What To Do When Our Kids Don't Listen Part 2

In a recent post I discussed some thoughts on how parenting has changed in the past few decades. Many parents now find themselves parenting kids who have it all and expect this to continue indefinitely.  A frustrating predicament as it often seems to lead to kids snubbing our requests. The question then becomes What Do We Do When Our Kids Don’t Listen? Simple lists just won’t cut it for this one as there is no silver bullet (point) that’s going to do just solve the problem. I’m therefore going to take the time to explore several points over a series of three posts.

The first post of this series introduced the concept of the “good enough parent” as one who is supposed to fail as a parent so that their child can grow to independence and learn about how to accept loss and imperfection by seeing it in their imperfect parent. The post also highlighted how fostering independence takes time and has a tendency to result in our kids not doing what we want them to. Part 2 will focus on how change happens and how to confront difficult/defiant behavior.

A Change in Thought Leads to Change in Behavior:  Long term behavior plans can be a very successful tool to provide structure in the home, correct a child’s misbehavior, and help parents to maintain their cool. I will discuss behavior plans in a future post, so let’s just say this: The goal of a behavior plan is to get our kids to think before acting. Like anything else, behavior plans rarely work right from the start, so 4 out of 5 times my son may get angry and use a bad word despite the plan. However, the one time that he gets angry and does not call me “stupid” but instead says “stoobie,” or the one time he doesn’t hit me and instead balls his fist is the major step towards the self-control we are aiming for. He is learning the ability to think “I may not want to say a bad word here because I’ll get a strike.” Ultimately, this is the key to his future ability to control his outbursts.

Focus On the Emotion Not On the Bad Behavior: Most of the times my son resorts to hitting, kicking, spitting or cursing it is not because he’s a bad kid, but because he is trying to deal with his feelings of loss in the only way he knows how. When my son wants to watch TV and I say “no”, he may lash out and hit me because he is trying to get rid of the feelings of loss inside of him. In a way, he’s trying to re-assert control over his 3-year-0ld world. Essentially, he is trying to give me his bad feelings. Think of out this way: What happens when he spits in my face? I get mad. Mission accomplished. He  gains some sense of control over his world by making me as angry as he is. If you are interested in further discussions of this dynamic, please read some of my past posts on the thankless job of parenting,  tantrums, and the recency bias in parenting.

Follow Through and Avoid Absolutes: Every parent chooses different battles to fight based on what is most valued in their own homes. Setting limits to successfully enforce that value system requires that you bear three things in mind: 1. Clearly define and state the target misbehavior and the consequence; 2.  Always follow through; and 3. Be sure you can follow through. So, a comment such as “if you are ever disrespectful to me again you will lose TV forever” will not work, because it is unclear what exactly being “disrespectful” means and because “forever” is a long time. A much better directive would be  “if you hit your sister again you will lose TV for the day.” The target misbehavior “hitting” is clear and the consequence is defined, realistic, and manageable. Often times, with our threats, the biggest problem is that making rules is easy, it’s enforcing them that is the real challenge.

So here in part 2 I focused on how change happens and how to confront difficult/defiant behavior all the while bearing in mind that our goal as a “good enough parent” is to fail so our kids can learn how to deal with loss and gain independence. Part 3 highlights a parenting mistake I made and some of the parenting fears that drive us to act in ways that may not necessarily be in the best interest of our kids.