Think before yelling at your kids

THE WASHINGTON POSTOctober 12, 2013 


Parenting coach and mother of three Meghan Leahy took questions from readers about how to effectively discipline your teen or tween, and how to keep your cool when your child pushes your buttons.

Q: How do I respond appropriately to a 14-year-old boy’s fresh mouth without overreacting and having things end in an argument?

A: Talking back, bad language and disobedience ... tough. They are buttons for almost every parent.

Look for a pattern. Does he need more responsibility and power? Is the sassiness a cry for respect? Know that when we pay attention to the rudeness, we get more of it!

Q: My daughter is 11 (will be 12 in January). The one thing she does that drives me crazy is not complying when I ask her to do something. If I tell her to hang up her clothes, I hear “I know” but then she doesn’t do it and I ended up having to tell her again and again. Another example — one afternoon, she was about to get some crackers and I told her that first she needed to get her backpack from my car. She said, “I will do it once I get a snack.” I replied, “No, do what I ask now.” I basically had to stand there and repeat the same request over and over, and stare her down before she finally stomped out to the car. I know she is trying to test me, but it is really getting old. How do I communicate with her that she needs to comply the first time I ask without it developing into me having to lose my temper with her.

A: Ah yes. Power struggles over chores. Rough. I have it here, too.

Call a meeting and decide what needs to be done.

Allow your daughter to decide when and how it will be done, and make her accountable.

Everyone signs the contract, and she can decide the consequence of not having it done.

This will require consistency, faith, and positivity from you, as well as holding the boundary when she doesn’t do it.

Keep the mojo positive and good, though. Drop your expectations of perfection and take progress.

Avoid the “It needs to get done NOW” fights. It hurts everyone.

Q: Any ideas on getting a twelve year old to keep her room clean? Her cell phone/Nook privileges are contingent on her room staying clean, but that doesn’t seem to be working. She’s a good kid who does well in school. This is our main battle these days.

A: Everyone battles technology. Everyone. Look into separating these two issues.

So, you have tech rules and cleaning rules and they don’t mix.

For instance, she needs to clean her room once or twice a week. Done. Allow her to create a consequence... You both need to agree on it.

With the technology, say, maybe, “That ends at 6 p.m., no questions asked.”

I am trying not to have too many rules and consequences, which leads to more fights and power struggles...

Q: What do you do with a young teen when threats, or consequences, don’t work? When the possibility of something he likes doing or having, like playing games, or having a cellphone taken away, isn’t a motivating factor for cooperating?

A: This says to me that you need to rebuild your relationship.

Let go of the rules and the threats and all that.

Find a way back into his life. You have to aggressively love him, collect him, rejoin him. A teen will take the bullet before he takes the knee, so you have to be the loving force. Start spending time with him that shows you love him and that he is the most important person to you. Laugh. Have joy. Hug, hug, smile, smile, smile.

This will be work, but then it will get easier.

Q: With your kids, what are the most effective consequences?

A: My best consequences are none. Meaning, I do the best when I use proactive measures to create cooperation, love, and compassion.

Consequences are usually code for punishment, and that creates separation and anger.

Whenever possible, I use Special Time, Family Meetings, Family Meals, snuggling, long walks, listening, hugging, hugging, hugging, and note-writing to find a way into my child’s heart. This almost always works.

When a consequence is needed, they create it, I okay it, and I uphold it.

Q: I have one child with special needs and one who is typically developing. The typical child is younger. Obviously, we use different strategies and have different expectations for our child with special needs. That’s just how it goes. But the younger child notices. How can we explain this to her? Or even better, is there a way to make our strategies more uniform?

A: Great question. You already are doing what you need to be doing ... be confident.

Every single child needs something different, special needs or not. That is your family ethos. “Mom and Dad do what is best for YOU.” is all you really have to say.

If they want to have a longer conversation about it, maybe...but life is not fair. You don’t have to make it fair for your kids. It is good for them to learn this now.

Q: We were all spanked growing up. Or at least, most of us were. If it’s so awful, how come we’re all okay? Why doesn’t it work? Sometimes, I think my kid needs a good dose of (healthy) fear.

A: I might argue we are not all okay, but that is another day and time. Spankings are a form of shame. Shame says, “I am a bad person.” Shame is a powerful force in shaping behaviors, there is just a huge cost when you use it.

There are ways to connect to our kids that does not trade on physical violence and shame.

It is not a modern technique... it hurts.

Q: My son and I were on the city bus on our way to school this morning when he had a small, but attention-drawing tantrum and then defiantly put his feet up on the seat (which he has been told not to do many times before). When we got off the bus, I sat him down outside of his school, looked into his eyes, told him calmly that his behavior was embarrassing and unacceptable and that there are consequences to that kind of behavior. I asked him what he thought would be an appropriate consequence (which has been a successful tactic in the past) and he didn’t have an answer. So I told him there would be no TV this afternoon. Now, he wouldn’t normally have time for TV this afternoon anyway so he wasn’t anticipating TV time, but I told him I had been planning on letting him watch and now he could not. He immediately burst into tears. He was still noticeably upset walking into school and into his classroom. I hated leaving him to start his school day that way, but I didn’t want to not mete out the consequence right then and there. I hated that I came up with a consequence in the heat of the moment that felt just plain mean, but I couldn’t think of anything that would matter to him. I think I could have instead told him we would discuss it after school and let it go for the time being. Would it be counterproductive to discuss the situation with him after school and come up with a different consequence together?

A: “Would it be counterproductive to discuss the situation with him after school and come up with a different consequence together?”

Drop this.

I give you permission to let this go. Go into the past and let it be there.

Instead, reread what you wrote to me and make a plan for what you will do in the future.

1. Nothing has to be decided in the present moment (unless there is going to bodily harm).

2. Sometimes, as the saying goes, Stuff Happens. It is parenting life.

3. If it is happening all of time, what can happen that is different?

Does this make sense?

Q: Is it counterproductive to let your child earn privileges back with good behavior after issuing a consequence (so then the consequence goes away)?

A: It all sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

I like easy, easy, easy. So do kids. So do parents.

Clean slate it.

Call a meeting, clean slate it, start with a positive plan.

Earning things back and losing is exhausting...right?

Q: My daughter is a good kid but like the earlier parents shared I’m getting a lot of failure to comply, listen, and yet she expects all the “cool” stuff other middle schoolers are getting. What gets me most riled up is the backtrack. I know to some extent the whining and tone is hormonal. She never used to be this way. I think her forgetfulness when asked to do something is also hormonal. But how do I make her more accountable and respectful? She has middle school pressures now — I get it but she also cannot expect to get everything everyone else gets (she never has before) at the same time her behavior has taken a big nosedive.

A: No one makes someone else be accountable and respectful.

You cannot do it.

Yes, she is in hormonal nuttiness, so she needs strong, compassionate love. Lots of hugging, lots of listening and cups of tea. Lots of you sitting there, listening, and being quiet.

And then she needs strong boundaries in the shape of family values. No, you cannot spend your life looking at your iPhone because we don’t do that. No, you cannot go out with kids we don’t know because we don’t do that.

Don’t fight her, allow her to hate you and have her big feelings without being worn down.

This is a time where you need to see friends, get some massages and love. You need a break from a hormonal teen so that you can be the buoy, strong in the these choppy seas.

It will pass . . . be strong and strongly loving.

Q: Tweens and teens want to be on Facebook, Instagram, etc. What are your thoughts on limiting a tween or teens use of technology and/or appropriate ages to let a tween to teen have access to a smartphone and these apps?

A: Alright, listen. I know our culture is full of tech and smartphones, but I come down pretty clearly into the camp of strong, tight boundaries on this stuff.

No, Facebook for 13 and under.

No, Instagram for 13 and under.

They are so impressionable...these ages are ripe for being so injured by friends...and when they open themselves up to the world...oh my. A world of hurt can come in.

I also see these devices replacing parents. They become the dominant voice over your values, simply by crowding it out. Face it, you are not as sexy as Instagram.

So, you are not stupid, you know your child will be on all of this eventually, but you have the parenting authority and right to say no. Not now.

Fourteen or 15 feels better to me. I know, it is late, but the child’s sense of self is further along and more immune (a little) to the harsh arrows of life.

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