Is Your Child a Manipulator or Influencer? 

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

Children want feel significant and can be natural leaders when parents can direct this desire in a healthy manner. Unfortunately, many children turn into manipulators or bullies, trying to control everything and everyone in their path. This has a lot to do with developmental drives. A child is untrained force of emotional energy. They cry, scream, tantrum and hit at the slightest provocation. This is because their brain and nervous system are ruled by their emotions over their thoughts and it takes time and practice for them to learn how to manage themselves. Truthfully, many adults are still trying to learn this skill!

When your child is acting bossy, try to imagine how you can redirect this emotional energy into concrete, positive influence. How can you model natural leadership and guide them to be significant without the abuse? 

Reinforce areas of their character that demonstrate their capacity for patience, kindness, respect, love, generosity, and compassion for others. Empathy that is experienced and offered toward others is still the key builders of morality and good judgements in our brain development. Use it without restraint toward your children. 

Look for examples, in media and the world around us, where positive influence and helping others is happening. Discuss the costs for this and why others would lay down their time and energy for someone else. Ask your child how they have done this and who they could pick to be helpful to…Shift their attentional focus from finding significance in manipulation to finding identity in influencing others.

Dream Parenting: The Natural Ally

At times parenting can be met with rejection by family members. Some of this can be developmental as a child has drives for independence. Some of it can be a self-protection from intimacy. If I don’t get close to you, then I don’t get hurt. Attempts to parent differently and achieve the family of your dreams requires significant risk in these situations.

You biggest ally is already inherent in you and your family members. It is a biologically-based need for attachment. We are social beings and as such, want to connect with one another even it doesn’t appear on the surface to be true. 

If there has been problems in your closest relationships it may mean that patterns of rejection and defenses of self-sufficiency have been created. These are tough walls to knock down. Start off by believing that you have a primal need to connect as you ally in this new strategy. Find ways to make eye contact and smile without using any words. Look for chances to connect with no words of judgement, correction, or instruction. Just make a connection no matter how small or brief. Make it a personal challenge to increase these moments everyday until you start to see the walls starting to crumble. 

Remember that your family wants this naturally. It was how they are designed. If they don’t get it from you, they will seek it elsewhere but they will find it, good or bad. Make it good starting right now. 

3 Keys to Behavior Chart Success

I used to joke with parents that if they could make a grocery list, they could change a child’s behavior. The idea behind this is that most behavioral change takes parental attention and consistency. The truth is that we are constantly shaping our child’s behaviors every day. And, one might say, they are changing ours too! This is a natural process of interaction. The question is really, what are your shaping? Our you modeling positive habits? Do you reward positive behavior? Shifting our attention away from negative behavior (what you don’t want) and refocusing on positive behaviors (what you do want) can be as easy as making a list or creating a chart.

 Here are 3 keys to successfully changing a child’s behavior with a behavior chart:

1. Have a clear, achievable goal in mind: If you don’t know where you are going, you won’t get there. Don’t confuse the goal by making it too vague or complex. Focus on a specific behavior you WANT to see happen. Don’t write it in the negative. State what you want to see different. Be age appropriate when focusing on change. A 4 year old can’t do what a 14 year old can do.

2. Make it rewarding: The power of a behavior chart is that a child will get a reward for doing what you want. What motivates your child? What can you realistically afford to do? How long will it take to get the reward? Some children need daily, if not hourly rewards. Break a big reward down into smaller rewards if necessary to keep children motivated. The last thing you want is a defiant child who refuses to do a chart because it is too difficult or they feel like they will fail and so they don’t even try. Also, remember the best reward is you! Your smile, hug and words of praise should always be given regardless of any other physical reward.

3. Be open to change: If  the chart is not working, make changes. It is just a parenting tool, not a magical wand. Use the success or lack of it as feedback on how to create the chart. Use family meetings and intimate discussions about what is working for the child. Continue to celebrate any small success or effort. You might find that using a chart changes your parenting time and energy as well. That is good modeling and parenting improvement.

The Imperfect Parent

How many of the parents, reading this column, are perfect parents? None? Well, how many of the imperfect parents, reading this column, have perfect children? Still none? While it may be that perfect parents don’t need to read this column, I think the real truth is that there are no perfect parents or perfect children. If that is true, then why do so many parents act as if there is such a being as the “perfect parent” or “perfect child?”

To illustrate my point, try completing the following sentences. Just say the first thing that comes to mind:

A good parent always…

Good children should…

As a parent, I must…

My children ought to be more…

If I were more like my own parents, I would be more…

If a parent falls short of these standards, and so, is not a “good” parent, what does that leave the parent to be? Parents are left with the belief that he or she is a “bad” parent. These beliefs are responsible for why parents feel so out of control and powerless in their parenting roles. Parents need more realistic beliefs about parenting. Realistic Beliefs about Parenting Beliefs are expressions of parent’s values about themselves, other people, and the world. Unrealistic beliefs create a feeling of demand that pushes and drives parents unnecessarily where realistic beliefs create a feeling of inner stability, even when circumstances aren’t always stable.

One way to create more realistic beliefs is to evaluate the evidence for your unrealistic thoughts about parenting. Ask yourself these questions: What law states that a child will always listen and be respectful? What evidence really suggests that all parents must be available to their children at all times? What edict states that I must be perfect?

For one day, make a list of all the negative thoughts that come to mind as you go about your parenting duties. At the end of the day, look over the list and write out alternative, positive counter-thoughts. Whenever the negative thoughts come up, immediate state the alternative thought to break its power over you. If it is too hard to remember them all, pick one or two of the negative thoughts that create the most interference in your parenting and counter those only. Do that for about a week and then move down the list to the others. Changing what you say about your parenting will change how your feel about your parenting.

Try this experiment: complete the following incomplete sentences and notice the emotional difference between these and the first list.

A responsible parent always…

Good children sometimes…

As a parent, I can be…

I desire my children to be more…

If I were like my own parents, the positive qualities I would like to have…

Only one word was changed in each of these sentences and yet it dramatically changes how you think and feel. If you are going to accept the fact that you are imperfect then you will have to eliminate “perfection” language from your thoughts and words. You will need to accept the fact that you are acting “good-enough.” This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive for more out of yourselves or your child. Self-improvement is not the same as expecting perfection It takes courage to be a “good-enough” parent.

This is what the child psychiatrist, Rudolph Driekurs, calls “the courage to be imperfect.” While there are plenty of perfect parenting standards to fail short of, there are no rules for how to be an imperfect parent. Here are ten un-commandments for developing the “courage to be imperfect”:

1. Children should be encouraged, not expected, to seek perfection.

2. Accept who you are rather than try to be more than or as good as other parents.

3. Mistakes are aids to learning. Mistakes are not signs of failure. Anticipating or fearing mistakes will make us more vulnerable to failure.

4. Mistakes are unavoidable and are less important than what the parent does after he or she makes a mistake.

5. Set realistic standards for yourself and your child. Don’t try correcting or changing too many things at one time.

6. Develop a sense of your strengths and your weaknesses.

7. Mutual respect, between parent and child, starts by valuing yourself. Recognize your own dignity and worth before you try and show your child their dignity and worth.

8. Unhappy parents are frequently discouraged, competitive, unrealistic in their standard for themselves and their children, over ambitious, and unbalanced in their love and limits.

9. High standards and expectations are frequently related to parent’s feelings of inferiority and lack of adequate parenting resources.

10. Parents need to develop the courage to cope with the challenges of living, which means, they must develop the “courage to be imperfect.”  

10 Principles of an Aware Parent

I just learned about Dr. Aletha Solter’s book and principles of Aware Parenting. I don’t know why it took so long to become acquainted with her work but her ideas are extremely close to my own thoughts on parenting. Her ideas are timely in this day of discovery about the healing aspects of mindfulness. Read through her 10 Principles and see where they resonate with your own parenting thoughts. Source: http://www.awareparenting.com/english.htm “1. Aware parents fill their children’s needs for physical contact (holding, cuddling, etc.). They do not worry about "spoiling” their children.

2. Aware parents accept the entire range of emotions and listen non-judgmentally to children’s expressions of feelings. They realize that they cannot prevent all sadness, anger, or frustration, and they do not attempt to stop children from releasing painful feelings through crying or raging.

3. Aware parents offer age-appropriate stimulation, and trust children to learn at their own rate and in their own way. They do not try to hurry children on to new stages of development.

4. Aware parents offer encouragement for learning new skills, but do not judge children’s performance with either criticism or evaluative praise.

5. Aware parents spend time each day giving full attention to their children. During this special, quality time, they observe, listen, respond, and join in their children’s play (if invited to do so), but they do not direct the children’s activities.

6. Aware parents protect children from danger, but they do not attempt to prevent all of their children’s mistakes, problems, or conflicts.

7. Aware parents encourage children to be autonomous problem-solvers and help only when needed. They do not solve their children’s problems for them.

8. Aware parents set reasonable boundaries and limits, gently guide children towards acceptable behavior, and consider everyone’s needs when solving conflicts. They do not control children with bribes, rewards, threats, or punishments of any kind.

9. Aware parents take care of themselves and are honest about their own needs and feelings. They do not sacrifice themselves to the point of becoming resentful.

10. Aware parents strive to be aware of the ways in which their own childhood pain interferes with their ability to be good parents, and they make conscious efforts to avoid passing on their own hurts to their children.

Aware Parenting is based on the work of Dr. Aletha Solter. For more information, please see Dr. Aletha Solter’s books, The Aware BabyHelping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, and Raising Drug-Free Kids

 

Using Your E.A.R.S. to Help Children Problem-Solve

Someone once joked that God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we could listen twice as much as we talked. Not bad advice actually. Many parents would do well to heed that advice. This doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t talk to their children. It’s just that they shouldn’t be so quick to give advice or lecture of the right and wrongs of a problem. Listen first, then talk. Better yet, ask questions to get at the solutions to children’s problems. This causes them to feel as if they came up with the answer and take more ownership for the problem. E.A.R.S. is a helpful acronym for parents who want to improve their problem-solving skills with their children.

E = Elicit

The starting point for problem-solving with children is to elicit possible solutions that already exist in the child’s repertoire. Ask questions such as, “What would you think would make the situation better?” This implies that there is a solution and that the child has the ability to utilize it. If they don’t have an answer to this question, try this one: “What would your _______ (supply a relevant name here) say you are doing about the situation?”

This implies that the child is already solving his problem. The fact of the matter is that every response to a problem is a solution to a problem. Only some responses are better than others and have fewer severe consequences. The job of parents is to acknowledge children’s efforts and then direct them to use better responses.

If the child persists that there wasn’t anything good about what he did in the situation, then ask, “What was the part of the situation that was better than the other parts?” And if the child does recite some ‘better than other parts’ of the situation, ask, “How did you do that?” This encourages the child to learn from their own behaviors and increase positive responses.

If the child suffered severe consequences for his response to the situation, ask, “What did you learn from the situation?” Most successes are the result of trial and error and determining what doesn’t work.

A = Amplify

Amplify refers to the use of questions to get more details about any positive efforts toward problem-solving. Use who, what, where, when, and how questions. For example, “Who noticed you do that?” or “When did you decide to do that?” or “How did they respond to your solution?” Never use why questions. Why is a very judgemental word and will stop all attempts to help the child problem-solving because he feels bad about his efforts. Over time this can develop into a pattern of behavior where the child never tries anything new because he is afraid of failing. If he doesn’t try, he doesn’t fail. At least that is the rationale.

R = Reinforce

Years of behavioral change research have taught us that there are two ways to create change in others. Reward desired behaviors and ignore or mildly punish undesirable behavior. So be sure to reinforce any effort to solving a problem. Even failed attempts are worthy of acknowledgment. The child must want and value positive change. Reinforcement will be the motivating force for this value. Be sure, though, that you use verbal or social reinforcement. Don’t give in to bribes (candy, toys, and money) to reinforce the child. This will reinforce dependent and manipulative behavior and decrease independent problem-solution. The best reinforcers are a surprise. When children do not know when to expect a reinforcer (a compliment or public acknowledgment) they will be more motivated, ready for reinforcement at any moment in time.

S = Start again

Learning to problem-solving and listening to our children to help them, is a process. It can’t be done once and then left alone. It must be done over and over again. Repetition is a fundamental principle of learning. The more you do something the better you get at it. And now that the child has found a solution to a problem, plan for the next one. Most problems pop up again in life. Brainstorm solutions for the next time. And finally, treat every problem as an experiment where new and clever solutions can be tested. So use those two ears to listen more then you talk but when you do talk, ask solution-focused questions to help children problem-solve.

17 Hugs A Day

My wife and I have a joke that we tell each other and family members: It takes a minimum of 17 hugs a day to feel normal. I will confess that there is no scientific research that supports 17 hugs per day therapy…at least not yet. Nevertheless, we have come to recognize that need for touch and have adopted the idea that hugs, at least 17 is what gets us through the daily life hassles.

At a recent conference on Attachment Theory, where there was some real scientific data, a presenter on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stated that data suggests that the little stressors of everyday living can add up to the same effects of someone who has undergone a single, major life trauma, like a robbery or death of a loved one or car accident. We let these little incidents of life go by without any real concern. Perhaps we feel embarrassed to admit how much a poor marriage or teenager defiance or even workplace stress really does affect us.

Can parents acts as prevention specialists for our children. As adults, we need 17 hugs just to maintain normal living. Our children need them to counter the cumulative effects of stress on their lives to avoid PTCS – Post Traumatic Childhood Stress. If you don’t believe there is a such a thing, just observe children interacting on a play ground. There are some mean things thrown back and forth on the jungle gym, let me tell you! Add to that some homework pressures and the constant media bombardment of negative words and images and what child wouldn’t feel slightly traumatized? As parents, the least we can do is give some touch therapy with a few hugs a day.

John Bowlby, the great attachment theorist, stated that attachment is essential to normal development (see my blog post on this here). Guardians are supposed to be our safe haven from life. Home should be a place of refuge from the constant stress of school and work. Granted, there are chores and homework to be done but how can you carve our 30 minutes a day for some connection. Parents are quick to use Time-Out, how about some Time-In? It might be good for mom and dad too.

Starting today, give a few more hugs than usual. It is OK to start slow and work your way up. And yes, teenagers love them too. You just have to be a little more crafty in your approach.

 

Power of Silly

There are a lot of very good parenting techniques available to parents in the form of parenting books, videos and classes. I have written and taught them myself. What you don’t often hear about is how to “do” parenting when the rubber hits the road. How do you get through the daily grind of life and keep a cheerful face and engage your child (or for some us multiple children)? My best parenting advice is this: Be silly. I know, parenting should be serious, shouldn’t it? The truth is that it is serious way too often.

Silliness is a useful way to lighten up the mood in the home and to engage bored or irritable children. Over the years I have used variations on the silly theme with mostly good effect. Here’s a few to try on and see how they fit for you:

Change the game rules Parents can get exhausted playing the same old game of “Go Fish” or “Sorry.” Anything done hundreds of times can be hum drum. Spice it up by changing the game rules. Use a pirate voice when playing a card game. “Argh, give me your fours!” Narrate the characters in the book you read at bedtime every night. Act it out instead of reading it. This weekend I played my niece, nephews and grandson Ping Pong Poetry. Every time you hit the ball you have to rhyme a word: Ping, sing, ring, thing, king, etc. It resulted in several belly laughs.

Tell a joke This is perhaps the simplest silly strategy. Have a long car ride? Tell a few Knock-Knock jokes. OK, you might have to do a google search first to come up with a few but it will be worth the research! I have one I told me kids over and over again. They groaned every time I would start to tell it but I could tell by their smiles they loved the “tradition” of it as well. Want to hear it? “How do you make a hanky (hankerchief) dance? Put a little boogie in it.” Made you laugh? I know it is a little irreverent but isn’t that the point here?

Make up a song Need to get your kids to focus and march in a file through a store without touching everything? Come up with a marching song and sing it (quietly) as you go down the aisles. Preschool teachers do this all the time to get kids to clean up their mess and move to a new classroom activity. Use it at home too.

Food can be fun Got a picky eater? Dinner time always turns into a fight? Use the food to create some fun. Put coloring food into the milk. Make a game out of how slowly you can eat. Wiggle your nose at others around the table and see who can catch who doing it. Eat in courses, switch seats for each one or use your opposite eating hand to do it. Make faces out of the foot as you place it on the plate. We often use special pancake forms on the griddle to make dinosaur shapes. A lot of food is package in shapes of animals or other character. I enjoy bitting their heads off. Sorry, but I do. Have a crunching contest – keeps kids focused and eating mom!

Wear funny slippers My sister-in-law came over for the weekend and wore fluffy pink slippers most of the weekend. She was comfortable and the kids loved making fun of her. Keep a full house of people energized and in good humor. Alternate this strategy by wearing bright clothing, mix patterns or act cool in your shades. I am sure you have a few silly tricks up your sleeve.

Share them with us by leaving a comment or Facebook post or Tweet us! Let’s pool our silliness ideas together and use it to increase cooperation, enjoy each other more, and decrease stress levels.

Games Parents Play!

Sometimes parenting just seems like a game…that you can never win. The other team has more energy, more time, and more players. To help parents improve the odds, we’ve come up with some new “game plans” that might even the score.

Follow the Leader is a parenting tool that can be used in two ways: 1) As a game; and 2) as a “redirection” tool. When using this tool as a game, parents can invite their children to play “follow the leader.” This game is fun on family trips or vacations. Families with more than one child can have each child take turns leading the family hike or singing a song. The leader has the power to choose which forest path to take or which song to sing. Each child (and parent) gets the opportunity to be the leader, thereby encouraging equality and fairness. When used as a “redirection” tool controlling children can be direct their need to take charge of a particular task, such as getting the family together for dinner or organizing a wood gathering party for the campfire. Children who power-struggle with their parents can benefit from this latter application.

Freeze Play is a parenting tool variation of the Time-Out parenting tool. Time-out is usually conducted by isolating or excluding a child from the rest of the family or classroom. In this traditional form children are sent to their room, a chair in the kitchen, outside the classroom door, or left facing a wall. Time-Out has a number of disadvantages, the primary one being that it involves the use of punishment that may seem harsh to some parents and children. Some children may become out-of-control or physically destructive when put in isolation or exclusion time-out. Fortunately, parents can use a different form of time-out, that behaviorists call “nonexclusionary time-out.”

Nonexclusionary time-out, like isolation and exclusionary time-out, eliminates reinforces (interaction with others). It accomplishes this by freezing the moment of interaction with the child for a very brief, but poignant amount of time. For example, if a child starts whining when told they must wait for dinner to eat, the parent can firmly but evenly, say, “stop!” The parent then avoids eye contact (i.e., attention during the discipline) for a few seconds and the child is prohibited from communicating during this time. Afterwards the parent can nonchalantly carry on the task at hand or use Time-In or educational parenting tool. Be careful not to place too much emphasis on talking about the misbehavior afterwards as it might inadvertently reinforce the child to misbehave again for the attention it gains.

It might be necessary for the parent to tell the child what is going to happen during “freeze play” and the expectation that their will be no communication/eye contact during that time, so that the child knows why the parent is “acting this way.” In addition, the old rule of thumb for time-out, one minute for every year of life, can be used in Freeze Play by substituting seconds for minutes (e.g., one frozen second for every year of life.)

Huddling is a parenting tool similar in function to the Family Meeting parenting tool but different in form. Huddling is a quick, informal, type of family meeting that any number of family members can have together and can occur at any time or place. Football players do this before every play to make sure the team knows what the plan is and to make clear everyone’s job. Rather that set an agenda and have a formal meeting. Family members can stop whatever they are doing to have a quick, little meeting about a specific problem or task. Parents can play the captain by telling the family to “huddle together.” Put arms around one another for support or just gather together in a circle, face in. Talk about the problem or task and assign jobs or ask for quick input. Decide on a plan of action and say “lets go!” Parents can use this tool at the zoo to decide what they are going to go see first, at the restaurant to decide what everyone wants to eat, and at home to decide what toys need to be gather before going to the park.

While these “game plans” don’t guarantee a winning season, they can coach parents on new ways to improve there performance and their satisfaction in parenting. Go parents!