Handling a child’s disobedience is not something that comes to us naturally. It is a skill that must be continually adapted. Often, it is a skill born of multiple missteps as we try management techniques that blow up in our faces.
Consider using some of the following ideas to help you on your parenting journey — and remember, practice won’t make perfect (no parent is), but it will make things much better!
If your child often shouts or cries inconsolably…
Try a subtle approach. Begin speaking just a touch louder than your child so he can hear you. Then, as you speak, gradually lower your own volume, slightly slowing the pace of your speech. Many children (and adults, for that matter) will subconsciously become quieter to hear what you’re saying and will match the volume and tone of your voice when they resume speaking. This is a great way to de-escalate heated words and calm both you and your child.
If your child “closes up” while discussing misbehavior…
Implement what education professionals call “wait time.” Wait time is the awkward silence that follows any question a child doesn’t want to answer. It ranges anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, and though it can be uncomfortable for both the child and the adult, it is one of the most important parenting tools.
Wait time is not used to force children to speak; it forces adults to give children the opportunity to speak. Many of us pose questions to children, pausing only momentarily before answering our own questions or continuing our lectures. Understand that children often need a lot of time to collect their thoughts, especially when they are upset. Children also master the art of doing as little as they possibly have to. Why answer a question when they know you’ll do it for them if they wait long enough? When you ask a question, show your child that you really do want an answer by waiting patiently for him to formulate his thoughts and feelings.
If your child resents rules or “kicks against the pricks…”
Avoid using words like can’t and don’t. Telling a child he can’t do something often makes the negative behavior more alluring. Present rules in terms of what your child can do, and emphasize behaviors he should be doing rather than those he shouldn’t. For example, the command “don’t run” might become “walk carefully.”
Always be specific, giving your child measurable standards so he doesn’t become frustrated by what he perceives as vague expectations (his definition of clean is probably very different from yours). For example, you might rephrase, “You can’t play on your phone because you didn’t finish cleaning your room yet,” to something like, “You can play on your phone as soon as you make your bed and hang up those T-shirts.”
If your child says “no” when you ask for his cooperation…
Show him that you respect his right to choose between obedience and rebellion by outlining his options and explaining the consequences of each. Phrases like “you don’t have a choice in the matter” not only breed bitterness and resentment in children, but they are simply not true. Your child can choose to make life easy, and he can choose to make life very, very hard.
Children respond well to love and to logic. Help your child feel respected by acknowledging his options. Define the consequences (both good and bad) of each option, and express loving concern by explaining that you want him to make the choice that will be best for him.
“If you clean up after your friends, I will be able to trust you with more parties in the future. But if you leave the house a mess, I won’t be able to trust you to have friends over the next time you ask. It makes me happy to see you having fun with your friends in our home, so I hope you tidy up.”
Of course, this method won’t work unless you follow through with consequences, so only choose consequences you’re willing to administer. Understand that your child won’t always make the choices you’d have him make. In these cases, it is OK to express disappointment, but remember that anger, threats and sarcasm are always destructive.
If your child doesn’t seem to take you seriously…
Consider things you might be doing to exacerbate the problem. Children smell bluffs from miles away and speak body language fluently. Never make promises (or consequences) you aren’t going to honor. Face your child when you speak to him and pay attention to your posture. Though you don’t want to intimidate your child, your body language should reflect that you are the parent. Try placing a hand gently on your child’s shoulder and encouraging eye contact. Avoid the words OK and alright. “I need you to stop hitting your sister, OK?” or “Be home by 11, alright?” If you mean business, don’t inadvertently ask your child’s permission.
Try implementing the “five second rule for parents.” If your child continues a negative behavior immediately after you’ve asked him to stop, it might be because he knows you’re not really monitoring him. Don’t tell your child to keep his hands to himself and then immediately turn your attention elsewhere. After correcting a behavior, try to maintain eye contact with your child for five seconds. While it may seem awkward, this gives your child an opportunity to acknowledge that he understands your expectations and sends a clear message that you’re involved.
If you want your child’s negative behavior to truly change…
Work toward a management routine that focuses less on punishing negative behaviors and more on reinforcing positive behaviors. While punishments momentarily discourage bad behavior, positive reinforcement helps instill within your child a desire to do good continually because he loves the way it feels to be praised and valued. As often as you can, reward your child for the things he does right, and remember that the best reward is your praise. Though your child may work very hard at making it seem like he doesn’t care what you think, he cares a lot.
As you enforce rules, learn to expect your child to test each new boundary a few times. He’s doing that because he wants to understand exactly where the boundary lines are. Children crave the security of consistent structure and routine. Clearly defining boundaries with your child will help him feel safe and will improve your relationship by allowing you both to better enjoy your time together.