Education consultant and parenting coach Joseph Driessen says it's understandable when parents give in to anger, frustration and even depression when dealing with difficult children.
But he says over-reacting or responding by being either authoritarian or overly permissive is not the way forward.
He shares his toolkit for breaking the cycle, which he calls “five steps of healing a child's sort of malfunctioning behavior”, with Kathryn Ryan.
To get out of a destructive, reinforcing cycle, Driessen suggests taking a much more deliberative approach to parenting a child with behavior difficulties.
“I'm proposing that to get out of these cycles the parent becomes much more deliberate and actually starts to realise, OK things are not going so well so what can I do?”
The first step is to reflect, he says.
“Take time out from the situation and reflect by yourself, or ideally with another adult - your partner, your wife or husband, or your friend or anybody, not taking advice, just being allowed to talk about it.”
Research shows that parents who have outside support are in a much better position to take charge of their relationship with their child, Driessen says.
A parent might reflect that they need help, that they need to upskill, he says.
“The research shows that, for example, parents who go to a positive parenting course make a major shift in their parenting insights.”
Next, he says, is to be objective and be on the child’s side.
“Now that sounds really weird, you know the child is ‘really naughty and difficult’ but actually most research shows that a child is difficult because they can't help it.
“The cognitive or emotional demands on them are outside of their capacity to cope and actually their misbehavior is basically a cry for help.”
Having decided to help, he says, it’s important parents don’t blame themselves.
“Make a resolution to yourself that you are part of the problem, that your responses have not been quite good enough, that it’s not your fault, but you've got to recognize, well let's not continue like this, let's make a change.
“Once you've made that decision then you go - so what am I going to do?”
Next analyse your child, he says.
“What situations are causing the problems? What are the issues? What are the triggers for this child? And then make a list of what the issues are and which of these are really important.”
Driessen says refusing to eat broccoli wouldn’t be a high priority, but harassing a sibling would, so focus your energies there.
“Much of the misbehaviour of the child is attention seeking, and the first thing is to actually start making a list of positives about the child and start noting them and start giving the child positive proactive attention”.
He likens this to “shoring up a house which has faulty foundations.”
“Give them attention and don't use too much emotion, you say well just lets hang out together or let's play a game together or read a book.”
Next emphasise the child’s positive attributes.
“Some parents are very surprised when I ask them what is good about your child? And there's a long hesitation, which is quite sad.
“And then it's actually he's very friendly, and he's a great communicator, the list gets longer and longer. And the reason is that the negative behavior of the child has crowded out the positive vision, and the child is in a cycle of being constantly criticised.”
Make it a habit to praise the child, he says.
“At the end of the day ask have I said at least four or five nice things to my child.”
In fact, he suggests taking this further and to stop saying anything negative.
“You could say ‘I noticed that you got your homework books out that’s great, an improvement, shall we make another little improvement.?
“You can also say 'I don't like what's happening to you and your sister, you can be so kind so often'.”
It’s about putting the child in a positive frame of mind, he says.
Some children they need a lot of this, some children, because of inadequate neurology or they have problems that they get so much negative feedback, their self-image has changed and they see themselves as bad.
“When adults are saying no you're not, you're a good person who is just making a few little errors … you've made a little mistake, let's do it again.”
Let the child know you’re on its side, he says.
“When you talk to a child in a very calm way and say 'how can I help you?' all of a sudden the child sees themselves not being attacked by the adult, but in fact supported by the adult.”
The adult and child can then work out strategies together to overcome problems, he says. It might be agreeing that before dinner, quarreling siblings stay in separate rooms.
“Say: ‘remember when you come home after school, would you mind just going to your room and read your book there, or play with your games there but not in the living room'.”
Keep on coaching agreed strategies and gradually improvements will occur, he says.
Finally, never reflex punish a child, he says.
The research shows that a lot of parents they just habitually punish, and the child just becomes gun shy.
You should say; 'Well I want you to make it up for what you've done wrong. And so I'm going to ask you choose, to have a think about it, come back tomorrow morning and tell me what can you do to make it up ...what effort can you make.
“I call it the five steps of healing a child's sort of malfunctioning behavior - stop the behavior, stay calm, reflect, coach your child better and then ask the child to make it up.”
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