We have all been there with a challenging child. A child whom you love, but seems to know exactly what to do to push your buttons. If you want to change your relationship with your child, stop having assumptions or judging their behaviour.
Instead, what you need to believe is that when anyone (big or little) acts out, its root cause stems from some form of fear or insecurity. And when insecurity or fear has begun, adrenaline (the fight or flight hormone) is already starting to course through the person’s system.
With some people, they react fast — they fight, they raise their voice, they scream. With others, they withdraw — they hide, they sulk, they become quiet, hesitant or moody. Based on each person’s character, values, role models, they will react differently when feeling fearful or insecure.
For those who like to fight, it is important to them that they seem to be winning. For those who might be a little more introverted or naturally quiet, they will retreat into their own world. Neither is particularly a good outcome.
What do you do when your child is acting out?
What you have to believe is that how you choose to respond (not react) will have a world of difference. Please remember, every verbal and non-verbal cue makes a difference. For example, your child (or colleague or friend) says or does something really dumb. You react in one of these two ways:
- You say, “What did you just say? Do you really think that or believe that?” On an extreme, you could add, “What a dumb comment!” or “How could you be so stupid?” or “Why on earth would you do that?”
- You may hold your tongue and not comment, but you may unexpectedly roll your eyes in disbelief. Remember, your child can see you and can catch these “mini” or “micro” expressions.
Both reactions result in the child feeling judged, inadequate or stupid. Repeated over time, this erodes trust. In its place, variations of these feelings will start to take root: I feel stupid/silly/un-supported/angry/defensive/withdrawn … Is this what you really want for your child?
So where do you start?
You start by having a conversation and stating ground rules. The most important one is having a family discussion to explain that no one is going to scold or punish anyone again. Make it clear that just because you are taking away scolding and punishments, it doesn’t mean that the child can get away scot free when he has done something wrong.
You are merely replacing the old system with a new one. What is the new system based on?
5 steps to discipline
Five key steps. The new five step system adopted by the whole family is based on
- 100% staying calm + centred
- 100% understanding + empathy
- 100% accountability + apology
- 100% commitment to learn + adapt
- 100% solutions orientation to improve the situation
So let’s put this into place using this example.
John comes back from school and slams the door shut, throws his bag on the floor. He looks grumpy and dashes up to his room.
Mum: How many times do I need to tell you not to slam the door and not to dump your bag in the living room? You know where these should go!
John: Mum, you’re such a nag! He slams his room door shut.
Mum: How dare you talk to me like that? Apologise now.
John: No! I don’t want to talk to you …
Mum: I am getting your dad to talk to you when he comes home from work …
OKAY – we can all see how this clichéd scenario will turn out …
What’s the alternative?
Mum: John, I have asked you to shut the door gently and to keep your things in your bedroom. You didn’t do that today. KEY: Ask this in a genuinely concerned way, or do it with a cheeky smile and add, “Did you forget? ☺ Were you just tired and in a rush to get to your computer games?”.
John: Uhhh kinda. (Sometimes I like to stun the child with kindness, so they get caught off guard! Why? This starts to switch off the adrenaline response linked to fear, nervousness, anger etc.)
Mum: I can understand that you were in a rush to start playing after a long day of school. Of course you’re tired and want to do something fun. I understand. It happens. Could you help me bring the bag up in the next 10 minutes? What do you say for forgetting today?
John: Uhhh I am sorry mum, I forgot cause I was in a rush.
Mum: And I know you will remember to close the door gently tomorrow. Thanks! (and when he comes down, give him a big smile and a hug if you can).
Mum: It’s okay, we all forget something sometimes, but I know you’ll remember it tomorrow. I’ll bring it up to you today, but it’s your to-do tomorrow, and to close the door gently, okay? And ask with a warm smile, Promise?
John: Uhhh okay mum. I promise.
And deliver the bag with a kiss or a light hug. Add, ‘Love you’ as you leave.
In this example, the PARENT is being the role model of
#1. 100% calm + centred
To show that he/she is pretty chilled out about small things. If you can’t be calm immediately, go ahead and do something fun to distract yourself first. You calm yourself down fully before you address what just happened. Remember, you are the role model for change.
If you are starting from a place where traditionally there are fights and arguments, please add: after dropping off the bag:
Mum: I told you I wasn’t going to lose my temper or nag you anymore. So I have kept my promise to stay calm and asked to understand what happened. You’ve kept calm too. Good job. Keep it up.
This is really important because you want to take the adrenaline effect and “learned reaction and counter-reactions” from each away. You are showing more respect for each other.
#2. 100% empathy + understanding
On why the child forgot. This is important too as you are recognising that your child isn’t perfect (no one is) and was just being a child who wanted to rush to play his games. Guide him gently and firmly to being a responsible adult by first showing that you see life from his side, building trust and respect from him on how you handle the situation. Once you get this from him, it will be easier for him to do what you want him to.
And who knows? Perhaps the child had a bad day at school and was teased or bullied, or did badly in a test. If so, the forgetfulness, the need to rush up and the slamming of the door is understandable (but not acceptable). But by building trust and showing respect, genuine concern, you child is much more likely to open up to you on what happened or how he is feeling.
#3. 100% accountability + apology
On still putting the responsibility back to the child, and getting a commitment from them to do this the next day. Remember to praise the child for each time he/she gets it right. Getting him to say “I am sorry” is also very important.
#4. 100% adaptability + learning
Again, being flexible on what happened and encouraging them towards change. In the example, mum takes time to ask John what caused him to forget. Was he tired, was he in a rush? If this is the case, how do we help him remember? Read #5.
#5. 100% solutions orientation to improve the solution
The mum can ask: John, what can we do to help you remember? It’s probably going to be good to help your sister and dad too. Can you help me come up with ideas?
Here is a simple one that you could devise: Perhaps you can put a temporary sign for 2 months on the front door that says: THANK YOU FOR CLOSING THE DOOR GENTLY with a happy face or positive picture. On entering the house in the hallway, a sign that says, “ALL BAGS IN THE BEDROOM” and to continue with the role-modelling, you can add at the bottom (House rule for big and little people!). And be consistent, have mum and dad do this too.
Over time, when you practice these five steps, you will naturally find yourself staying more calm, more centred and more solutions oriented to any challenge that you face. You become a terrific role model for your kids too on handling any form of challenge.
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