29 Nov 2018

How to tame disobedient children and teach social responsibility - Joseph Driessen

From Nine To Noon, 11:27 am on 29 November 2018

As a parent, getting into a screaming match just shows the kids you're not in control - so educator Joseph Driessen has five steps to calmly reason unruly children into changing their behaviour. 

A photo of an anxious father comforting his  anxious daughter

Photo: pressmaster/123RF

Driessen, a former principal and speaker at educational conferences, specialises in boys' education and is based in New Zealand.

He tells Nine to Noon's Kathryn Ryan tone, composure and persistence is key to getting a child into a mindset to actually make a difference. 

"In some ways, a child is like an iceberg. Over the surface is behaviour, and what’s beneath is a very complex set of needs or disappointments or sadnesses, or whatever it is. 

"Your calmness or your kindness goes underneath the iceberg and it says, really, ‘I care for you, I love you, I’m your parent and I’m in charge of this household but I’m on your side'.

"At the end of this talk I’m going to talk about what if they dig in their heels and don’t do it at all, but in fact many children are very rational and very amenable if they’re not anxious and under emotional stress." 

He uses two examples he says are fairly common in a lot of families: a seven-year-old who takes a long time to get ready for school in the morning and a 15-year-old who is playing computer games and refusing to do homework and chores or interact with family.

He stresses, however, that this approach can work with people of all ages - and not just children.

Step 1: Planning and preparation

He says the first step is to think about what you want to achieve, and accept that as the adult it's your responsibility to change their pattern of behaviour.

"For the adult to sit down by themselves or with their partner or a friend; have a reflection about 'how can I assert my leadership here and what have I done in the past which hasn’t worked'," Driessen says. 

"The idea is that before you launch in, you have some idea of what you want to achieve and where you want to go with this child. So you come from a leadership position which is pretty calm, which is reflective.

"And you have some rational ideas: 'maybe there are some problems there, what am I trying to do?' 

He says children will usually respond positively when an adult takes up the leadership role in the family in a mature and reasonable way.

"Sometimes. the adults are quite dis-empowered and angry and they’ve gone into a cycle where they just sort of disengage - or they’ve given up and they’ll have yelling matches.

"All that will tell the child that actually the adult isn’t in control and that makes them more anxious." 

Step 2: Making contact

The next step is to find a time to talk to the child - either one on one, or with your partner - in a non-confrontational way. 

"Your whole approach is actually being helpful and giving the child a voice, and saying 'let’s be a team'," says Driessen.

"The aim of the talk is to show that you are not coercive, angry and shaming and blaming, but willing to explore how we can help each other. 

"Many children really enjoy that, and they drop their antagonism or resistance."

44104626 - a mother and daughter in forest together

Photo: lopolo/123RF

He says finding a "teachable moment", like driving in the car or some other situation where the child is at ease, can be a good way of doing this. However, those moments can also be interrupted or short - and making an appointment can also work very well. 

"So you make an appointment ‘Saturday morning, let’s just have a talk, cuppa tea, sit down for five minutes’." 

Either way, once you have the child's undivided attention it's time to explore a plan of how parent and child can work together to improve the situation. 

"And you have already in your mind some plans, which might or might not work." 

Those plans should involve some kind of process for a new habit or way of doing things, and end with repeating the message: "we’re a team, we’re a family, we’re trying to help each other".

"And actually," says Driessen, "you’re inducting the child into the whole process that social groups are in a contract with each other and 'you’ve got to play your part'. 

He says in most cases children want to please their parents, and may actually change overnight after this step. 

"In my career I’ve had many examples of that where a child actually turns the whole thing around and they feel much better - same with adults, where one good talk as friends or as spouses can actually clear a whole lot of problems."

Example: Seven-year-old

He says in the first example, a plan might be for parent and child to work together to get the child's clothes and things ready the evening before, and put them on the table in the dining room away from their room. 

"And 'I'll have a hot chocolate ready for you', that is, you tie positive reinforcement to it.

"Some parents will think that’s quite facile but in fact many young children can’t cope with their morning tiredness and all the confusion of it all.

"When you lay it all out at night together, then they know what has to be done."

Example: 15-year-old

He says you could suggest a homework routine to the older teenager.

"Say, 'well, what about 5.30, I’m back from work, I’m quite relaxed and we’re going to have dinner at 7.30 … what about we sit together, just for a quarter of an hour, you and me - you unpack your bag and you start, and then we’ll work together and warm up and then after dinner you can finish it." 

Step 3: Coaching them through it

Driessen says children often need to be coached, to be supervised and have errors worked out when they're not under pressure. 

"So you say 'why don’t we practice it now, or after dinner' - as a joke, as sort of little game."

He says as you practice, the child will begin to reveal what the problems are for them in doing what you want them to do. 

"When you start observing the child and trying to put them in a situation where you coach them and see it from their point of view, you start realising maybe they needed more support and more leadership." 

It also reinforces the overall message.

"You and your child are together as a team, and the attachment, the nurturing and the support - there’s a hidden message there: ‘I love you, I’m here for you, let’s try to do this together’. 

"That’s a critical part of the process, that 'my mum or my dad actually loves me enough to take time out to ... sort this, that I can’t do by myself'. 

"See what happens, but it has to be a positive experience."

Example: Seven-year-old

"So, you practice laying out their clothes on the dining room table and as you do that you realise their drawers are in a mess, and you realise ‘actually I wouldn’t be able to find my clothes either’ and you say ‘shall we put them in little boxes’." 

No caption

Photo: RNZ

Then, reinforce.

"You sort out the socks and the shirts and the uniform… the shoes and all that, so then you say ‘well, shall we try that again, let’s put it out together’." 

Example: 15-year-old

"You say ‘do you mind now, let’s pretend just for 10 minutes: I’ll sit at my table, at the kitchen table … I might do a bit of work for me, you grab your bag and just unpack it and start'.

"Sheepishly he might sit there and as you unpack his bag you realise it’s a complete shambles and you realise that actually the bag is a symbol of him being stuck.

"So you help him and say ‘that’s not too bad, and we’ll throw out the lunch from last year and let’s tidy this up’ 
and again the signal is ‘I’m here to help you and I’ve got some adult leadership’. 

"You might say ‘shall we buy some new books’. 

Step 4: Try it for real, aim for improvement

Driessen says the process of steps 1 to 3 might take a few repetitions before the process and the plan is bedded down. 

"Once that’s done and you’ve made sure that you stay positive, nurturing and caring - and that you don’t go into conflict because that is actually counterproductive … then the next day you try."

He doesn't want parents to set their hopes to high to start with however. 

"The key is in improvement - you mightn’t get perfection but it’s sort of like landing a plane - a plane lands slowly; a child changes its behaviour gradually. 

"You just keep on saying ‘you made an improvement, I'm happy about that, that’s cool, let’s try and make it a little bit better'. 

However, you also need to watch out for further problems the child might still need to be coached through. 

"Having done that you repeat it the next day.  Again you're pro-active - your calmness, your coaching - and you just repeat it until you establish the routine."

Example: Seven-year-old

"Next day you make sure that you get up early and everything is laid out, and you jolly along your seven-year-old and you say ‘here we are, it’s all there, I have a hot chocolate made’

"When you come to the shoes - I’m just giving you an example - you realise that they don’t actually know how to undo the strap of their sandals, and they’re just trying to ram their foot into it ... you realise the seven-year-old can’t handle that and actually you’ve missed that." 

"And then you sit down and help the child with the sandal, so, wow - you know, it’s good. Big hug, it’s great."

Example: 15-year-old'

"Your 15-year-old, yeah, he sits next to you and starts doing a bit of work and surprises you because he’s got a work diary, a homework diary; he surprises you because he’s actually quite organised ... once his bag was good." 

Step 5: Review, set consequences

Driessen says the last step is very important too. 

"When it fails, what are you going to do about that? Are you just going to get angry and yell and scream? I would propose something quite different ... you have a review meeting." 

"After three days of total failure ... or partial failure, you might sit down with the child and say ‘well, what’s not working?’. 

"It’s a conciliatory and a pleasant talk - but there is a sting in the tail."

The sting is a concept that you've been alluding to before throughout the process, but which - should the child still be truculent, can now be brought into focus much more formally. 

"Let’s pretend that the child says ‘well I’m just not doing it’, let’s pretend they’re going to spit the dummy and they renege on the agreement. 

80031235 - A photo of a sad looking young girl on her own in her bedroom

Photo: jawwa/123RF

"You say ‘you’re part of a social contract - you know, you’ve made an agreement - and you’ve reneged on that agreement'. 

"So you say ‘now, actually the relationship between us and between the household is sort of damaged’.

He says what this does is teach the child that there is a consequence to reneging on the agreement, to actually saying ‘we will try this’ and then not doing it.

"That is a very important thing of any educational cycle - that a child can’t just say ‘well, i’ll just do it my way’." 

However, as always, the tone and message is important to maintain. 

"That sense of 'the adult is in charge, they care for me, but they will insist that I perform in a certain way'."

He says that idea may have been broached in the past, but perhaps not talked about so calmly. 

"You can either say ‘I want you to repair it by making up for it and ... the system, we’ll fine tune it, or 'you will repair it by forgoing some of your privileges, or I will impose something on you'. 

Example: Seven-year-old

"You can say ‘well, you were going to be enrolled in a new venture, but I’m going to put it on hold until we can come to an agreement where you can cooperate and keep your word'.

Example: 15-year-old

"Let’s say the 15-year-old says ‘I can’t be bothered, I’m just going to play my computer games. 

"You might say, for example … well, I’m going to ration the internet and you can earn it back - you can earn back the internet privilege by actually cooperating with me about this." 

What if it still doesn't work?

Driessen reiterates that improvement is key.

"As long as there’s improvements, fine. If it doesn’t work whatsoever, you have to go right back to square one and have the whole cycle again and try and find out what is the sticking point ‘

"If it falls down completely, you want to go back to your partner or to yourself or with a friend and say ‘why didn’t this work, what are the real issues?’.

"Sometimes that’s very illuminating - and then you start the whole lot again."

More from Joseph Driessen: