Gut Check: Do You Tiptoe around Your Child?

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Gut Check: Do You Tiptoe around Your Child?

“It was always like walking on eggshells around here. Very tense,” says Josephine, mother of 17-year-old Jamie. “She was totally disrespectful and condescending and I was ready to throw her out.” Josephine recalls how her “blood was always boiling” at home because her daughter’s unending anger stoked her own anger, and she dreaded the next behavioral eruption. “I would ask her to do things rather than tell her to do things just so I wouldn’t set her off. I’d get drawn into these screaming matches and the ‘Why? Why? Why?’ Now that I’ve realized how I need to be communicating with her, and what to say to her, I haven’t raised my voice and we haven’t argued in weeks.”

A kid with behavior problems becomes a tyrant who assigns everybody in the family certain roles. To tiptoe around a child means to conform to the roles that the child assigns to you and everyone else in your home.

There’s a difference between being considerate of your child and tiptoeing around him. We all want to be considerate of our children. If there are things that our child has to face in life that are upsetting to him, then we want to be considerate in terms of the intensity and frequency of how often he has to experience it in order to build up a tolerance. So, that means if the child can’t swim, per se, don’t throw him in the pool. But work with him on what he finds challenging and talk about it so that he builds up more of a tolerance and a skill base.

But let’s talk about tiptoeing around kids who are very reactive in a negative way. When we start tiptoeing, then we’re talking about being afraid to ask the kid to do routine responsibilities or to meet age appropriate expectations because we’re afraid of that child’s reaction. When we do this, it sets up a primary effect and a secondary effect. The primary effect is that the parent knows the kid’s going to act out at the mall, so they tiptoe around him at the mall and give in to his whims and demands because he’s thrown tantrums there in the past. The secondary effect is, the parent stops going to the mall altogether. So first they tiptoe and then they stop activities completely. Think about your own life with your child. Have you stopped going out to eat with your family because your child or children won’t behave? Have you stopped doing to relatives’ houses or do you make excuses why you “can’t make it” because you’re afraid of how the kids will act? That’s tiptoeing around your child.

The More Timid You Are Around Him, the More Power He Senses Over You

Here’s the bottom line about walking on eggshells around your child. If you tiptoe around him, the child senses that he has power over you, and he will use that power increasingly to manipulate you. As parents, we have to turn that misplaced “power” into life skills. To do this, you have to set a firm limit and then do skill building to teach him how to solve his problems appropriately.

Part of the problem parents have is that they set the limits without doing the skill building. They put the hammer down after the child acts out, but they don’t show the child how to act appropriately. If you don’t want the child to act out at the mall, it’s not enough just stop taking him to the mall. You need to take him to the mall and then teach him skills on how not to act out when things don’t go his way. In The Total Transformation Program, I teach parents how to set limits, and I also give them the tools for skill building and show them how to build those skills with their children. If you do this with your child, you don’t have to “walk softly” around him anymore. You can simply communicate with him.   

A kid with behavior problems becomes a tyrant who assigns everybody certain roles. To tiptoe around a child means to conform to the roles that the child assigns everyone in your home. So his siblings are his victims. One parent is the martyr. One parent is the boogeyman. The child assigns all these roles to the family members, and, without thinking too much about it, they fall into those roles because if they play these parts, the child doesn’t act out.

So if you’re the martyr, your child basically created that role for you and is saying, “I won’t direct my acting out at you. I’ll direct it to the school. If you don’t want me to act out toward you, you just have to keep blaming the school. Once you start to hold me responsible, I’m going to act out against you.” So you can see why so many parents find it easier to fight the school than to fight their child.

Some kids send their parents this message: “If you buy me things, I won’t act out against you.” So, they don’t act out with the deep pockets parent, and they rebel against the parent who can’t buy them things. Deep pockets parenting is essentially tiptoeing around your child. To avoid confrontation with him, you buy him things.

Let’s be honest. We all tiptoe around each other to some degree. If somebody’s upset, that’s not the time to tease him. If somebody’s embarrassed or humiliated about something, that’s not the time to be sarcastic and rude. But these kids teach you to tiptoe around them in all cases where there’s some demand that they perform appropriately. They want to have the choice and the power. They want to be able to say, “Hey, if I feel like doing it I will. But if I don’t, don’t you try to make me.”

Remember: our basic theory is that kids use behavior to compensate for poor problem solving skills. So if you have a kid who has not solved the problem of authority, the problem of give and take with others, the problem of getting along with people, or the problem of respecting adults, your child will develop these different power behaviors to avoid learning these essential problem solving skills.

To change this behavior, parents need a process through which they draw the line and then they start to follow it. But they also need to develop more skill building and a consequence structure that is geared toward skill building and not just punishment. They need a new set of glasses through which to see their child’s behavior, and a new way to talk to their child.

How You Can Stop Tiptoeing around Your Child Right

Tiptoeing is giving in to the child’s behavioral blackmail. What happens is that the child will give signals when he doesn’t like what’s going on. When he’s asked to do something he doesn’t want to do. Or when he’s asked to stop something he’s doing. Tiptoeing means giving in when he gives those signals. You read the signals and change your demands. Not giving in is a matter of keeping the expectations firm and consistent even when he starts to escalate.

An example of escalation is when you tell the child to do their homework. They say “No!” and slam their book down on the table. Instead of giving in, give it a minute, and remind him that if he doesn’t start now, he’ll lose a minute of computer time. You can leave the room or wait a minute. Take that time to build yourself up, and then explain what the consequences of his actions will be. If he continues to escalate, tell him he’ll lose any time he could have had on the computer that evening. That’s how they’re going to learn. The parent should avoid yelling and avoid overt conflict.

Your tone should be firm and businesslike, not unpleasant. Often with these kids their behavior will escalate when they’re being told to do something. So it’s not accepting those cues or giving them any attention at all, and then redirecting the child, giving him a minute to calm down.

The truth is, parents can get into patterns that become increasingly more ineffective as the child gets older. Parents want to do the right thing, but sometimes they’re overwhelmed and they take shortcuts. Before they know it, the kid is nine, twelve or sixteen and he’s got them backed into the corner. But parents should not expect less of a child because of the behavioral blackmail and they shouldn’t accept less.

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

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