The following are five strategies that, when used appropriately, will help parents create and maintain a happy, supportive home environment.
Clearly Communicate Your Expectations
Clearly communicate your expectations to your children. This includes a clear description of those behaviors that will get your attention. At the outset, make certain your children understand exactly what you expect of them. I’m continually amazed, as I visit with parents and their children who are having problems, at how unsure children are of what their parents expect, and how those expectations change given the mood of the situation.
When the child says to a parent, “I didn’t know what you wanted me to do!” and the parent angrily responds, “What do you mean you didn’t know what I wanted? What are you, stupid?” I know there is a serious communication problem concerning expectations.
Suppose, for example, that you expect your children to come to the dinner table when called. Rather than simply saying, “When I call you for dinner, I want you to come immediately. Now, do you understand that?” Instead, say, “When I call you for dinner, I want you to come immediately. So when do we expect you to come to the table for dinner?”
Ignore Inconsequential Behavior
Most annoying behaviors of children are not worth paying attention to at all.
“Which behaviors should be attended to and which shouldn’t?” Certainly, there is no way of identifying with absolute certainty, but, as a general rule of thumb, age-typical behaviors such a mild sibling rivalry and when children are just being mouthy with one another, should be ignored.
Occasionally, children will scrap with each other even to the point of pushing, shoving, grabbing, and hitting, more for the purpose of annoying than for hurting. These behaviors can usually be ignored. Just turn your back on them or completely walk out of the room. Say nothing about them. Don’t even look at the children when they are behaving this way. Behave as though the children are not even there.
Children who fuss over toys or territory or what’s fair should generally be ignored. Children who argue with one another and exchange meaningless verbal blows should be left alone.
To sum it up, be slow to pay attention to behaviors which are basically age-typical and when left alone extinguish because of lack of attention.
Selectively Reinforce Appropriate Behavior
Parents MUST be constantly aware of the behaviors of our children and to carefully select and skillfully reinforce those behaviors that should be strengthened.
It is neither possible nor appropriate to attend to every “good” thing a child does every time he or she does it. To do that would be artificial and even punishing to a child. Instead, look for opportunities to pay attention, in a positive way, to a few select, appropriate behaviors, and do it intermittently, i.e., at times children least expect it.
Virtually all children, in the course of the day, will do or say something that is worth selecting out for reinforcement. Soon, selectively reinforcing appropriate behavior will become second nature to you. It might seem a little awkward at first, but in time it will be as natural as driving a car, dialing a telephone, playing the piano, or whatever else a person does fluently.
Stop, Then Re-Direct, Inappropriate Behavior
Occasionally, children will exhibit behaviors that simply can’t be ignored. These are behaviors which left unattended can result in serious damage and harm to person and property.
I must emphasize again the importance of looking first for opportunities to positively reinforce selected appropriate behaviors. In 99 out of 100 cases, when this is done systematically and consistently, there will be little need to worry about inappropriate behaviors.
There will be no need for children to behave inappropriately if they are getting all the attention they need by behaving appropriately. Having said that, however, there still exists the probability that a child at some time will behave inappropriately to such a degree that it must be attended to.
When that’s the case, first determine whether the behavior is a predictably reoccurring behavior or whether it is an unexpected, out-of-the-blue, behavior. It is important to make the distinction between these two kinds of behaviors since the approach you should use is different for the one than for the other.
Let’s begin with the treatment of those rare, unexpected, out-of-the-blue behaviors. Suppose that for no readily apparent reason one child uncharacteristically lashes out at another child either verbally or physically. Maintaining complete composure, but with firmness in his/her voice and a stern but controlled facial expression, the parent should immediately put a stop to the assault. Speaking in a therapeutic, understanding, relaxed manner, send the child to their room for a moment to cool off. You might even place your hand gently on the child’s back and move him or her in the direction of the bedroom.
If the child resists this directness and angrily lashes back do not try to correct the child or set him straight. Don’t say a single word in response to such an outburst. Say simply, “I’m sorry you’re upset about something. Go to your room and relax. You’ll feel much better soon.”
Such a response will reassure the child that he or she might indeed have a reason for having lashed out at the other child. With this reassurance, the probability is very high that the child will go to his room as instructed by the parent, and the whole matter will end there.
If the child who was the object of the assault complains about being the innocent victim of a mean brother/sister, the parent should be careful not to try to determine or affix blame, to act as a negotiator to seek redress, or to do anything else to try and set the record straight. Efforts of this nature invariably do nothing but complicate things and drag the conflict on indefinitely. Simply say, “I’m sorry you feel you’ve been an innocent victim. You’ll feel better soon.” Then leave it at that.
Later, when everyone is feeling better and emotions have calmed down, look for opportunities to selectively reinforce appropriate behaviors. At such a time, it is also appropriate to discuss feelings, but DO NOT allow that discussion to degenerate into fault finding, searching for fairness, placing blame, and all that junk. Use the discussion to clear the air, develop skills, and build bonds.
Never try to resolve a problem if a person is drunk, stoned, emotionally distraught, or out of touch with reality.
When the same, even predictable, inappropriate behavior is occurring, parents can effectively attend to that behavior. First, describe the behavior. Descriptions like “you are too mean,” “you’ve got to shape up,” etc. are not acceptable. You must be very specific, such as “We’ve noticed during the last two weeks, that almost daily, you have gotten very angry with your brother. Why are outbursts of anger so inappropriate?” Don’t ask why he is angry, rather why such outbursts are inappropriate. This invites the child to become part of the problem-solving process.
The child will usually try to blame someone else, minimize the problem, or sidetrack the conversation. Ignore those attempts. Acknowledge any appropriate response and then describe the desired alternative behavior. Ask about the things he/she can do that will show self-control in stressful situations, and why that is desirable. Supply the reason if none is forthcoming.
Role-play a situation, which is practicing the desired behavior.
Give positive feedback. And then watch for opportunities to acknowledge not only the child’ s self-control but other positive things as well. Keep the conversation short, use only a few words, be understanding but firm.
- Say something positive.
- Briefly describe the problem behavior.
- Describe the desired alternative behavior.
- Give a reason why the new behavior is more desirable.
- Practice the desire behavior.
- Provide positive feedback.
Stay Close To Your Children
By the time children are adolescents, particularly boys, there is a remarkable decline in the frequency of touching, hugging, patting, or poking. There is very little shooting the breeze, chitchat, and casual talk, and in many homes, almost no laughter. The incidence of smiling has even taken a nose-dive.
We know how much influence a parent has over a child’s behavior is directly related to the proximity of the parent to the child. In other words, the closer parents are to their children the greater the influence they can have on them, This, of course, is particularly true with young children who are still at home, but it is true, as well, with children who are raised and out of the home.
Here are a few suggestions for how to remain close to your children:
- Remain verbally close to your children. Spend time talking to your children. Model good verbal behavior. Teach your children through example and involvement in how to express themselves, how to listen, and how to engage in conversation one with another.
- Build a positive relationship. Unless what you are about to say or do has a high probability of making things better, don’t say it and don’t do it — just talk, don’t judge, don’t sermonize, don’t moralize, don’t instruct, don’t reason, don’t advise – just talk. This doesn’t mean there will never be times when you will advise or instruct, but make those separate occasions when that is what the occasion is for.
- Increase appropriate physical interactions. In addition to hugging, appropriate touching, tapping, rubbing, patting, scratching, and jabbing are wonderful ways of communicating with our children. Arm wrestling, playfully scrapping on the playing field, a good back and shoulder rub at the end of the day, this is the glue that binds.