We’ve just pulled onto the highway when the screaming erupts from the back seat. “I called the DS first!” shouts Aaron, five. He grabs from his nine-year-old sister the hand-held game system we bought so they’ll entertain themselves — in other words, keep quiet — on the road trip north.
“Take turns!” I out-screech them. “Or no one will play for the entire vacation!”
My husband’s brow shoots up. Who am I kidding? We both know I’m not about to leap two rows of seats and wrestle for the toy. Nor am I going to deal with the fallout from banning it for the next week.
My kids know it too. They just keep fighting, as I sit strapped in my seat, fuming. Sound familiar?
Vancouver family counsellor Kelly Nault, author of When You’re About to Go off the Deep End, Don’t Take Your Kids with You, says one of the biggest parenting myths of all time is that our discipline tactics will instantly change our kids. In reality, she says, many of the tactics we use either escalate the bad behaviour — the children feel you’re unfair and rebel even more — or teach them to avoid getting caught by (gulp) lying and denying.
To make sure your discipline strategies are having a positive impact on your kids, read on for how to avoid the most common pitfalls.
Screaming your head off Each time you ask your son to hang up his backpack and he doesn’t, your anger mounts. Until out of nowhere, you morph into Mommy-gone-mad and your poor kid bursts into tears.
Anger is an emotion that surfaces when you feel helpless. It’s not a discipline tool, says Sarah Chana Radcliffe, Toronto therapist and author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. “You don’t teach your kids by frightening them.”
In fact, she says, when your child is scared, he likes you less and is actually less inclined to please or impress you. On the contrary, he just may resent you and act out more, or even lie to escape your wrath.
Take a time-out When you yell, your own inner child is having a temper tantrum, Nault says. And you are teaching your kids to yell when they feel frustrated.
So when your son starts shouting that he won’t clean his room — never, ever! — don’t unleash your fury. Nault recommends telling him you don’t want to lose your cool, so you’ll be back in a few minutes. Then find a private place to control your temper — bedroom, bathroom, wherever. If you need to vent, you can even turn on the vacuum to drown out sound.
By disconnecting from the power struggle, she says, you not only give yourself space to calm down and consider your next move, but you also leave your child with space to calm down and get to work.
Escalating punishments The first threat fell flat? Well, you’ll teach those screaming banshees by upping the ante: “No dessert after supper!” you yell. And when that doesn’t work: “Stop now or it’s early to bed!” Before you know it, you’ve made a list of threats you can’t possibly make good on, teaching your kids that your word means nothing. And to make matters worse, they’re still screaming.
When your kids don’t listen, it’s tempting to try to make them hear you by threatening one punishment after another, says Radcliffe, but all you’re doing is setting yourself up for a battle of wills — one that you’ll most likely lose.
Choose a consequence and stick to it You need only one carefully considered consequence to teach your kids their behaviour won’t be tolerated. But you have to make that consequence something you are ready, willing and able to follow through on — even if it’s the last thing you want to do.
“Consider your threat before you make it,” Nault says, “or you’ll be thinking: Please don’t test me!” That’s exactly what went through Nault’s mind when she told her sons to pick up their toys off the living room floor or she would donate them to a charity where other kids would respect them.
When her boys tested her by refusing to budge, Nault realized it was her move. “That was it. I threw the toys in a box destined for charity, while they begged and screamed that they were just about to clean up,” she recalls. But it was too late. As difficult and painful as it was, Nault had no choice but to show them she meant business. And her kids? “Message received,” she says. “They now clean up their toys at even the slightest hint.”
Giving reactive punishments Bedtime means your boy flips his lid — every night. He’s screaming that he’s hungry or begging for a story. But guess what? You’re beat. It’s lights out now, you say, or else it’s no TV tomorrow, a threat that only makes him wail harder.
When you’re at your wits’ end, taking away privileges seems like the only way to snap your child to his senses. But when he’s upset, that’s not a teaching moment, Radcliffe says. In fact, punishing an out-of-control child typically intensifies the tantrum.
Head off the problem Instead of punishing your child for his behaviour, you may be able to avoid it by planning ahead, Nault says. Since tantrums tend to spike around mealtime or bedtime, she says, a full tummy and solid sleep schedule work wonders. And once you figure out the trigger, you may need to replan the bedtime schedule — give him that apple earlier or brush his teeth before reading the book.
You should also take advantage of quiet “teaching” moments, when your child is happily colouring, say, to explain appropriate ways to ask for what he needs. He may be more receptive to the idea that getting what he wants doesn’t require screaming for it.
Transition times (“Get your shoes on; we’re going”) are particularly hard for kids who may be lost in their own world when we expect them to spring into action, Nault says. “If you give your child a 10-minute, then five-minute warning, he won’t experience that jolt when you announce it’s time to move right now.”
Name-calling No matter what you say, your daughter keeps leaving her dishes on the counter for you to clean. What are you, her slave? Let’s face it: She’s being rude, inconsiderate and just plain lazy. So you tell her that. But instead of carrying her plate to the sink, she bursts into tears.
Even if the label fits, don’t use it, Radcliffe says. Criticism, even if it describes her actions, sinks into her subconscious and affects how she sees herself. You may have said that her behaviour was mean, but all your child will hear is that she is mean and, even worse, that you believe that she is mean. And the fact is, tearing down her self-esteem will not help to teach her to be more responsible.
Target the good stuff Swap those critical labels for positive words that tell her exactly what you want her to do, Radcliffe says. “Choose a word that is opposite to how she is acting.” For instance, if she’s careless, suggest she be careful. Noisy? Ask her to play quietly. Bossy? Suggest taking turns.
Even though you’re using these positive words in a disciplinary context, your child is internalizing them and hopefully will grow up applying them to herself, Radcliffe says. Short-term, rather than being tortured by a barrage of criticism, she has a clear script for what to do right.
Playing the super-nag After two hours as stove slave, you call out to your children, “Supper’s ready!” (no answer) “Guys! Supper!” (silence) Now you’re flying upstairs in a rage: “Did you hear me? Supper! Supper!! Supper!!!”
Your children’s ears are perfectly fine, Nault says, but your constant reminders have actually taught them that they can ignore you — at least for a while. They have learned that you will nag louder and louder until the decibels become so high, they really have no choice but to answer.
Ask once and move on
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