Dr. Aryn Ziehnert
Parenting a child who demonstrates oppositionality and defiance – what we often refer to as “difficult children” – can be incredibly challenging and even demoralizing. Most of us sincerely desire the best for our children and build our instructions, rules, and parenting styles to foster their well-being, so it can be frustrating to have a child who does not listen to instructions, throws frequent tantrums, and seems to only be happy when they get their way.
If we are not careful, we may find ourselves trapped in the following cycle: the child acts out, we discipline the child (perhaps by taking away a privilege); the child acts out further, and we add on to the discipline (perhaps by taking away another privilege); the child acts out again, and on and on it goes on a miserable merry-go-round ride that leaves the child with zero privileges and us with zero patience.
With particularly difficult children, this cycle gets repeated so often that the parent feels as though every word directed toward the child is negative. And if we were to ask the child, they likely feel that way as well.
To disrupt this cycle, we need to take a step back and assess how we are doing on the affirmation and positivity front. Here are some questions to consider:
- How often are we spending valuable, one-on-one time with our children? Time in which they are the center of our world, where our to-do lists are put on hold, and where our distraction devices (e.g., phones, tablets) are put away?
- How often are we offering praise to our children? Praise that is not double-barreled with negativity (e.g., “I wish you’d use your creativity to get your homework done”)?
Asking about quality time with difficult children may seem counterintuitive. You may be thinking to yourself, “Our time together would be a lot more positive if my child would just listen!”
Let’s step out of that for a moment and instead imagine that you are a teller at your local bank. While at your job, a man walks into the bank, up to your station, and says, “I’d like to make a withdrawal.” After entering the man’s account number into your computer, you see that the man has a balance of $0.00. What are you likely to say to him?In one form or another, your response to this man is going to be that he does not have any money to make a withdrawal. This is exactly what it is like when we try to discipline our children without a firm foundation of affirmation, love, and positive attention: We are trying to make a withdrawal without having anything in the account to take out.
If this example seems to apply to your relationship with your child and/or perhaps you find yourself answering “not often/not at all” to the assessment questions above, then know that you are not alone. This is a very common place caregivers find themselves when parenting a difficult child; it is so common that the first step in many of the evidence-based therapies for defiant children is to re-establish that foundation of positive attention.
Here are some recommendations for reaffirming the foundation of love and support with your child:
Spend One-on-One Time with Your Child
Fifteen minutes, once a week. Set aside a fifteen-minute window of time where you can focus all your attention on your child. If this sounds like a small amount of time and you think you could do more, great! For many of us, though, it may take some problem-solving to work into our life context.
After all, we generally have extenuating circumstances that make this time more challenging than at first glance (e.g., having more than one child, working full time). Use your most skillful problem-solving strategies to make this possible (e.g., coordinate with your partner to attend to the other children), because this small amount of time will pay dividends in the long run if done correctly.
Let your child choose. Once you have found the fifteen-minute window that works best for your context, ask your child what they would like to do, and do it! Avoid technology-based activities, particularly ones without an interactive component (e.g., watching television or YouTube). You want the best opportunity for your child to feel like the center of the universe.
Let your child lead. In those 15 minutes, you want your child to be the director of the show. Two primary methods for letting the child direct:
- Become a broadcaster: If you have ever watched sports, you are likely familiar with the broadcaster who narrates the plays that have just occurred. Similarly, becoming a broadcaster during this time with your child means you narrate what your child is doing. Keep the narration simple (“You are making that car race around the track quite fast!”; “You colored that balloon green”), and if the child corrects you (“No, the car is chasing after a bad guy”), reiterate what they just said.
- Follow the leader: Mirror your child by doing the same (or very similar) actions they do. If they grab a toy car, you grab a toy car. If they crash two cars, you crash two cars. Avoid creating the direction yourself (e.g., avoid saying, “What if we ______?”).
No negativity, no instructions, no discipline. In these 15 minutes, avoid trying to “make a withdrawal” from the relationship. This again may take some problem-solving to work into your life context; if you know certain activities tend to be quicker to lead into a route of discipline, consider avoiding that activity. Your child may also test the boundaries a bit to see what your reaction will be (e.g., throwing a block).
If it’s not dangerous to themselves or others, consider letting that testing of the boundary go. You may also choose to do a gentle redirection that still allows the child to direct the play’s theme (e.g., “You want to throw a block. Let’s bring the blocks outside where we can throw them safely.”)
Leave your gadgets behind. It may be tempting to look at your phone, but trust me, your child will see.
Intentionally Increase the Praise You Offer Your Child
Find the moments where your child is engaging in the behaviors you want to see. It doesn’t matter how
small the moment is; particularly at the start, these moments might be infinitesimal (even a second of sitting quietly can be worthy of praise!). Find them, praise them.
Make it specific. Let the child know exactly what they did that received the praise. You want them to be able to draw the connection between what behaviors are praised. Examples: “I like how quietly you are sitting at the dinner table;” “Thank you for following my instruction to wash your hands;” “You are doing a great job putting away your toys.”
Praising behaviors is important, and it is also important to affirm the child’s inherent worth. The above recommendations are so important to ensure the child knows their positive behaviors have positive consequences. That said, we also want to make sure the child knows they are loved by us regardless of their actions.
So do the following:
1. Tell the child you love them. That’s it – just the three words, “I love you.”
2. Find other times to tell the child what characteristics you love about them.
3. Let the child know they bring joy to you and the world, just by existing.
Establishing a firm foundation of affirmation, love, and positive attention will not be a cure-all for the behavior problems we see in our children. We still need to have the right tools to foster our child’s well-being, including the ability to discipline when the situation calls for it.
As stated earlier, many of the evidence-based therapies for defiant children begin by solidifying the foundation of love and positive attention, but they do not end there. More work is done by discussing the tools one can have in their toolkit for parenting, and then tailoring those tools to fit their life context.
If you would like to learn more about using effective tools to deal with difficult children, reach out to me to schedule a consultation.
“Out of the Dust”, Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, NASA.gov, Public Domain; “Playtime”, Courtesy of Markus Spiske, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sidewalk Graffiti”, Courtesy of Suzi Kim, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Colored Monkeys”,
Courtesy of Park Troopers, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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