It is a psychological fact of life that children are looking for limits, guidelines and boundaries for their behavior. Children any age experiment, test and seek to discover what the world has to offer and how what they do affects themselves and their surroundings. Although children protest loudly when limits are set, without boundaries they feel out of control. Without limits, appropriate impulse control does not develop. If children are unable to find limits, they continue to push, becoming anxious when there seems to be no end to how far they can go. With their immature, inexperienced egos and impulse control as their only defense against the world, they unconsciously want someone to stop them so that they can feel in control and, therefore, secure.
When parents fail to set limits, children (no matter their age) feel unimportant and unloved. Limits and negative consequences for breaching them, on the other hand, reassures children that they are noticed and that someone cares.
Children learn from the consequences of their behavior. Behavior that is followed by positive consequences is maintained or increased; behavior followed by negative consequences decreases or stops. The following techniques, which need to be modified to suit the child’s age, will help you manage your child’s learning process.
PRAISE and REWARD: When you observe you child doing something appropriate, praise or reward her/him. A reward can be something as simple as a hug and acknowledgement of the appropriate behavior. If you children argue and you observe them playing quietly, sharing and conversing, give each a hug and say quietly in each one’s ear, “You and your sister (brother) were having a good time. I am glad you were having fun. ” Avoid giving food/snack as a reward, as this establishes the habit of eating to reward or comfort oneself rather than as a means of nutrition only.
PAY ATTENTION: Pay attention to appropriate behavior; ignore inappropriate behavior, if the behavior is annoying or non-life threatening. A child who repeatedly throws temper tantrums or uses bad language is probably looking for attention. Ignore the inappropriate behavior even in public. Sometimes, it will take all your strength and courage to ignore them. If in public you might need to take them to a isolated area—restroom or the car until they are finished having the tantrum. Manage this process firmly and quietly, so as not to give your child the message that their tantrum is creating what they want—attention. Children will test your mettle to the nth degree—as the parent you need to be emotionally willing to have un-testable mettle. The moment you become angry—your child has won that battle, if not the war.
BE CONSISTENT: If you want to get a good behavior going, reward it every time. If you want to get rid of a bad behavior, give negative consequences or ignore it every time. If your child repeatedly does something you don’t like, start a systematic program to change it. Keep a log of how often the behavior occurs and when, and use techniques consistently to eliminate it.
ONE STEP AT A TIME: When teaching your child a new behavior or task, break it into small steps. Reward each step in the process for closer and closer approximations. When a mistake is made or your child is unable to follow instructions, omit praise—and also omit negative comments. Encourage more effort—“You can do it. ” “You will find a way, I am confident, ” until the goal is reached.
Remember how you reacted to your child’s first attempts to walk? When she/he fell down, you didn’t yell, “Stand up!” “Don’t be so clumsy. ” “You’ll never learn that way. ” When she/he stood up unassisted, you clapped, hugged, kissed and called everyone from near and far to ‘see Suzie stand up!’ This praise encouraged your child to repeat this ‘trick’ again and again. What a commotion she/he had created simply by standing up—you hugged, kissed and encouraged her to repeat the process as many times as necessary—for longer and longer periods of time. You continued this praise until your child took her first step, and then the commotion reached a new height. This same technique can be used when teaching children to accomplish everything they need to accomplish.
KNOW WHEN TO SHIFT GEARS: Behavior change is erratic. If you’re doing something that isn’t working, stop and do something else to encourage or correct your child. Effective positive and negative consequences vary from child to child. When my children were teenagers, taking the car away from my daughter was no big deal. She had friends to rely on for transportation. But the car was my son’s status symbol and ego extension. Although he had as many friends with cars as his sister did, he didn’t like admitting that he had lost driving privileges.
You need to find the negative consequence most effective for your child. One that never needs to be used, however, is spanking, hitting, slapping or smacking. Corporal punishment doesn’t get rid of undesirable behavior; it teaches children to lie or deceive to avoid it. And it also engenders rage that smolders within until the child acts out.
If you use grounding as a negative consequence, you need to stay home to supervise your child. When you set a curfew, you need to be home then, too. Teens of both sexes need a curfew to maintain a feeling of security. I often hear parents say, “I never set a curfew for my son, because I know the girl’s parents set curfews and when the girls go in the boys go home. That maybe the case, but the message you are conveying is ‘Boys don’t need limits. ’ You can imagine my son’s frustration when he began dating a girl his age whose curfew was 30 minutes later than his. I extended his curfew on special occasions and as a reward.
Setting and enforcing limits require sacrifice on the parents’ part, but the payoff is far greater than the inconvenience. When children observe their parents commitment to their security and well-being, they feel wanted, loved and important.
Dorothy M. Neddermeyer, PhD is a Life Coach, author, If I’d Only Known…Sexual Abuse in or out of the Family: A Guide to Prevention, and Single Mother of two adult children and grandparent to four Grandchildren. http://www.drdorothy.net