight mode we aren’t thinking and therefore we aren’t thinking about our child’s feelings or the full impact of our actions. As a result, we might criticize, label, blame, vent our anger, and do other hurtful things that we later regret. Or we give in to the tantrum to get it stop now, but by giving in we teach our child that tantrums are a way to get what you want and we ensure that our child will tantrum more in the future.
By now you’ve probably read two, three, four or even more parenting books and you are reading this blog now because you are still searching for answers to the problems that you are having with your school age son. He’s a bright, sensitive, creative, energetic boy and you love him, but his moodiness, his constant “no’s” and his opposition to even simple requests are making it hard to love being his parent. You also worry that you are failing him. What will life be like in the future for your son if you don’t help him learn how to cooperate and get along now?
As a father of three school-aged children and as a psychologist who works with challenging boys and their parents, I have read many books on parenting myself. Maybe, like me, you’ve read some parenting books that present truly compelling perspectives on raising children. These books describe positive parenting practices based on respect for children, empathy and understanding, and firm but gentle discipline that avoids the use of threats, bribes and punishments. I read these books and think, “Sign me up! I want to be a calm, respectful, firm, empathic, understanding and non-punishing parent!” These books also argue that their positive respectful practices lead to the creation of a family culture in which children return their parents’ respect, feel good about themselves, listen, cooperate, and work together with their parents to collaboratively solve family problems. I think, “Wow! I want my family to be like that too!”
It all sounded great when I read it, but something kept going wrong in trying to put these parenting ideas into practice. The parents that I recommended the books to would find themselves unable to do what the books suggested. Often they wouldn’t be able to think of the books’ recommendations when in the midst of an escalating power struggle with their child. In other instances they would try the recommendations, but would eventually abandon them as ineffective. In my life, I also frequently found with my own children that I couldn’t think on the spot what a book would suggest to do and I would end up losing my cool and resorting to threats, bribes, punishments, and yelling. At other times I thought I was doing it ‘according to the book’ only to have things turn out in the same old bad way.
What is going wrong? Are these positive parenting books full of hot air? No, many of them are based on sound clinical experience and research. If the ideas are so good, then why is it so hard to follow the good advice that is found in many positive parenting books? I believe there are three main reasons. First, most of us weren’t raised according to the principles of positive parenting, so it’s not instinctive for us to parent this way. Second, positive parenting requires that we remain calm, however, power struggles with our children are stressful and elicit reactions from us that frequently escalate the conflicts. Third, by the time most of us take steps to solve our child’s behavioral problems, those problems have become ingrained patterns. Negative behavior patterns are resistant to change, as a result attempts to modify them represent significant uphill battles.
In the blog posts that follow this one, I will discuss each of these obstacles to implementing positive parenting strategies in more detail and then will discuss my Parent Diary Method (this method is introduced in an earlier posting on the parent diary). The Parent Diary Method is at the heart of the Challenging Boys approach to solving the problems that you are having with your son. The Parent Diary Method empowers parents to become the positive, calm parents that they want to be, and to have a relationship with their son that is based on mutual respect and cooperation. This method furthermore recognizes how busy we all are as parents. In just 15 minutes a day, the Parent Diary leads parents through a process of prevention, planning, and revising plans that will enable them to develop an effective parenting program that will transform their relationship with their son.
In 1-2-3 Magic, Thomas Phelan outlines his deceptively simple approach to discipline. Any time that a child is engaged in a disapproved of activity, the parent gives two warnings followed by a time out. The first warning is indicated by the parent saying “that’s one.” The second warning is indicated only by “that’s two.” Finally, the parent says, “that’s three” and sends the child to his or her room for a time out. The strength of this book is in its simplicity. Faced with misbehavior, a parent knows just what to do. Knowing what to do makes it much less likely that a parent will act out of anger and frustration with yelling, scolding or criticism. Knowing what to do also makes it less likely that the parent will act inconsistently with discipline. Because misbehavior triggers 1-2-3, the parent is less likely to ignore an infraction in one instance, or overreact in another.
Alan Kazdin’s book, The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, is a must read for any parent whether or not that parent has a difficult child. In this book, Dr. Kazdin lays out the basic principles of reinforcement and punishment and shows how reward/sticker charts can be used to modify almost any child’s undesirable behavior. These techniques can be quite powerful. Additionally, as parents we control many of the “rewards” in our child’s life, including the most important reward of all, our attention. If we are ignorant of the principles of reinforcement, we often end up rewarding our children for behaviors that we consider undesirable. Kazdin’s book is a favorite of mine and is an indispensable resource for all parents.
In my 10 Best Parenting Books for Parents of Challenging Boys, I put a Yoga DVD as my number 10 “book.” I did this because parenting young children, especially challenging boys, can be physically demanding and emotionally stressful. If we do not take care of our bodies and our stress we can’t be at our best with our children and we run the risk of burning out. I find yoga’s blending of physical exercise with emotional calm to be an excellent source of restoration from the demands of parenting and life.
In addition to being a strenuous yet calming form of exercise, yoga practice contains a number of concepts that can be beneficially applied to parenting, especially in our most trying moments with our kids. Even if yoga isn’t your exercise of choice, the following concepts are very valuable to have in mind as you interact with your challenging boy.
Don’t Forget to Breathe
Maintaining a rhythm of full, deep breathing during yoga postures is one of the fundamental parts of yoga practice. When a yoga pose challenges the strength, flexibility or stamina of the yogi, a natural inclination is to stop breathing in the face of the strain. Maintaining deep breathing helps keep the body relaxed and the mind calm. I have heard some yoga instructors talk about using breath to find “calm in the storm” of the yoga pose.
It turns out that there is science behind the yoga emphasis on rhythmical deep breathing. When we are stressed – by a challenging child or a difficult yoga pose – our bodies shift into the “fight or flight” response. Fight our flight evolved to help our animal ancestors survive in situations where there was no time to think; where quick action was required. A caveman confronted by a bear had to decide in an instant whether to run or fight. The caveman who stops to reflect on the situation and takes time to decide what to do gets eaten.
Fight or flight is not a good mode for dealing with most of life’s stressful situations. The fight or flight response causes the release of stress hormones that negatively impact health. Furthermore, because fight or flight shuts down thinking, we often end up doing things in the heat of the fight or flight moment that we later regret. Breathing helps turn off fight or flight and helps turn on calm, clear thinking. When we are dealing with stress in our relationships with out children we really need “calm in the storm.” Remembering to breathe is a powerful tool for helping us find calm.
If Things Get too Strenuous, Take a Break
The first pose beginners to yoga are taught is “child’s pose” (click this link to see a description of child’s pose). During a yoga class if things feel too strenuous, or too hot, or you can’t catch your breath, the yoga practitioner is taught to stop following the class and to go into child’s pose to recover. Once the yogi has rested, cooled down, caught his or her breath, then he or she can return to the flow of the class.
I frequently advise parents that the best type of “time out” is a time out when the parent takes a break for a few minutes to compose him or herself. As long as a child is not in danger of getting hurt if you exit the scene briefly (assuming that the child is old enough to be briefly unsupervised), a self-imposed time out is a great way to return to one’s breath, to find calm in the storm, and to prepare to return to interacting with your children. Go to your room, make a cup of tea, step outside. Even a break of just a couple of minutes can help you return to the fray with a much better attitude.
Find Your Focus
In yoga there is a concept referred to as “drishti” (DRISH-tee). Drishti refers to a single point upon which the yogi focuses his or her gaze during a yoga pose. One thing the drishti does is help you keep your balance. Certain yoga poses require that you balance on one leg. It is amazing how much more stable you feel in these balancing poses when you pick a point on the wall and focus your attention on that point. A drishti also helps keep you from getting distracted. In a yoga class it is tempting to be distracted by looking at what other people are doing. How do I look compared to them? Am I doing this right? It is also easy to be distracted by the discomfort you may be feeling in a pose.
In parenting, likewise, keeping a clear focus is very helpful in keeping one’s psychological balance. In any given challenging circumstance with your child, you both will feel better about each other and have a better relationship over time, if you keep your most important values in mind as a focus as you interact with your child. I would suggest that a parent’s most important relationship value is respect. “Am I treating my child in a respectful way right now?” is an important question to ask oneself particularly during a conflict with a child. It is a parenting drishti. Messes made, siblings hit, rules broken are all situations that require a response, but our responses, limits and consequences should all be made with a focus on treating the child with respect.
What does “setting limits” really mean? A “limit” refers to a rule that establishes a specific behavior to be unacceptable. “No blowing bubbles in your milk” is an example of a limit. “Setting” a limit refers to a two-step process. Step 1 is communicating the rule to the child. For example, Johnny is blowing bubbles in his milk and his mother doesn’t want him to do this. So mom says, “Johnny, no blowing bubbles in your milk.” Step 2 in limit setting is taking action to enforce the limit. Generally, we call step 2 “giving consequences.” If Johnny stops blowing bubbles in his milk, there is no need for a consequence. However, if he continues, his mother must take action to enforce her limit. For example, she might take his milk away from him.
Effective limit setting is especially important for dealing with challenging boys.
What makes for effective limit setting?
1. State rules clearly.
A clearly stated rule is very specific about what is expected from the child and often includes a specific statement about the consequence of noncompliance. An example of a clearly stated rule is: “Please pick up your toys in the playroom now. Any toys not picked up will be placed in a bag and you will not be able to use them for a week.” Some kids might need an even more specific statement. “Please pick up your pokemon cards in the playroom and put them in your room. Please put your legos back in the lego box. Any pokemon cards and legos not put away in 15 minutes will be put in a bag and you will not be able to use them for a week. I am setting the timer for 15 minutes.” Sometimes it is even important to check to make sure that the child has understood the rule. “Please tell me what I have asked you to do.” If the child has stated the rule correctly you would then follow-up by asking “what will happen if you don’t do ___________ ?”
When rules are not stated clearly, children can be confused about what is being asked of them. Unclear rules can make a child feel anxious. When the child wonders “What is being asked of me?” the child might feel worried whether he or she will get it right. Unclear rules can lead children to test in an effort to discover what the rule actually is. Finally, unclear rules can lead to the child feeling mistrust towards the parent. The child might attempt to follow what he or she understands the rule to be, only to have the parent administer a consequence. Over many of these instances the child learns that the parent cannot be trusted to administer rules in a fair manner.
2. When stating a rule, use as few words as possible.
Effective limit setting generally involves a single, clear statement of the rule followed by a consequence if it the rule is not followed. Extra words in the form of repeating yourself, trying to reason with your child as to why he should want to follow the rule, arguing, making warnings, or giving second chances all encourage children to tune you out when you state a rule. They learn that they don’t have to do what you say when you say it. They learn that you don’t mean what you say. They learn that they can ignore your rule, for at least a short time, while you carry on repeating, warning, reasoning, arguing, etc…
3. When stating a rule, comment only on the unacceptable behavior and avoid making global statements, making comparisons, or commenting on the child’s character.
“Please wait your turn to speak” instead of “You are being rude.”
“Stop hitting now” instead of “Why can’t the two of you ever get along.”
“Clean up your toys before going outside” instead of “Why can’t you be like the Jones’ boys? They always pick up after themselves.”
“We’re not going to talk about this more now” instead of “Why can’t you ever take ‘no’ for an answer?”
4. Use logical consequences.
Logical consequences are consequences that are logically related to the rules that are being enforced. If a child doesn’t put his or her toys away, then a logical consequence is that the child loses the opportunity to play with them for some period of time. If a child doesn’t turn the television down after he or she has been asked, then the TV is turned off. If a child is asked to finish his or her homework before going on a play date, a logical consequence is that the child doesn’t get to go on the play date if the homework isn’t finished. Logical consequences make sense to children and teach lessons about how the world generally works.
Examples of consequences not logically related to the rules to be enforced are: “if you two don’t stop fighting, you will not be able to watch TV tonight,” or “if you don’t pick up your toys you won’t get dessert.” Sometimes it is necessary to use consequences that are not logically connected with the rule that is being enforced. In some instances there is no obvious logical consequence readily available. In some instances the logical consequences available don’t carry enough weight to enforce the rule. However, it is preferable, whenever possible, to connect consequences in a logically meaningful way to the rules being enforced.
5. Use consequences that can be applied immediately.
Effective limit setting requires that your children know that you mean what you say when you ask them to do something. Consequences that immediately follow rule infractions teach that lesson the most clearly. When time passes between a behavior and its consequence, the consequence has less power to influence behavior. This is true for adults as well as children. For example with adults, one of the things that makes losing weight so difficult is that the behavior of eating too much ice cream is not immediately connected to the consequence of stepping on the scale or trying to put on pants that are too tight. We eat the tempting ice cream now and aren’t really effected by the uncomfortable consequences that will come later.
6. Consequences should be proportional to the infraction.
Good consequences are not so lenient so as to be ineffective, nor so severe as to build up resentment in the child. For example, if you use time outs, a widely used rule of thumb is 1 minute per year of age of the child. So a 6 year old gets a 6-minute time out.
7. Do not assert a limit that you are not prepared to enforce.
When you assert a rule (that is, take step 1 in setting a limit) and do not enforce the rule, you are sending the message to your child that rules don’t have to be followed. Being prepared to enforce a limit means that you have the energy and determination to enforce your rule and that you have the consequence you will administer already in mind (whenever possible) before you state the rule.
8. Do not state a consequence that you cannot reasonably implement.
Let’s say you and your family are having dinner at another family’s house and one of your children is misbehaving. In your exasperation might be tempted to say, “Johnny, if you don’t stop jumping on the couch, we’re leaving!” This consequence is too severe (see guideline 6) and it can’t be reasonably implemented because it would end up punishing you, your spouse, your other children and your friends by disrupting the evening’s plans.
9. Implementation of consequences should be followed by a clean slate.
When a child has broken a rule and received a consequence, then he or she deserves to be forgiven and given a fresh start. One of the most difficult things for children is having their parents hold resentment towards or have negative views of them. See my previous blogs about Parental Acceptance, Cultivating Positive Parenting, The Power of Positive Parenting, and Labeling to read more about the importance of not letting negative feelings build up in your relationship with your child.
If you find yourself unable to forgive and move on because your child continues to break the same rules over and over, the problem lies not with your child, but in needing to further improve your limit setting. Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child: Eliminating Conflict by Establishing CLEAR, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries by Robert J. MacKenzie is a clearly written and helpful resource for honing your limit setting skills.
10. Allow time for change.
Effective limit setting has many benefits. Parents feel less frustrated and more accepting of their children when they know they can set and enforce limits when they need to. Children feel less anxious and more trusting when they know their parents are in charge and that their parents will treat them fairly. Effective limit setting also teaches children to be more responsible because they learn that their behaviors are logically and consistently linked to consequences in the world.
Change takes time, however. Allow yourself and your child the room to change. Your child may initially resist your efforts to set more effective limits. It will take time for him or her to adjust to the new limits. You may also find that you make mistakes and have setbacks in your limit setting as move towards being more clear, consistent and firm. Give yourself some slack as you take the time to make these changes.
Click the Image Below to Go to the Amazon.com page for Robert J. MacKenzie’s Best Selling Book on Limit Setting, Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child