Ever wonder why your child continues to misbehave, no matter what you do? You may be skipping some critical steps in parenting. Don’t miss part two of our series on why consequences alone aren’t enough to change your child’s behavior.
There’s no such thing as a perfect consequence that will make your child’s behavior “magically” change. Rather, there are effective and ineffective consequences. Ineffective consequences teach your child how to do time—how to be grounded for a few weeks, or how to live without his video games or cell phone. Effective consequences have two main goals: to teach your child and to hold him accountable. It’s a very important distinction, and could mean the difference between seeing change or becoming frustrated and resentful about your child’s behavior.
"Parents who are effective limit setters also limit themselves. They have limits on how they react to unwanted behaviors—and what they will react to at all."
In addition to giving effective consequences, in The Total Transformation, James Lehman says that you need to play three main roles as a parent: the Trainer/Coach, the Problem Solver, and the Limit Setter. In the first part of this series on Empowering Parents, I explained how the Trainer/Coach role works. Today I’m going to tell you how to take on the all-important Problem Solver role and the powerful Limit Setter role. Understand that these three roles work together and often overlap, but don’t let this intimidate you—they absolutely can be learned and practiced until they come to you naturally. On the Parental Support Line, I work with parents every day to teach them how to use all three to become more effective and help change their children’s behavior.
The Problem Solver Role
The Problem Solver role is quite similar to the Trainer/Coach, though its emphasis is more on using problem-solving to develop new skills. The Problem Solver focuses on setting goals and identifying the obstacles that are in the way. In this role, you might help your child to anticipate future problems and discuss how he can solve them before they happen. For example, you might say, “Someone will offer you drugs some day. What will you say? Here’s what you can do...” As a problem solver, you’ll talk about your expectations of your child in a clear, specific way. So for example, instead of saying, “Be a good boy in the grocery store today,” the problem solver parent would say, “We’re going to the store to get the things on our list. I expect you not to ask for anything and to keep your hands to yourself inside the cart instead of grabbing stuff off the shelves.” Additionally, the Problem Solver parent is open to trying new rules and letting their child have a chance to earn an age-appropriate amount of independence while engaging him in the process. For example, let’s say your 16-year-old daughter wants a later curfew—she wants to come in at 11:30 p.m. instead of 11:00. You might say, “You can’t even make it home at 11, and you want me to let you stay out even later? I don’t think so!” But the problem solving parent would begin by finding out why your daughter isn’t making it home on time right now. What’s the problem? The Problem Solver would say, “I understand you want a later curfew, but you seem to be struggling to get home by 11. What’s going on? What’s keeping you from being home on time?” And then talk about what she can do differently to make curfew. You have to identify the problem before we can find a solution.
Once you talk about the problem and find a new solution, you might tell your daughter that you’re going to try an 11:30 p.m. curfew if she comes home on time at 11 p.m. for the next week. Let her know exactly what you need to see in order for her to achieve that goal. “Coming home on time for the next seven days,” is specific and observable. You also let her know what will happen if it goes well: You’ll let her keep the new curfew. If it doesn’t go well, you’ll go back to the 11 p.m. curfew for the time being.
The Limit Setter Role
The Limit Setter parent sets limits and rules and follows through without justifying himself, defending his actions or over-explaining to the child. For example, if your child is challenging you about his driving privileges and wants to drive three of his friends to a place somewhere outside of town, using the Limit Setter role you would respond in a calm and businesslike way, stating, “You can’t drive your friends to another town and you can’t have more than one friend in the car at a time. That’s the rule until you have more experience behind the wheel.” Then, you’ll walk away if your child argues, begs, or pleads. So essentially, effective limit setters also limit themselves. They have limits on how they react to unwanted behaviors—and what they will react to at all. They ignore bad attitudes and don’t try to force their child into compliance by constantly reminding, nagging, pushing, threatening or “doing” for the child. The effective limit setter won’t cross that line because they know it doesn’t work. Rather, they expect compliance and they hold their kids accountable when they don’t comply.
By compliance, I mean that your child is doing the task you asked him to do: the dishwasher is being unloaded, the chores are getting done or he’s going to his room. Pay no mind if he has a scowl on his face or if he’s stomping his feet or mumbling under his breath—this is the attitude piece that we need to ignore. So as James Lehman says in The Total Transformation Program, “You’re not there to prevent your kid from doing things, you’re there to deal with what he does and hold him accountable.” Your current goal might be to make your child do his homework every night at any cost. If so, realize that this mindset isn’t going to work. Instead, your focus should be on setting a standard and holding your child accountable to that. What this might look like is: no electronics each night until your teen has studied for an hour first. If he doesn’t do his homework, he doesn’t get to play video games or video chat with his friends that day, and he can try again tomorrow. This is how you hold your child accountable. Understand that if you set that standard and you don’t follow through—if you let him play his video games before his work is done—your child learns that your words and limits are meaningless.
Let me be clear that there are exceptions. If you make a poor choice and give a really ineffective consequence out of anger, you don’t have to follow through on that. Let’s say your child has come in late, and you tell him that he’s not allowed to go out for the rest of the summer. The cost might be worse than the benefit, and what’s more, it’s not effective. So you can acknowledge your mistake, give a new consequence that’s more effective, and follow through on that one instead.
Using the 3 Parenting Roles: What Kind of Pushback Can You Expect?
You might be wondering, “Once I’m practicing these three parenting roles fairly consistently, what changes can I expect to see?” Initially most parents can expect their kids to be pretty unhappy. When you stop explaining yourself or engaging in power struggles with your kids, it can be really upsetting for them and hard for them to adjust to. So recognize that resistance is normal. Your child will test you to see if you really are changing, or if they can get you to go back to your old ways instead. After all, they were the ones in control back then. They could drive you crazy, make you scream and get you to give in by acting out of control. Imagine how powerful they must have felt! Now as they see you changing, they might follow you around, badger you, talk back, and try to push your buttons. But the key is to walk away and let your kids know their behavior is not going to get them what they want. Don’t adjust your standards based on their emotional state or ugly behavior. Remind yourself that you can get through this initial escalation; things will get better if you stay calm and consistent in the face of your child’s anger and resistance.
I want to make an important note here: if your child’s behavior escalates to hurting someone else in the home, hurting themselves, becoming destructive or violent, or even threatening to hurt themselves or someone else, we recommend that you consider calling the police to ensure everyone’s safety. In some cases, it’s also necessary for parents to have support from someone locally, such as a counselor or family therapist, to work through this escalation period in a safe way that’s appropriate for your child.
Creating a Culture of Accountability
Once you become a more experienced Trainer/Coach, Problem Solver and Limit Setter, you will gradually see your child’s self esteem getting better; his attitude may even improve in the bargain. In The Total Transformation, James Lehman says that, “You can’t feel your way to better behavior; you have to behave your way to better feelings.” He felt that the key to self esteem is for your child to learn to do things that are hard. That’s why improved self esteem is another product of effective parenting, because you’re teaching your child how to do things that are hard.
Another byproduct of using the three effective parenting roles is that you’re going to create a “Culture of Accountability” in your home. What does this mean exactly? It means that the more you hold your child accountable for his behaviors, the more he’ll learn. He’ll find that blaming others doesn’t get him out of his responsibilities, that kicking and screaming in the store doesn’t get him what he wants, that putting chores off doesn’t get him out of doing them, and that being verbally abusive or destructive doesn’t make his curfew later. It’s a long process, but your child will eventually learn that he’s responsible for his behavior and that you’ll hold him accountable if he doesn’t step up and take responsibility on his own. With time and practice, this can gradually become the culture in your home.
Will things ever be perfect? Probably not. After all, life is always giving us new problems to solve. But now, you’ll have the skills as a parent to get your family through the challenges you face along the way.