If you’re a parent who isn’t stressed at the thought of managing a screaming, out-of-control – or controlling – child, then you should write a book and tell us how you do it. You’re going to be rich. For the rest of us, there are few tougher tests than dealing with a child who won’t – or can’t – listen and who tests your every last nerve with behavior that simply is not ok. These behaviors may include defiance, inattention, or fighting with siblings, but any behaviors that disrupt a family’s positive functioning can be stressful – and beyond. Sometimes the behaviors are extreme enough that parents run out of ideas and seek professional help, like a physician or a therapist. And sometimes therapy – and even medication – is warranted. But often there are strategies that you can try at home that can lessen the negative behaviors that are making your family’s home life a struggle. And there are also signs you can look for that may help to decide when it’s time to turn to a professional.
A good start to changing behaviors is recognizing behaviors. Play Candyland and whenever someone lands on red, they tell of a time they were angry and describe the feeling. Land on blue, talk about a time you were sad. You can transfer this to just about any game. Play Go Fish and every time you lay down a pair or a book, share a different emotion. Play Chess and share each time you capture a piece. Then twist it up: Share a time someone else had the given emotion. This is a great way to help kids see other’s perspectives, then understand how others see their disruptive behaviors.
Too Big, Just Right, Too Little
This is another strategy to help your child recognize – and name- their own behaviors. Role play with them, showing them behaviors that are Too Big (over the top, or getting there), Just Right (meets defined expectations), or Too Little (ignoring, little effort). Then let them name you behaviors. Then switch it up. Older kids can have a discussion about this instead of the role play, but it’s still a good idea for both of you to share examples of each. Maybe even share examples of each other’s behaviors, if you’re comfortable with that!
We all want control of our environments, and what better way to have control than to have responsibility? Brainstorm with your child a new job or chore – you define it – that is there’s and there’s only. Make sure you explain that this is because he or she is ready to take more control of how the household operates and to have more of a voice.
Behavior charts are a dime a dozen on the internet and they are so prolific because they can be effective. But before you drop money on a fancy, magnetized hanging board, consider making a simple X Chart. It can look just like a Tic Tac Toe board, or have even more spaces, if you all agree. Decide on the target behavior (stop when asked, say “ok” when given a task, complete a chore) and put an X in a box when the behavior occurs. Fill the box, earn a privilege (screen time, for example). Tip: Don’t take away any X’s- let them know once they’ve earned it, they own it.
Time to seek a professional opinion
Are the issues happening only at home? That may be a sign that it could be more of a family-centric issue than a diagnosable issue. That doesn’t mean you aren’t dealing with something serious, but it could mean you have a good shot at working through things at home, together, with consistency and teamwork. Even if your child’s behavior carries over to school and beyond, you can still have great success at home with the right strategies. But this is when you also want to consider reaching out.
Be sure to be especially attuned to behaviors that are new. In this case, better sooner than later. And if your child is hurting himself or others, or even threatening, take it very seriously.
Ultimately, you know your child best, and if you feel that he or she (and your family) is struggling and are not getting better, don’t hesitate to seek professional advice – even if it starts with the school nurse or counselor.
Tim Mullins has worked with adolescents and their families for nearly ten years as a high school teacher and administrator. He currently works as a behavioral therapist, providing therapy to adolescents with developmental disabilities and is currently completing his Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy at Regis University