As a clinical social worker who serves families, I often hear the following request from parents: “fix my kids.” “They won’t listen to me, they’re disrespectful, won’t do chores,” etc. I am sure you can add to this list. For such parents, I have a reassuring, although frustrating, solution: Your children can be “fixed,” but I can’t do it. What I will do is teach you how to do it. Now, how badly do you want to fix your kids?
You Get To Make the Rules
Times are changing fast, and so are we. But children’s basic needs are one thing that hasn’t changed over the years. Besides food, clothing, and shelter, children need to feel loved, need to feel safe and secure, and need to know that their parents are interested. Children will act in a way to make sure they get their needs met.
Now for the toolbox: Children need rules, boundaries, expectations and security. This is how your children will have their needs met. I know that we are all very busy. But you don’t have to give up your career or your sleep to be an effective, loving parent.
Your child needs rules. Think about how unsafe one might feel if there were no rules to follow. The good news is that you get to make the rules and your child gets to follow them. Your rules need to be clear and age appropriate, and most of all they need to be followed. Do not bend the rules; this gives the wrong message. You want your children to know that rules are to be followed and if they are not, there will be consequences. Your child needs to know about consequences and you also get to decide what they will be.
Children Will Test Those Rules
“But every time I try to stick to the rules, my child has a fit!” Yes, this is to be expected. Your child will always be testing the rules and always be testing you; he or she wants to make sure that you are in charge.
As the parent, it is appropriate for you to make decisions about bedtime, dinnertime, playtime, etc. Your children need to know that you are the boss; this helps them to feel safe and secure. And yet, because children recognize that they do not have control over these decisions, they will often “push their parent’s buttons” to feel control over something in this case, you.
My credo is never to respond emotionally to a child’s negative behaviors. This is what makes children think they have control. If a child can make you yell and scream, he or she has accomplished a lot and what you have on your hands is a power struggle. If you can control your responses and they can’t get a rise out of you, the behavior will usually fade away. But remember: You are the boss and you can prove this by maintaining your control.
The Importance of Boundaries
We also need to discuss boundaries, meaning how much we are willing to tolerate. This is when clear-cut punishment and discipline come into play. Some people like to call it “structure” and it is a must for every household.
Does your child have a curfew? Is your child allowed to swear in your home? How long can a child whine before he or she gets a timeout? Again, your child needs to know about these boundaries to feel safe and secure.
A teen may not want a curfew, but having one will let that child know that you care. Do you ask your teen where he or she is going and who will be with them? I know you want your teen to feel independent, but not asking can confuse the child into thinking that you are not interested. What if he or she comes home after curfew? Does he or she get punished? Again, let your teen know that you care, pay attention to what he or she is doing.
The same holds true for the little ones: How many times can your toddler say “no” to a bath before getting a timeout? Even little ones will respond to consistent boundaries.
Expectations Must Be Clear and Realistic
This leads to the issue of expectations. Let your children know exactly what you expect from them, and please be realistic. If you want your child to do chores, set up a chore chart so he or she knows what nights to clean up the table and what nights to take out the garbage. I know a lot of parents don’t like the idea of putting a chart on the fridge and using stickers, but it helps establish a routine and will help establish structure. Does your child get an allowance? Does the child earn it or is the cash simply given? Some families I’ve counseled have turned the allowance into an incentive.
Children need to know what to expect and what will happen next. This becomes a bigger issue than just chores; children feel safe and secure when they can anticipate what will happen next. A house with no rules, boundaries or expectations will confuse your child and make him or her anxious. Children often will act out in an effort to find out what the rules are, what the boundaries are and what you expect of them. They will act in ways to seek out the structure that they secretly desire.
Fulfill Your Child’s “Secret” Desire
Did you catch that word, secret? Most children will try to keep it a secret that they want rules and order in their lives, but don’t let them fool you. Parents often don’t realize why their children misbehave. It’s not because we are bad parents or because we have failed them. It can usually be attributed to their well-kept secret of needing a stable environment.
I am not preaching tough love or tyranny; I don’t believe in it. I am convinced, however, that parents can take a firm yet fair approach. Children will always be testing their parents; that’s what they do best. But they do it for a good reason. They want to make sure you love them. Structure in your home can provide them with a sense of security and help maintain your sanity.