By: Cassie Finegan, MFTC
When faced with parenting a child who just doesn’t listen, doesn’t follow the rules, and at times seems to have complete disregard for everything you say, it’s easy to start feeling hopeless, aggravated, and even at your wit’s end. After trying different techniques, rules, and punishments and still being met with an out-of-control kid or teenager, many parents may even start to feel like a parental failure. Cue: pulling your hair out asking why nothing at all is working?!
Take a breath.
You are not a failure.
You’ve tried everything, and nothing works; your kid is still misbehaving and out of control. It’s okay, here are some guidelines for how to get your kid back on track.
Here’s what we know from decades of parenting research; kids and teens respond most effectively to positive consequences in the home.
Positive Consequences? I know it sounds like an oxymoron but here’s what we mean:
Positive consequences are similar to positive reinforcers. For example, a teacher may give out a piece of candy to her students when they raise their hand to answer a question, rather than punishing them when they blurt the answer out without warning. This model of parenting transitions away from negative consequences/punishment for bad behaviors and moves towards positive reinforcement for good/right/correct behaviors. The goal here is to reinforce the behaviors that you want to see take place at home rather than providing punishment for the behaviors you don’t.
How does this work?
Begin by identifying the behaviors you want to see take place, rather than identifying the behaviors you don’t. For example, you don’t like that your teenager needs 10 reminders in the morning to get out of bed and start getting ready for school. This would be the ‘bad’ behavior, so instead, the positive behavior you’re looking for is that your teen can wake up when their alarm goes off, get out of bed, brush their teeth, get dressed, and have breakfast in time to catch the bus to school.
Next, create positive feedback statements for when your kid successfully performs the positive behavior. In this example that might look like saying something as simple as “Great job kid, you did so amazingly waking up to your alarm and being ready to leave for school this morning, that was awesome to see!”
After the positive statement, you’ll want to provide a positive reinforcement. This should be something that truly motivates your child. If they are motivated to have extra screen time after school, or time at the skate park with friends, these could be great positive rewards for your kid that will motivate them to perform the positive behavior.
But lets be honest, their behavior isn’t going to be perfect after day one and they are still going to engage in the ‘negative’ behaviors from time to time. After all, we therapists love to say that change isn’t a linear process, so expect that this can take some time. At this point, you might be wondering what you’re supposed to do when your kid engages in the negative behavior now that we have taken away negative punishments (for example grounding your child from social events or technology use).
Instead of taking something away, we are going to provide a positive consequence or a solution-finding response to negative behaviors. In other words, we want a positive response to a negative behavior. For example, if your child is struggling with homework completion and has poor grades, instead of grounding them for the weekend due to 3 missing assignments, a positive consequence may be that they have to complete their assignments by staying after school, attending the math lab at school, or sitting down at the kitchen counter with you while they work on the assignments.
To really get started on these changes, I recommend sitting down and having a family meeting. In this time, you’ll want to address that some changes will be taking place: “We are starting something new going forward”. Communicate clearly the positive behaviors you are looking for right now. For example, “we want to see you get out of bed and get ready for school on time”. Then let them know that when they successfully do this, they will get both a positive appraisal (statement), and a positive reinforcement (ex. More screen time). Let them know that when they don’t perform these behaviors, they will receive a positive consequence, and let them know what that will be specifically (ex. You didn’t put your phone away at school so you can no longer earn more screen time today. This doesn’t take anything away from them that they’ve already earned but takes away the ability to earn more).
Let you kid be part of the discussion; if you want this to work, you’ll have to find positive reinforcers that truly motivate them. Discuss with them what that might be, let them be the expert of their motivations.
This transition is going to be difficult and most likely very different from what you’re used to. Many parents were raised to believe that punishment was the best way to interrupt negative behaviors and that makes sense; it’s most likely what you experienced from your own parents. So give yourself some grace, this transition will be challenging, and you may find yourself at times reverting to what you’re used to and that’s okay. Just as your child’s behavior won’t be 100% perfect, neither will you be. Instead of expecting to use this model 100% of the time perfectly, aim for 80% of the time using positive reinforcement/consequences, and only using negative consequences/punishment 20% of the time.
Know that when you are still met with negative behaviors you may find yourself getting upset, continuing to ask yourself why it isn’t working. Your voice may become loud, your tone may shift, and you might be downright angry and that’s okay. However, it’s your job as the parent to stay emotionally regulated so that your kid can too. If you find yourself getting angry and dysregulated, take a step away, allow yourself the time and space to regulate again because sometimes its best to not parent at all than to parent while dysregulated, as this can cause more harm than good. Allow yourself to step away or ask your parenting partner to step in if available.
Overall, parenting is a massive challenge (and that’s an understatement). Sometimes a parenting style works for one kid but doesn’t work with the other. While it may require more intention on your end, some kids just need different parenting from other kids, especially when parenting a child with anxiety, depression, or ADHD. If your current parenting style isn’t working, that doesn’t mean its bad parenting, it just means it may not be the best fit for that specific child. Give yourself grace, and stick with it; it won’t be a process of linear change, but the change will take place over time.