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Thursday, June 21, 2012

I Think You Just Answered Your Own Question, My Friend (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

    Every parent knows that there is no cookbook to parenting. However, this does not stop many from trying this approach.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered people in my professional and personal lives who say they have “tried everything” to get their child to do whatever. A variation of this may be them complaining that they have researched online or read parenting literature and tried the strategies the experts recommend, but they-simply-do-not-work.   When people have come to me in this semi-crisis mode, I usually ask them two questions: what strategies have you tried and how long have you tried it for?  Typically, the strategies themselves are reasonable and some are even creative, but the answers to the second question baffle me.  I am usually told days, no more than a month really.  So, what is happening here?

         The parent who tries tactics after tactics without giving it sufficient time is not going to get the results they want from their children.  This is like Baskin Robbins advertising their flavor of the week. It works for an ice-cream parlor, but not parents. Although parenting is not a cookbook; however, there are fundamental principles that make the job more effective and much easier.  Here, the one that is most at play is consistency.   Unlike a recipe, human behavior is complex and to change it takes time, effort, and teamwork.  When a child has learned a particular behavior that has worked for them for years (however maladaptive it might have been), it will take consistency on the parents’ parts to have a fighting chance to unlearn it. Otherwise, it will be a very difficult battle.

     A battle with a slew of issues that can arise when parents are not consistent with their child. Here are some of them:
•    Negative parent-child relationship develops.
•    The child gets labeled as a “bad kid” at home, school, and in the community with serious negative consequences in terms of academic and social functioning.
•    Gets misdiagnosed, such as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), various Anxiety Disorders, Depression, etc.
•    Parents start blaming the school for the problems, which quickly turns into a negative parent-school relationship and does not benefit the child at all.
•    The child becomes the identified problem, when in fact it is a parenting problem and this can negatively impact the marriage.
•    If there are other children in the home, then detrimental sibling rivalries can develop because now we have the “good child” and the “bad child.” Think about all of the drama that can come out of this unhealthy dynamic!

         Therefore, consistency is important not only to change a behavior, but also to prevent undesirable situations.   Please allow me to sidetrack just a little here to make a point.

         So, I recently read an article that adeptly pointed out that in our society we have a very interesting view of risk taking (  Often, we consider the risk of doing something and the negative consequences associated with that act.  Moreover, this view may be even more prominent in litigious societies.  The argument being that when we take this approach, we may be missing really great opportunities for growth personally, professionally, and in other ways. Rather, the risk of not doing something may be a more effective approach.  Therefore, in terms of parenting, consider the risk of not being consistent with your child.

         Now that we are all motivated to be more consistent in our parenting, here are some tips to guide you:

1.    Each parent has to be consistent with the child. For example, if Johnny gets in trouble for stealing cookies from the cookie jar on Monday. If he tries this again on Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. then he should get in trouble for this behavior again on each occasion.  This will send Johnny a clear and consistent message not only about stealing cookies, but stealing in general. The flip side is that he gets punished on Monday, but not on Tuesday, and then again on Wednesday so on and so forth. If this inconsistency is happening over and over again, then Johnny will be very confused about what is expected of him and will not effectively learn what his parent is trying to teach him.  After all, being a teacher is a huge part of the parent’s role!

2.    The parents have to be consistent with each other.  This by far, is the most common problem I have seen in my professional experience as a therapist and a parenting coach.  Going back to the same example, if Johnny’s mother reprimands him for stealing the cookies, but his father tells him to go ahead and enjoy the yummy cookies, then there is a consistency problem between the parents. No doubt this is difficult at first, but once the parents are on the same page with each other, parenting becomes much easier, enjoyable, and beneficial for the child. Here are some ways to accomplish consistency between the parents:

•    Do NOT undermine the other parent, especially in front of the child.  It may look something like this. Now, Johnny wants to go to the mall to hang out with his friends. He asks dad whether he can go and dad says “yes.” Mom overhears this, and she may say this to dad (probably in front of Johnny) “Why would you say yes, when he still has to clean his room?!” To Johnny, mom says “No, you can’t go and that’s final.”  If this happens consistently, then this is a HUGE problem!

First, mom has just communicated to Johnny that dad has no authority in the family, and she is the boss. Second, this will be a blow to dad’s self-esteem, which will ignite resentment towards his wife and over time this will negatively impact their marital relationship in more ways than one. Third, Johnny will not only be confused, but will probably use this inconsistency between his parents to his advantage, probably not in a good way.  We have a very scientific name for this process and it’s called manipulation

•    If the decision does not have a serious consequence, go with what the first parent has said to the child.  Since dad said it is okay for Johnny to head to the mall, mom should just let it go (aka L.I.G). Letting go is an important life skill in and of itself, wouldn’t you say? A common question people have is this: “Well, isn’t mom undermining her authority by doing this?”  The answer is No because there will be plenty of opportunities for dad to support mom in this way.  At the end of the day, it all works out beautifully because the partnership works best this way!

•    If there is a major consequence to the first parent’s decision, then the second parent can offer valuable information to the first parent.  In other words, let’s just say that Johnny not cleaning his room will mean that the soon to arrive out-of-town guests will be scrambling for a room to sleep in, which would really add stress on the whole family.  What mom can say to dad is: “I don’t know if you knew this, but Johnny has not cleaned his room yet.”  Mom has conveniently given dad new information so dad can make a wiser decision, but the decision is still dad’s and mom will respect it.  In this way, dad is not being undermined by his wife, but just simply being informed.  A very different message is being communicated here to Johnny. That is, mom and dad are on the same page and therefore, a team in parenting.  Johnny is outnumbered, so it would be foolish to challenge this.  In case he does challenge it, again mom and dad will handle it like a team and things will run much more smoothly in this household. If this is something you need to work on in your family, try this approach and let us know how it works for you (after sufficient time)!

3.    Parents should ask themselves: “Am I being consistent?” or “Are we being consistent?”  This has worked very well for us as parents.  When our son was having some social issues with his peers in kindergarten, it took us a while to figure this out, but we realized that somehow we had fallen of the consistency wagon. This can easily happen if you have competing demands like jobs and other responsibilities. The important thing is to get right back on the consistency wagon. Similar to bike riding, after a fall you get right back on it or you will not learn how to ride a bike. Once we got back on the consistency wagon, our son’s behaviors improved. Since we are usually consistent with each other, it did not take very long for our son to realize that mom and dad are on the same team again so I better not mess with them! If you practice consistency regularly but sometimes forget, then getting back on track and seeing the results may only take few days.  Likewise, if consistency is lacking in the family then it can take some time because it is a process where "things may get worse before they get better."  However, the time and effort it takes will be well worth it!  

    In other words, there are no “quick fixes” in parenting. So, the next time somebody tells me they have tried every trick in the books and they are not working, and asks “What should I do?” You know what I’ll be saying: “I think you just answered your own question, my friend!”    

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