“My child is out of control!” I have heard this heartfelt cry so many times from parents who are frustrated at not being obeyed. But the problem is not simply a matter of exacting compliance. Let’s start by considering the complaint.
When you say “out of control,” you mean “out of my control.” The child is not necessarily out of his own control. It’s an important distinction. In fact you, the parent, have ever diminishing control once he has ceased to be a babe in arms. (Read “his or her” whenever I say “his” below, please.)
Let’s say you believe the kid can regulate his behavior. If so, you may well ask, why does he tantrum? Does he really expect to get what he wants simply by wearing me out?
The tantrum becomes a calculated strategy only when it consistently prompts you to gratify your child’s wishes. At first it’s a response to frustration, which produces tension and stress. Very young kids don’t know how to cope with these, and they may explode just to release pent-up energy. You may need to take a deep breath, stand back, and let the storm pass without trying to mollify your child. As his vocabulary and knowledge base grow, he will try to win you over in other ways.
What should you do, then, when the child is older and repeatedly engages in behaviors—teasing, insulting, hurting others—that are unacceptable and seem to confer no benefit? You may have tried in vain to persuade him to stop. You may have offered lectures, instruction, and directives to improve matters. Nothing seems to work.
When the child’s behavior is bad, invite him to tell you why he acted as he did. The best time to do this is not when he is upset, or when you are, but when both of you have calmed down. Explore your child’s thoughts and feelings during each incident. Avoid interrupting or correcting him as he talks. Your aim is twofold: you want him to feel he can speak freely to you, that you will listen no matter the subject, and you want complete information. If you jump in while he is talking, you will not get a full report.
Also ask him to describe better behavior. If you believe he will be unable to think through different alternatives, dream up a hypothetical son whose mother has voiced her concerns to you. Invent a story that describes a situation similar but not identical to that of your child. You can then tell your kid, “This is how he behaved. What else do you think he could have done? What should I have said to his mom?” For children, as for adults, it is often easier to judge other people’s actions than it is our own.
Ask your child what resources or other help might have kept him from acting as he did. Remember that kids tend to see their actions as the logical consequence of the stimulus. In the child’s view, if you want the response to change, then the stimulus must change. Age and maturity bring the realization that you can handle any situation in different ways.
If he seems able to solve the problem by exercising greater self-control, encourage him to exercise it. Invite him to identify appropriate incentives. When he behaves well, he could enjoy new privileges in the family, be exempted from some of his usual chores, or get special one-on-one time with you. Avoid promising new toys, money, or food in exchange for good behavior.
Plan to let your child help you assess the effectiveness of the strategy. Set a target date for reassessment as you wrap up your discussion of the problem and ways of fixing it.
Take him at his word. Sometimes parents are shocked or disbelieving when the child says, “I can’t help it.” If you accept his statement as true at least for the moment, you allow him to test its accuracy. In this way you help your child develop self-awareness. Maybe he will discover the possibility of self-restraint. You lend credence to what he says also when you ask him questions so that you understand more fully what he is saying.
If he says he has no control when he behaves badly, consider the possibility that he’s right. You may not be able simply to eliminate the problem altogether. Instead you may need to find a different behavior to replace the troublesome one. For example, a child can learn to step back and swing his arm behind his body anytime he feels the urge to step forward and hit someone.
Rehearse the desired behavior. This step is especially important for very young children, who may not know exactly what you are asking for. By walking them through the right way, you create a memory and keep them from having to learn by trial and error.
Seize all opportunities to encourage your child. Offer him praise not for who he is—smart, talented, handsome—but for what he did well. When you do, you are reinforcing good habits. Your child, like everyone else, wants more than anything else to please the people who are important to him.
When you have targeted a problem behavior, keep track of your child’s performance, both successes and relapses. Consult the record to see whether your chosen strategy is paying off. If it is not, change it. Enlist your child’s help in doing so.
If results remain unsatisfactory and the behavior is still unacceptable, ask your child whether he’s willing to try a magic pill to address the problem. If he is, call the psychiatrist. Every step of the way, make sure your child understands that you will provide resources to help him, but the responsibility for managing his behavior and telling you what he needs rests with him.
The corollary, of course, is that your child’s bad behavior is not your fault. Most parents identify with their children: they see their children as part of themselves. Biologically, of course, this view seems justifiable. And yet your child is not you. Your child is a new person needing to test his wings and learn from his own mistakes. Do not attempt to shield him from appropriate opportunities to do so.
Resist the temptation to assume that your child’s mistakes are evidence of your shortcomings as a parent. You can blame yourself for his mishaps but only if you can stop, rewind the videotape, parent differently, pay the tape forward, and observe that the results are different. Of course no one can do this. Cut yourself some slack.
Once you have accepted and acknowledged your own relative lack of control over your offspring, start noticing your own anxiety. Let your child learn from his mistakes, start trusting his judgment, and take responsibility for himself. Show him by your example healthy ways of making himself feel better in moments of stress and distress.