As Easy As 1, 2, 3

When we think of parenting our children, I think the last word anyone would ever use to describe this enormous endeavor is “easy”. Children don’t come with an instruction manual but do seem to come with a lot more attitude and audacity than we did… because we were all perfect little angels when we were children, right? They just don’t make them like they used to… or should I say, “we” don’t make them like they used to.

As a marriage and family therapist, I can't tell you how many times I have had parents bring their child to me and say something like, “here, YOU fix him (or her)”. As if their child is a “thing” that can be fixed or almost worse, as if they are broken. Children are wonderful, resilient, little people who bring joy into our lives, but who can also bring frustration, heartache, headaches, and even sometimes their own little potent potions of miracle grow - for grey hair. 

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Nine times out of ten, I will end up working with the parents of that “problem-child” with some intensive parenting training and then a miracle takes place. They say, “well, you must be some kind of magician because you only saw him once (vast majority of sessions with parents) and he is doing so much better… we don’t get it”. But to me, this is not magic, I am not a miracle worker. I just strongly believe in parents and their abilities to help create change in their children and even in their families overall. With that being said, I would like to share with you one of my “magic tricks” employed in the parenting training that I help parents with. 

One of the biggest conundrums I come across in families struggling with behavioral problems in children is that parents spend so much of their energy trying to discipline, correct, or shape their children’s behavior that it leaves them with little energy to really engage with them through play, love, affection, praise and time. So I invite all to reverse that. Spend more time with your children, let yourself have fun with them more often, allow yourself to really get into the game or to open up your hearts more to them with positive interactions. And then spend less energy and stress trying to discipline them. Now, you might say, well that is easier said than done. But I want to offer a parenting technique for discipline that is simple, takes less effort, and is most likely much more effective than the normal yelling matches or never-ending threats.

You can use the baseball metaphor of "three strikes, you're out" to remember these 3 basic steps with their rules.

Step 1: Simple and clear directives

When your child needs correcting or when they are doing something that is inappropriate or considered "bad behavior," offer a simple directive that addresses the behavior. Be sure to be clear in what you are asking of your child. Avoid ambiguous statements like, "stop being so annoying"- your child might not even know what "annoying" means or might have a different meaning of the word than you do. The same might be said for words like, "mean," "bully," "jerk," "lazy bum," "drama queen" or my personal favorite "tyrannical dictator." Children also respond better to commands that omit negative language, like "not," "stop," "don't" or "no". Instead, you can use phrases like, "get off the bed," "go clean your room," "play over here instead," "put the toys away." Sometimes you can't avoid using negative verbiage, like, "stop hitting your sister," and this is okay. The point here is just to offer them a directive that they can understand and allow them the opportunity to obey. This kind of setup will reinforce more positive choices in the future. It is also important to remember to praise them if and when they DO decide to obey you during this step. This positive reward for their obedience and good behavior will also act as a powerful positive reinforcer for better choices.

Step 2: Give them a fair warning of a consequence

If they do NOT comply, then you can proceed to step 2 and warn them of their consequence if they continue to disobey you. Make sure to repeat the same clear directive, but notify them that there will be a specific consequence for their actions should they choose not to obey. You have to be careful here, and make sure that your tone is firm but not abrasive, angry or contentious. Remember, you are STILL offering them an opportunity to obey, but you will be ready to implement the consequence IF the time comes. The other extremely important rule for you in this step is to employ consequences that will have a great impact on the child. If you threaten to ground them from playing outside in 100 degree weather they will probably laugh in your face. But if you warn them that they might lose their phone, computer, gaming system, iPad, tablet or other precious electronic device, their ears might perk up just a little more. Another helpful trick is to sit down, identify and even write down all of the specific, effective consequences you can think of (with your partner if possible) BEFORE a situation arises. This way you can avoid getting caught up in the moment and have your effective artillery ready at hand when needed.

Step 3: Follow through

If they still do not comply, then you simply follow through with the consequence that you said you were going to give. Lots of parents are better at barking orders and spouting off empty threats, but the real learning comes when the child is faced with a consequence that is directly connected to their behavior. One of the biggest pitfalls to avoid is giving the child a consequence that YOU as a parent are not willing to follow through with. If you tell the child that you will cut their visit short to their cousin's house, this means you are cutting YOUR visit short to your sibling's house as well and if you do NOT want to cut it short or punish yourself for your child's behavior DON'T offer that as a consequence. This can also be the case with grounding and cutting transportation. You need to seriously consider the ramifications of the proposed consequences on YOU as the parent. Avoid consequences that will make your life more difficult. Try and use consequences that are more immediate, poignant, and natural to the behavior exhibited. There is a caveat to this 3 step method that should be noted here- when it comes to severe behavior or after-the-fact behavior, you can just skip down to step 3.

A little bonus tip I would offer with this 3 step method... making it 3 and a half, I guess... would be to make a greater effort to reconnect with your child after the consequence is administered. If you do this right, you might get a response like, "I hate you! You are the worst father/mother EVER!" Just remember, the correct translation of this statement is, "I am very mad at you right now and I do not know how else to express this anger other than tell you these hurtful things." Now just think of how much of an impact you can have on them if you come back to them after they say those hurtful things and to give them a warm hug and tell them you love them. This will actually help create neural pathways in their brain that let them know that they can count on you, you will be there for them and love them no matter what, which will definitely count more in the future when you want them to talk to you more about their life.

Lastly, if you only end up taking one thing out of this whole entire post, let it be this- your job as a parent is not to make sure they make the right choices (that would be impossible), but to help them learn life. So even if you have to give consequence after consequence and they just continue to make bad choices, you are doing your job by teaching them that our behaviors always have consequences. You cannot force this process. There is no need to lose your temper, raise your voice, or resort to physical punishment (which comes with many risks) as long as you help them learn life. They will eventually get it, just like you did.

I realize that this is just a small part of the complicated parenting process, but I plan to continue to offer bits and pieces of secrets to my "magic tricks" that will help ease your burden as a parent.