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Do You Fight with Your Child Every Night?

By Janet Lehman, MSW

Homework, chores, TV, computer time, bedtime: are each of these areas potential land mines that can start a fight with your child each night? If you answer that question with a “yes,” you’ve already taken the first step toward making things better. You’ve recognized that there is a pattern of behavior and interaction with your child that isn’t working for you or your family. Often, as parents we get stuck in repeated problem situations with our kids and don’t even realize it. But, if you’ve already figured out that every evening during the week, no matter what you do, things always seem to erupt into a fight — you’ve identified a pattern of behavior that can be changed.

“There is no magic way to make your evening run smoothly, but the key to more success is having routine and structure.”

Does this sound familiar?
You rush home from work, still worried about a project you didn’t complete, and rather than having some time to yourself you have to immediately referee a fight between your kids over who ate the last cookie. After you settle that, your youngest child breaks into tears over his spelling test, and your oldest is refusing to pick up her room and do her laundry. Both are demanding to watch TV, and all you can do is yell at them and send them to their rooms. You’re hungry, they’re hungry and you have no idea what’s for dinner…not a great way start the evening.

Related: Parenting Program for Disrespect, Lying, Verbal Abuse and More
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Evenings are ripe for this kind of problem situation. The kids seem to need your time and attention as soon as you walk through the door, while you may feel like you’re being bombarded with multiple demands. Add to this the time pressures you feel to get dinner on the table, homework completed, rooms picked up, dishes done, and get kids to bed on time. In short, it can feel overwhelming to everyone. You’re all tired and frazzled, and unfortunately, it’s the perfect set-up for a fight.

Related: Oppositional, defiant kid making you crazy?

First Things First: Setting up Transition Time
Transitions throughout the day are often difficult for kids — and parents, too. Kids have difficulty going from the structured school day to the more open-ended home routine, or going from a day of play to an evening of chores and homework. Parents often have to go from a busy, demanding work environment to an equally demanding home environment, with little to no break in between, except a stressful commute with a last-minute rush to pick the kids up on time at day care or their after-school program. No wonder fights break out!

I remember when my son was younger and I would come home from work, both he and I needed a short break before getting to the evening tasks. We built that into the routine so that I wasn’t demanding that he immediately do chores when I got in the door, and he wasn’t immediately demanding my undivided attention. I’d come in the house saying something like, “Hey, I’m glad to see you and want to hear about your day, but I need about 10 minutes to change my clothes and then I can help you with your homework.” We’d give each other about 10 minutes and then start doing what needed to be done that evening. At first we both needed some reminders to follow through on this.

Kids often have a difficult time adjusting to allowing parents this “space” for themselves, so you may need to give them many reminders. It’s difficult not to get angry at your kids when they can’t give you some small piece of time for yourself, but try saying in a matter-of-fact manner — “Just let me have my space and then I’ll help you.” Kids really do need their parent’s attention, but rarely is it urgent. They can learn to respect another person’s need for space. A way to respond to this need for attention is to build a “check-in” time in the routine, where they have your undivided attention and can tell you all about their day and their needs.

Related: How to parent your children calmly and effectively.

Set up a structured routine
Kids do best with structure and routine; often, if there is none, chaos can result. The structure itself can be tight, as in the classroom, or looser, with more general rules and expectations. In order to figure out the best way to set up your evening routine, it’s important to know what your individual child needs and what’s important to your family. For example, a child who struggles with sitting to do homework may need small breaks built into the homework time.

The afterschool/evening routine can include: homework, snack, chores, help with preparing dinner, setting the table, cleaning up after dinner, computer time, reading, TV time, and bedtime. These can be tailored to your children, their ages and capabilities. An effective way to set up this routine and keep everyone’s attention is to create a written schedule for the evening. It should be displayed where reminders are most needed, like in the kitchen or homework area. Engaging kids in creating the schedule will also help them feel more for actually following the routine.

Special Evening Challenges:
Homework Hell: Screaming, yelling, fighting, doing the work for your child or simply giving up doesn’t work when it comes to getting kids to do their homework. First and foremost, kids need to be responsible for doing their own work. School will give them consequences for not completing it adequately, but you can help to set the scene for maximum success by setting clear expectations with clear consequences around schoolwork, making time and space in the evening routine, and helping as needed (and only as needed).

It’s important to set up the space and the environment that is most conducive to your child doing the work. Generally, that means a quiet space with few distractions and disruptions.

Know your child and his or her ability to tolerate homework demands. If you’re unsure about this —for example you don’t know why they can sail through their math assignment but seem tortured when having to write a simple sentence — talk with their teacher about how your child learns best. As parents, we don’t automatically know this, but teachers are focused on learning styles and skills. Reaching out to the teacher also creates a partnership between parent and teacher that supports your child’s learning. And, they may have very helpful ideas about setting up routines that best match your child’s needs.

Fighting over Chores: Nagging, screaming, reminding over and over, or just giving up are natural, but not effective ways to get kids to do their chores. Giving up often feels like the easiest way out, but can lead to other problems. Kids learn that their parents don’t hold them responsible. They can mistakenly believe this to be true of other adults like teachers or bosses. Instead, holding your child responsible for following through on expectations — like chores — will teach her responsibility toward becoming a responsible adult.

A more effective response to getting your child to do chores is to calmly remind her of her responsibilities. It’s helpful if you have made a chart or poster that you can simply point to as a reminder. Not doing chores should have consequences that are important to that child, like loss of TV time, an earlier bedtime, reduced computer time, or less phone time. It’s important to make sure the chore is “doable” by your child, and you may need to clearly let them know what "clean your bedroom" means, for example. You can say, "You need to put all your dirty clothes in the hamper, make your bed, and tidy up." Sometimes we think kids know what we mean when we say something, but try not to assume. Being specific helps make sure both parties understand expectations.

Related: How to give consequences to kids — step by step.

Bedtime Battles: Bedtime is often a challenging time for kids. Like all effective routines, bedtime should be tailored to your child, his age and temperament. Some kids actually require more or less sleep than others their same age. It’s important for parents to pay attention to their own children’s “clocks.” Some are happy to settle down and fall asleep while others need to have a gradual transition to bed. Reading can be very helpful with bedtime routines for all kids at all reading levels, whether it’s picture books, magazines, or books. More time reading before lights out can also be a reward you give to your child for compliance during the day, and a good way to get them into bed at night.

For more on eliminating bedtime battles with kids of all ages, click here.

A special note about kids with ADHD: Often, kids with ADHD have meds that wear off around bedtime. This can be especially challenging to the child and the family. Kids are not generally aware that they are “winding up” just at the time when they should be “winding down.” You can pull them aside and quietly, without distractions, let them know that they need to calm down. If your child is older, you can talk with them about their meds and how bedtimes are a time when they need to work on having more self control. For younger children, having a bedtime routine chart with visual cues and activities that are tailored to their needs (one that includes everything from the time they come home from school to when they turn out the light for bed) will be helpful. If this still doesn’t work and the medication seems to be making things worse, it may be time to talk with the doctor about another medication with less time-sensitive effects.

No miracles — just routine and structure
There is no magic way to make your evening run smoothly, but the key to more success is having routine and structure. Once you’ve built that, you will be able to rely on it to remind your kids what they should be doing and to keep you all on track. They will feel more secure and will more clearly understand what you expect of them. The structured routine also allows you time to build in the attention your kids need and crave, but in a way that works best for everyone. Remember, as a parent, it’s your job to set up the routine, and it’s your child’s job to follow-through.

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About Janet Lehman, MSW

Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. In addition, Janet gained a personal understanding of child learning and behavior challenges from her son, who struggled with learning disabilities in school. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

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