Sometime children’s inordinate need for attention, their avoidance of self-responsibility and parents’ power struggles with them become a recurrent dance of escalating discord. In order to stop this “tit for tat” situation, Dr. Paul Standal helps parents to identify and isolate the underlying needs driving their child’s behavior. He helps the family understand and change their own maladaptive reactions as well as their child’s responses. In terms of encouraging healthy parenting styles, he helps you to understand what the child’s needs are and how you as a parent can respond to encourage your child’s more satisfying or mature behavior. Below we look at beliefs and typical responses by both the child and parent and what may be needed and what to encourage as a parent in order to stop the cycle of discord that many parents have with their children.
Perhaps the most common area of discord with children, especially pre-adolescents, is their demand for undue attention in order to keep others busy or to get special service. Parents generally begin to feel annoyed, irritated, worried or guilty, particularly when they are involved in something else. They may respond by reminding, coaxing, or doing things for the child that they could do for themselves. When the parent gives in to providing one-on-one attention, the behavior may stop temporarily, but usually later resumes with the same or another disturbing behavior.
The belief behind the child’s behavior is: “I count (belong) only when I’m being noticed or getting special service.”
The most effective intervention as a parent is to redirect in a healthy manner the child’s need to be involved and to participate. In essence the child is saying “involve me.” Redirect by involving the child in a useful task. “I love you and…” (Example: I care about you and will spend time with you later.) Avoid special service. Say it only once, then act. Plan special time. Establish routines. Take time for training. Set up nonverbal signals.
Power Struggles (to be boss)
Power struggles with children, particularly with adolescents, can be very frustrating for parents. A child’s need for control, in some ways, is a natural consequence of their stage of development in seeking a sense of independence and self-efficacy. This need can become maladaptive when the adolescent’s underlying belief becomes “I belong only when I’m boss or in control, or proving no one can boss me” or “You can’t make me.” If the parent/child relationship has lost a sense of collaboration, the parent’s reaction becomes angry, challenged, threatened, defeated fighting. They may end up giving in, or thinking, “You can’t get away with it” or “I’ll make you.” The child or adolescent may become passive/aggressive, believing they belong only when they demonstrate that they are the boss or in control, or proving no one can boss them. “You can’t make me.”
Wanting to be right intensifies behavior. The adolescent may exhibit a defiant compliance, but also feel they have won the power game if the parent gets upset.
The most important intervention for a parent in this situation is to realize the underlying message of the child is perhaps to let them help and/or give them choices. Acknowledge that you can’t make him/her do something, and then ask for his/her help. Offer a limited choice. Withdraw from conflict and calm down. Be firm and kind. Act, don’t talk. Decide what you will do. Let routines be the boss. Get help from the child to set reasonable and few limits. Practice follow-through. Redirect to positive power.
Inadequacy or Helplessness (Assumed)
Another frustrating area of contention, with both children and adolescents, is their unwillingness to take on self-responsibility. They may have feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and inadequacy. Many kids, especially those struggling with depression, tend to give up and isolate themselves. They believe that they do not belong, so they convince others not to expect anything of them. They may act out an attribution that reinforces their belief that, “I am helpless and unable,” or “It’s no use trying because I won’t do it right.”. Even when parents respond by making them do the requested behavior over, the child shows a passivity, doesn’t improve or avoids trying.
The most important intervention for a parent in this situation is not to give up on the child, but show them how to legislate wins in small steps. Take time for training, incorporating small, incremental steps in the process. Make the task easier until the child experiences success. Show faith. Encourage any positive attempt, no matter how small. Don’t give up. Enjoy the child. Build on his/her interests. Say, “I don’t give up on you.”
Retaliation (to get even)
In a way, the most difficult challenge for parents is when their child takes revenge or retaliates towards others in socially inappropriate ways. The child or adolescent’s underlying self-attribution may be, “I’ll hurt others as I feel hurt. If can’t be liked or loved, I’ll be feared.” Parents who encounter this with their child may feel hurt, frightened, disappointed, disbelieving, or even disgusted. Parents may respond by retaliating, getting even and thinking, “How could you do this to me?” They may take their children’s behavior personally. Often, if the child is troubled, they may escalate their retaliation by hurting others, damaging property or getting even. They may escalate the same behavior or choose another behavior.
It should be noted that these behaviors can be a function of age and lack of socialization, but also can be a sign of a more troubling situation with kids who show a pattern of destructive conduct.
The most important intervention for a parent in this situation is to realize the child’s underlying message is perhaps “Help me. I’m hurting.” The parent’s best tack is to help his child identify and deal with the hurt feelings: “Your behavior tells me you must feel hurt. Can we talk about that?” Use reflective listening. Don’t take behavior personally. Share your feelings. Apologize if you have been in the wrong and have been hurtful. Avoid punishment and retaliation. Show you care. Encourage strengths.
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