Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

When You Want To Turn Your Child's Behavior Around

“You don't start training a killer whale by hanging a bucket of fish 22 feet high and commanding Shamu to jump.  Even though Shamu may want the fish, the proper connections have not yet been linked up with the sequence of development of Shamu's natural talents....The trainers started out with the rope under the water, at the bottom of the tank. Shamu was appreciated, patted, loved and rewarded when he first happened to cruise over the rope accidentally.  Once Shamu had experienced rewards every time he passed over the rope, he began to make the connection: if I swim over this twisted thing, I get a snack and lots of love.  At this point, the trainers could begin, slowly and incrementally, to raise the rope. Hallelujah! The willingness of the trainers to start with the rope at the bottom, creating success that would not otherwise exist, directly leads to a faster path of learning...” -- Howard Glasser

So often in my discussions with parents, I hear about children who are struggling, who seem to have hardened their hearts to us so they don't even WANT to cooperate. When this happens, we parents feel afraid. We feel desperate. It's natural for us to reach for any tool we have to turn things around. And the tools that seem most obvious involve threats and punishment.

  • "You know better than that! Time out for you!"
  • "That is unacceptable language, you're grounded!"
  • "If this happens again, you'll lose your cell phone for a week!"

But punishment just reinforces what the child already suspected. He's not good enough, even when he tries -- so why try? Then, because his shame is unbearable, he lashes out at those around him. No one understands. Everything is rigged against him.

The solution here is to help your child experience success. Success in developing the habit you want, but more fundamentally, success in pleasing you. That helps motivate them to try harder at those things they find so challenging, like being kind to their sibling, or sitting down to focus on homework, or using words when they're angry instead of slamming doors.

This takes two key strategies:

1. Strengthen and Sweeten Your Connection with Your Child. 

We only have influence with our child if they feel warmly connected to us. If they feel like we don't listen, we're always on our phones, we prefer their sibling, we criticize and complain -- why should they do what we want, instead of what they want? 

(Connection isn't just to elicit cooperation. Children NEED to feel connected to thrive. And we parents need to feel connected so that the hard work of parenting seems worth it. But if you're seeing repeated problematic behavior, always start with connection.)

For ideas to build a deeper, sweeter connection: 10 Habits to Strengthen Your Relationship with Your Child

2. Scaffold (Give Support).

Instead of using threats and punishment, which erode your relationship with your child and can cause them to rebel or give up, offer whatever support is necessary for your child to achieve the desired behavior.  Psychologists call this scaffolding, meaning that parents offer the child the necessary structure for her to develop a new behavioral habit. But we could think of it as starting the rope in the water, and then affirming our child every time he passes over it, and very slowly raising that rope, as in the example in the quote above.

I know, you think your kid should already be falling asleep by himself at night, taking responsibility for his own homework, _______________ (fill in the blank.)  But as with Shamu, kids don't learn by being criticized for failing. And they don't learn when we "get tough" and shame them.

I'm not suggesting that you lower your standards. I'm suggesting that you help your child meet your standards by starting where they are and giving them whatever support they need, step by step, until they make that behavior a habit.

With sleep, we teach them to fall asleep by themselves one step at a time. With potty learning, we give our child the experience of success by letting them drive the process, one step at  a time. With homework, we begin by being present while all the homework is done, insuring not only understanding but executive function to stay organized, gradually stepping back as our child takes more and more responsibility. With sibling rivalry or anger management, we help our child with the emotions that are driving the behavior. 

In each case, this "scaffolding" takes much effort from the parent than letting the child figure it out for themselves. But it's much more effective than resorting to threats. You sweeten and deepen your relationship with your child. And your child internalizes a feeling of accomplishment that strengthens her character, her confidence, and her ability to manage herself for the rest of her life. As Shamu's trainers said, Hallelujah!

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