There’s a difference between being considerate of your child and tiptoeing around them. We all want to be considerate of our children. If there are things that our children have to face in life that are upsetting to them, then we want to be considerate in terms of the intensity and frequency of how often they have to experience it to build up their coping skills. Work with them on what they find challenging and talk about it so that they build 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, we’re talking about being afraid to ask our child 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. For example, the primary effect is that the parent knows the kid’s going to act out at the mall, so they tiptoe around them at the mall and give in to their whims and demands because they’ve thrown tantrums there in the past.
The secondary effect is that 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 eating out with your family because your children won’t behave? Have you stopped going 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.
Here’s the bottom line about walking on eggshells around your child. If you tiptoe around them, the child senses that they have power over you, and they will use that power increasingly to manipulate you. As parents, we must turn that misplaced “power” into life skills. To do this, you have to set a firm limit and then do skill-building to teach them how to solve their problems appropriately.
Too many parents struggle because they set limits without doing the skill-building piece. 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 to stop taking them to the mall. You need to take them to the mall and teach them skills on how not to act out when things don’t go their way.
In The Total Transformation Program, we not only teach parents how to set limits, but we 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 them anymore. You can communicate with them.
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 their 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 have to keep blaming the school. Once you start to hold me responsible, I will act out against you.”
So you can see why so many parents find it easier to fight the school instead of 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 them, you buy them 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 them. 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 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 acting-out 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 can draw the line on inappropriate behavior, but they also need to coach their children on what they can do instead. Parents need to create a consequence structure geared toward skill-building and not just punishment. To transform your child’s behavior, as a parent, you need a new set of glasses through which to see your child’s behavior, a new way to talk to your child, and a new way to react to your child.
Tiptoeing is giving in to the child’s behavioral blackmail. What happens is that the child will give signals when they don’t like what’s going on, when they’re asked to do something they don’t want to do, or when they’re asked to stop something they’re doing.
Tiptoeing means giving in when they give 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 they start 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 them that if they don’t start now, they’ll lose a minute of electronics time. You can leave the room or wait a minute. Take that time to compose yourself, and then explain the consequences of their action.
If they continue to escalate, tell them they’ll lose any time they could have had on electronics 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 them 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 they’ve got them backed into the corner. But parents should not expect less of a child because of behavioral blackmail, and they shouldn’t accept less.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.