Dear 1-on-1 Coaching: I’ve been trying to be more consistent with consequences for my 13-year-old son. The problem is, he won’t give up his iPod when he breaks the rules. When I tell him to give it to me, he just says “make me.” To be honest, a few times I have grabbed him to get it , but that just makes him more angry. Sometimes he even shoves me, so I just drop it and walk away. But then he “wins” — he gets to break the rules and keep his iPod. By the way, the iPod is the only thing he likes, so it’s the only thing I am able to take away when he misbehaves. It seems like we are always fighting over either the rules or the consequences. Also, giving a consequence for every bad behavior is just making everything worse. What do I do?
Dear “Stumped Dad”:
I’m sure many of our readers are nodding their heads in agreement with you! Finding the right consequences or privileges — and following through with them — is one of the most difficult parts of parenting. Certainly getting into a physical power struggle defeats the purpose of an effective consequence.
As you’ve learned with your son, some kids have learned how to get out of their consequences by reacting physically: if they put up a fight, mom or dad will back down. Or, if mom and dad fight back, the child can then focus on the parents’ inappropriate behavior, rather than their own. Certainly, it is not effective to physically force anyone to surrender something. Kids know this, and they often use sheer resistance as a last ditch effort to take control. Since this is happening in your family, it sounds like you need a new plan.
1. “There is no excuse for abuse.” First and foremost, let your child know that there is no excuse for abuse in your home, and physical aggression will not be tolerated. If your child resists complying with a consequence, simply state, “Fighting with me is not going to change the rules. You know what you need to be doing right now.” Then, walk away. Yes, sometimes this means your child will keep the item. The important thing is to stay out of the power struggle. Remember, as James Lehman says, engaging in a power struggle with your child only gives him a sense of control.
2. Have your child tell you what he’ll do next time. Once the situation has calmed down, let your child know that the item in question will go away until he comes up with how he’s going to comply with the rules more appropriately next time. If this is an ongoing issue for you, you might even use it as an opportunity for your child to earn more privileges. So for example, when you see him surrendering his iPod at the appropriate time, he earns an extra half-an-hour on his curfew. If he doesn’t surrender it appropriately, he gets no extra time. (For more on stepping out of power struggles, see James’ article “Power Struggles Part I: Are You at War with a Defiant Child?”)
Remember, effective consequences help your child improve their behavior. If you are getting into more power struggles, or your child’s behavior is not improving, you may need to reevaluate your consequences.
3. Match one privilege to one behavior or task. While it can be tempting to use the same consequence for everything, it can often backfire, as you’ve said: your child will lose the privilege more often than he earns one; your child can earn it for one thing only to lose it for something completely different (which leads to frustration and more non-compliance); and if they’ve already lost it for the day, many kids will give up and not follow any more rules. And why should they? They’ve already lost the one thing they could earn. You also make a lot more work for yourself: keeping track of what they lost, and why, and when they can have it back! You are more likely to see improvement and compliance if you focus on one or two behaviors at a time, and match a specific privilege to that behavior or task. That consistency makes it easier on the parent as well — no more frantically trying to come up with a consequence in the moment, or keeping track of who lost what when!
4. Focus on one thing at a time. Most parents have a long list of things they want their child to do differently. but let’s face it — bombarding someone with every little thing they are doing wrong is unlikely to make them change. In fact, if a kid is in trouble every time they turn around, they are likely to feel so overwhelmed, they won’t even bother to try. You are more likely to be successful if you choose one or two “top” behaviors, focus on the skills your child needs to improve, and use consequences to encourage practice of those new skills. Once there has been improvement, you can build on that experience as you move on to the next most pressing behaviors on your list. You may even see that as your child improves his skills in one area, he naturally improves in others.
5. Increase your currency. If, like “Stumped Dad,” you feel you have few privileges to use, have a discussion with your child about what they might like to earn on a daily basis. Even if your child says they only care about one thing, you may be surprised at what they come up with — for example, earning more time on the computer, a later curfew, driving time for their permit, or more minutes on their cell phone. Remember — privileges are the “currency” you use to get your child to do something they have no interest in doing: use what they want to help you get what you want.
6. Give, rather than take away. Rather than struggle to remove an item from your child, consider having the item off-limits until the desired task is done — that way you get to give the item (or have it turned on), rather than have it surrendered. For example, let’s say your child needs to complete his homework by 5 p.m. each school day. When he has successfully completed it, he can have his iPod until bedtime. If he can’t complete the task, he won’t get the item that day, but he gets to try again the next day. Of course, this means that at some point, the item needs to be in your possession. If your child does not surrender the item without a struggle, you may need to use a different item as a privilege to avoid that.
7. Control what you can. When thinking about consequences and privileges, you might choose items over which you have more control, such as cell phones or internet access. Many cell phone companies will allow you to turn a cell phone off and on remotely, rather than having to have physical possession of the phone. Some internet companies also provide parents with ways of limiting access. Check with your local providers to see what parental controls are available. For battery-powered items, you might keep possession of the charging unit, letting your child know that the electronics only get charged when the work is done. If your older teen is working towards her license, a privilege might be logging daily driving time — which you can easily withhold. While this may seem petty, the important thing is to control what you can, without getting into verbal or physical power struggles with your child.
Remember to keep your consequences simple and direct, and step away from power struggles when they happen. Work on one or two behaviors at a time, match one privilege to one task, and give your child an opportunity to earn their privileges every day. For more ideas, you might also check out “why don’t consequences work for my teen”. Good luck!