Re-Writing Your Groundhog Day: 3 Tips to Help You Flip the Script with Your Child
The mom on the other end of the line sounded exhausted: “It feels like we keep having the same arguments over and over. I really need this to stop! How can I turn this around so we can move forward instead of spinning our wheels and digging ourselves deeper?”
It is so maddening to feel like you are experiencing déjà vu, having the same arguments and power struggles every day and feeling powerless to stop it. One parent I spoke with described it as a parenting version of the movie Groundhog Day! As frustrating as this is, believe it or not, it can actually be an advantage to have those same arguments constantly. They can help you anticipate the power struggle, and plan for how your response will differ next time. We call this process “scripting.”
Here are some tips to make sure that your script — your planned conversations with your child — are as effective as possible. (I’ll give you an example of how a parent can use these tips next.)
1. Be calm. The point of scripting is to assist you in remaining calm and objective, and so we recommend letting your child know what the future consequences will be when things are going relatively well. An ideal time to have this conversation is when you are problem-solving with your child after an incident. When you are planning out your child’s response with him, you can let him know at that time what your response will be when you are not in the middle of an argument.
2. Be clear. As with planning with your child about what she can do differently, it is helpful if you are very specific in how your response will change, and how you are going to hold her accountable. The more specific you can be, the better! In your script, be sure to address what you will do, when you will do it, and how long your child will experience this consequence.
3. Be consistent. Planning is effective only if the script is followed! It is very important that you pick a consequence that you will not only follow through on, but that you will follow through on every time your child does this behavior, even if you are tired, stressed, or overwhelmed, or your child starts to argue or escalate once it is implemented. As James Lehman reminds us, “It’s important to say what you mean and mean what you say, or else what you say becomes meaningless.”
Here’s an example. Jane is frequently in power struggles with her son Jack over doing his homework. These power struggles usually escalate into all-night arguments, with Jane lecturing Jack on the virtues of doing well in school, and Jack shouting, calling his mother names and not getting his work done. Jane realizes that this is not working, and contacts our parent coaching service for help. After working with the Coach, Jane develops a script going forward. She has a conversation with Jack about how he will handle homework differently — namely that he will write down his assignments in a planner, and commit to working on his homework at the kitchen table from 4-5 p.m. Once they come up with a plan for how Jack will behave differently, Jane says, “I appreciate you sitting down and talking this over with me, Jack. I hope we see some changes soon. I want to let you know that I will give you one reminder to start your homework from now on. If you choose not to do your homework, I want to let you know that you will not be able to play Xbox that night after dinner.” Things are going along well until one night Jack comes home and refuses to do his homework. Jane gives him his reminder, and he retorts, “Why should I? School is stupid and so are you!” Although Jane feels tempted to respond with more yelling, she remembers the plan and walks away from Jack to give him a chance to cool down and make his choice. Ultimately, Jack decides that he is not going to do his homework. Instead of feeling powerless, Jane simply uses the parent controls for the Xbox and turns off Jack’s access for the evening. When Jack starts yelling about how she isn’t being fair, Jane once again sets the limit and walks away, knowing that she doesn’t have to address the yelling at that moment, or justify her consequence.
Taking some time to plan out your response, and letting your child know your response ahead of time, offers a few benefits. By knowing what your response will be to his misbehavior, your child can make an informed decision about whether his inappropriate actions are “worth it” and knows what the consequence will be should he continue. You have the benefit of feeling calmer and more empowered, because you know already how you will respond to your child’s misbehavior, and you don’t have to try to come up with a plan in the moment.