How to change your kid’s behaviour

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One of the things that I looked forward to most about my maternity leave was the opportunity to spend more time with my older kids. To have some downtime with them between school and activities and the bazillion ‘to dos’ we fill our lives with. To connect with them, and get to know them better now that they were becoming their own little people with their own big personalities.

I had grand ideas of what life as a stay-at-home parent would be like: slow mornings and well-rested kids; pulling perfectly-timed cookies from the oven as they walk through the door after school; having actual discussions about their days, instead of the blunt Q&A of our current work-school routine.

“How was your day?”

“Fine.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing”

But staying at home was not exactly as I’d expected. Instead of a calm, happy household, I found myself in a daily battle with two kids who wouldn’t listen to me and fought with each other all the time. Give it time, I told myself. We’d just brought a new baby into our house. We were all adjusting.

But time only seemed to make things worse, particularly with my son, who started struggling with his behaviour at school too. We started receiving notes from his Kindergarten teacher informing us when he had had a bad day, when he was being a distraction in class. What can I do to support him? she asked. But we didn’t know. If we could just make it to the end of the school year,  I thought, things will get better over the summer.

boy_at_school

They got worse. Sure, we had a great family vacation. We did a lot of fun things. But there were also a lot of days where it felt like every good moment was book-ended by bad ones. If I asked my son to do something, he ignored me. If I gave him a consequence, he ran away screaming and crying and saying “I hate you.” He harassed his sister. He mocked us. And no matter how angry we got, no matter how much we escalated the consequences, he rarely backed down.

When school started again, so did the notes from his new teacher. He wasn’t a mean kid, but he struggled with listening. Fortunately, we have had two great teachers who were committed to helping him focus and supporting his success at school. His new teacher started giving us daily updates on how he was doing. “Green” was a good day, “yellow” meant he’d struggled a bit and “red” was, well, not great. Please let him be green, I’d think as he walked in the door after school. Nope. Red again.

I didn’t want him to be “that kid.” I wanted him to feel good about school. I wanted him to be good at home. I didn’t know what to do to fix his behaviour. So one night, after a particularly bad day, I Googled, “Why is my kid acting like an asshole?” And this is the answer I got:

“Your child is acting like an asshole and it’s your fault.”

It was the title of a post on the Scary Mommy blog, but while I enjoy the blog, I didn’t read the post, at least not then. All I needed was that first line.

My child is acting like an asshole and it’s my fault.

It’s my fault. What am I going to do about it?

The only person you have the power to change is yourself.

Now I could make a million excuses for myself. I could pass the buck. But the simple truth is this: My expectations are too high. My patience is too low. I do a shit job of setting realistic consequences and following through. Too often, when parenting gets hard, I take the easy way out and I yell.

I’d fallen into a cycle where, instead of actually dealing with the issue at hand — the fighting, the not listening — I just yelled at my kids. Why? Because yelling is easier. It gets fast results. And it’s a great way to release the growing frustration that kids can incite, at least momentarily.

But the results of yelling don’t last. The more often I yelled at my kids, the louder I had to yell to get their attention. Until I was full-out screaming at them. Like I was crazy. Like I had completely lost my mind.

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The thing is, I would never act this way around anyone else. Not at work. Not with my friends or other members of my family. Not with the general public. Only my kids heard this side of me (and I’m sure, as a by-product, the neighbours).

I was trying so hard to control my kids that I had lost control of myself. I had to make some changes.

I stopped screaming.

And I cut back on yelling, too. I really, really worked hard at this. I still do, every day. There’s a ton of advice on the Internet about how to stop yelling at your kids. You can even take a course. But for me, what seems to work best is the same thing that got me through three labours without an epidural: just breathing. If I could do that, surely I could do this.

Then one day, out of the blue, my son commented on how I wasn’t yelling at them as much. It made me super happy, but also kind of broke my heart because it proved what a huge impact my yelling had had on him. Even if it seemed to me like he had been ignoring what I said, he clearly thought about how I said it.

I paid more attention to what I said — and how I said it.

When dealing with conflict, the advice often given is to address the action, not the person. “When you did this, it made me feel this.” Following my husband’s lead, I started talking to the kids more, started taking the time to explain why they shouldn’t behave a certain way and how it might make someone feel.

When I had these conversations with my son, he responded with, “I’m just a jerk. I’m a bad kid.” I realized that it didn’t matter how calmly or nicely I worded things, he was hooked on the negative.

It’s human nature to focus on the negative more than the positive. That’s why so many politicians design their campaigns to inspire anger and fear. They know that negative emotions stick.

So how do you combat this? The best advice I ever received as an editor is twofold:

  1. Give twice as much positive feedback as negative feedback.
  2. Give credit for the positive (“You did an excellent job of creating interest with your opening paragraph”) and support for the negative (“We need to simplify this wording to make it easier to read”).

I started following this advice with my kids. I rephrased problems as challenges that we could solve together. “What can we do to make it easier to listen at school?” And my husband and I started actively pointing out all the awesome things that our kids did and celebrating their good behaviour. And the more we did this, the more there was to celebrate.

But focusing on the good doesn’t make the bad go away entirely, and it isn’t always possible to pull your kid aside for a face-to-face conversation when they’re acting like a punk. I still needed a strategy to deal with negative behaviour in the moment.

I planned more immediate consequences — and followed through.

This was our pattern: The kids would fight with each other, so I’d ground them from something they love — namely, the TV. They’d fight more, so I’d take it away for the whole week. More fighting, and it was gone for the month. And so on.

Of course this didn’t work. For one thing, every time I took the TV away for an extended period of time, I lost my leverage for that same stretch.

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But more importantly, kids don’t really think about the future. My almost-six-year-old still has a limited concept of time — until recently, everything happened “last night”, “a long time ago last night”, “today” and “the next day today.” Grounding him for a day, a week or a month is all the same to him because, really, all he cares about is right now. And if he’s not watching TV right now, then he’s not thinking about not being able to watch it later.

There is a ton of information online about different discipline strategies. Every parent has to find the one that works best for them and their kids. For us, I knew that I had to come up with more immediate consequences. I had to plan ahead so that I wouldn’t throw out something totally unreasonable in a moment of frustration. And above all, I had to follow through.

I guarantee that I’ll yell at my kids again. Maybe later on this week. Maybe today. I guarantee that I’ll have days where all I see is bad behaviour. And I guarantee that I’ll throw out a stupid consequence in the heat of the moment and have to eat my words.

But I’m working on it, and things are getting better. My son comes home from school “in the green” a lot more often. And most days, he’s listening much better at home. He’s proud of himself, and I’m proud of the progress we’re making as a family.

My job is to teach and support my kids in being the best people they can be. And they only way to do that is to start with myself.

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*All photos in this post are stock photo.