Lea Ray, LCSW
How to handle child behavior problems: Part 2
Last week, we talked about some positive strategies to address children’s behavior problems. As I mentioned last week, those strategies are the foundation of your parenting strategy. Discipline and consequences won’t be effective without the warm fuzzies. But consequences are also a necessary piece of addressing children’s behavior.
There are different options for consequences, but the most common ones are time out or taking away a privilege, such as a toy, dessert or TV time. Consequences actually do not have to be big to be effective. Taking away a toy for 15 minutes for a young child, or taking away one hour of TV time for an older child, actually works much better than throwing the toy in the trash or taking away TV for a week. A short consequence is enough for kids to feel they are missing out on something, but not so long that they become discouraged and resigned to life without TV. That backfires because then kids can misbehave because they figure there’s no point in bothering to behave, they already have to go an eternity without TV anyway. What is most important is that you follow through consistently with your consequence. If you constantly threaten time out, or threaten to take something away, but only occasionally follow through, your kids will often feel it’s worth the gamble to break the rule.
A former supervisor of mine gave this analogy: many of us speed, even though we could get a ticket for $200 or more if we’re caught, because we can frequently get away with speeding without getting a ticket. So we gamble that if we speed this time, we can probably get away with it. But if the police put a device in your car that caused $5 to be automatically deducted from your bank account every time you went over the speed limit (ignore for a minute all the ethical and legal implications of this), probably after $5 were deducted a few times, you would almost never speed again. Because you would know that every single time, you would lose that $5, and it wouldn’t be worth it (except in very select emergency situations). Kids are the same way – if they lose a privilege for 15 minutes to an hour every single time they don’t follow directions or break a rule, they will soon decide it’s not worth it.
There are many parenting books that emphasize meeting kids’ emotional needs in order to address behavior problems, and discourage parents from focusing exclusively or primarily on consequences. I think this is important and healthy, but some parents have misinterpreted this to think that consequences in general are bad. In fact, consequences, when they are given firmly but not harshly, are very healthy and necessary for kids. Kids feel safer when they receive consistent consequences because they know their parents are in charge, and they need their parents to be in charge. Deep down, kids know they are not ready to be in charge in the world and they need to know they can count on their parents for that. Modern parenting has shifted to be more democratic than it used to be, and overall this is a very positive development. It’s positive and healthy to involve kids in some of the family decision making. But parenting should not be 100% egalitarian. (This will be the subject of an entire post later, but you don't necessarily have to give consequences for a tantrum or an emotional outburst. That can be effectively addressed other ways. However, consequences for not following directions, or breaking a rule, or hurting someone, are important).
You can choose the consequences that you think will work the best for your family. I discourage corporal punishment, but other than that, many consequences can be effective. The important thing is to find a happy medium that is neither too harsh nor too permissive, and once you decide on a strategy, stick with it. It is common to feel that a parenting strategy isn’t working immediately and to try something else. But new parenting strategies often take a few weeks to start working. If you run through a bunch of strategies, your children will probably feel more confused. Stick with it and ask for support if you need it. A great resource in Durham if you have young children (age 0 to 5) is Welcome Baby. You can call and ask for a free 15 minute consult on your child’s behavior. You can do the same thing at Exchange Family Center, with children of any age. You can also take an online parenting class with Triple P.
These parenting strategies are helpful for all children. They should help children no matter the cause of their behavior problems. Even children who have suffered a serious trauma can experience significant healing if their parents provide love, support, positive attention, and consistent consequences. (Again, consistent consequences, when they are not delivered harshly, can really create a sense of safety and predictability. This is especially important for kids who have experienced a trauma, which is by definition unpredictable and scary). These strategies can be helpful for children with ADHD and other mental health conditions. But for some children, further intervention is required. If you try these strategies with your child and continue to see significant behavior problems, it would be a good idea to meet with a therapist.