What Do You Do When You Have Tried Everything

What Do You Do When You Have Tried Everything

Posted By
on28 Aug 2015

Your 4 year old does not listen and you have tried everything. You have tried time outs and taking things away.  You have tried explaining the importance of listening and offer praises when it occurs.  And though you are not proud of it, you have even tried spanking. Yet NOTHING seems to work! Now what? Well, before you ditch everything and start looking for boarding schools that will take in preschoolers, here are few things that may help.

When talking with parents about behavior problems, I always remind them that no one thing alone is going to make your child a better listener. Time outs and taking things away, without acknowledging the positive , does not work. Praising only the positives without correction of negatives, does not work.  .  Instead, it is helpful to relate the discipline of your child to a three-legged stool, upon which, all three legs are essential.  If you take away even one leg, it is impossible to balance while sitting on the stool.  In this case, the three legs of your stool are:

1. Acknowledging the Positive

2. Addressing the Negative

3. Consistency

Think hard about the last two weeks. Were all three legs of your stool present the majority of the time? Chances are at least one of your legs was missing, and it might not have been the same one every time. Maybe at first you were doing great with all three measures, but after a few days you started to rely on just acknowledging the positive because addressing the negative would mean an untimely and inevitable tantrum.   Perhaps after a while, you remembered you wanted to be more consistent and began setting better limits by saying “no” despite knowing a tantrum would result.  Then, once the listening begins to occur without you asking for it, you were so grateful to have some peace and quiet that you forgot to acknowledge the positive behavior.

Do not be too hard on yourself, because this is what happens to many parents, especially if you happen to be raising a smart, strong-willed, and stubborn child. The issue is that you have all the ingredients, but because you are not using them all at once, their potential cannot be maximized.   When parents are consistent with both acknowledging the positives and addressing the negatives, their child’s overall defiant behaviors, including tantrums, tend to get shorter, less intense, and more infrequent.  In turn,  this allows parents to stay consistent in the long run.

On the contrary, when parents are inconsistent, the defiant behaviors often get worse over time. You read that right, they get worse! Here is why: your behavior is tantamount to a slot machine at a casino. Your child is basically pulling the lever of a slot machine over and over with the idea that maybe the next pull will be the jackpot – meaning that you give in and the desired outcome is received.  As a result, the tantrums and defiance get worse and it actually gets harder for you to stay consistent as a result.

The good news is that you might not need to make any changes to the basics of how you are responding to the positive and negative behaviors. Instead, putting your efforts into maintaining consistency may be all that is needed.  The following are tips to help you get back on track with your consistency.

Set Realistic Goals for Yourself

To say, “I am going to be 100% consistent from now on!” is great, but only if you are able to follow through with it.  Most of us are not able to be 100% consistent no matter how much we try. It can get overwhelming to live up to such high standards.  Additionally, if you are not seeing major changes right away, it starts to feel even more impossible.  To avoid this predicament, set realistic goals that you are able to stick with even on your busiest days.  Here are some examples:

Parent 1 – Mary: I am going to let Joey know how excited I am every time he listens when I tell him to clean up. I am also going to follow through with time out if he refuses. I am going to do both for the next four days.

Parent 2 – Jan: I am going to put all of Sally’s stickers on her reward chart by the end of the day. I am going to give her only one warning when she does not listen at the park.  If, after the warning she still does not listen, I will take her home right away.  I will do this for the next three days.

In these examples, the parents picked one specific behavior that was currently a problem for them: refusing to clean up and not listening at the park.  Each parent created a plan to reduce the behavior by both acknowledging the positives and addressing the negatives.   Lastly, they picked a manageable length of time to follow through.  Once each parent reaches their goal, they can re-evaluate and set a new goal.

If you set similar goals for yourself, you may find that after a few weeks you will not need to set such specific goals anymore as you will be in the habit of using all three legs of your stool together.   Furthermore, your child’s behaviors will probably have improved, thus making it easier to follow through.  Anytime you notice yourself slipping a little (your child’s behavior is usually the first indicator), sit down and set a realistic goal for yourself and follow through.

Pay Attention to What DOES Change Instead of What Does Not

The biggest reason consistency is so hard is because change in behavior can feel like a slow process. It might not be until the fourth day that Sally listens the whole time she is at the park with her mom (refer to my article, “The Science of What Makes Consequences Work” in the March 2013 issue of Moms the Word for more information on this).  It would be easy for Sally’s mom, Jan, to get discouraged quickly if she only focused on the fact that Sally still did not listen after the warning at the park. However, if Jan instead  looked out for what was changing, she might notice that they were able to stay at the park for longer each day.  Noticing this smaller change would likely help Jan reach her goal.  Once she sees things are slowly improving, she may realize that if she sticks with it, Sally may soon be able to listen the whole time they are at the park.

Give Yourself Reminders

Even with more realistic goals, many parents are likely to get sidetracked. As we move through the day, the normal demands of life usurp the space in our heads and it gets harder to remember the goals we set.  In order to keep it at the forefront of your mind, try using reminders.  Put five pennies in your left pocket tomorrow. After you correct your child for a negative behavior, move all five pennies to your right pocket.  Each time you acknowledge a positive behavior, move one penny back to your left pocket. Once all five pennies are back in your left pocket, you know you are keeping all three legs of your stool in place. You might be wondering why a 1:5 ratio for correction to positive acknowledgment is used. Most experts agree that it takes more than just one acknowledgment of a positive behavior to balance out the correction of a negative behavior. This could be because it often takes several minutes to correct a negative behavior and only a few seconds to acknowledge a positive one. Along with the penny method, technology can be a useful reminder tool with habit-building websites such as www.habitforge.com. 

A Word About Consistency

What exactly does it mean to be consistent?  Consistency with discipline does not mean that you follow through 100% of the time. None of us are perfect.  We are going to make mistakes again and again. Instead, consistency means you do your best to keep your goals in the forefront of your mind. When you catch yourself not adhering to your plan, you recalibrate as soon as possible. For example, Jan is having fun at the park talking with her friends while watching Sally play. She has already given Sally one warning for not listening, but slips and gives her a second warning. Once Jan realizes what she has done she thinks, “Great, now I have ruined my plan. I might as well just let her stay and keep playing. I will have a major melt down on my hands if I try to take her home now.”  This thought is probably not going to help her get back on track. There is an alternative:   Jan can tell herself, “Oops, I messed that one up! I really want to stay at the park because we are both having fun. I know it will be really hard if we have to leave early. If I let this slide, it might be easier today, but will likely be harder tomorrow because she will think I am not going to follow through. I can still stick with my plan even though it might be harder.”

This way of thinking will make it a little easier for Jan to get herself back on track. She might decide to tell Sally, “I just realized that I lost count of your reminders about not listening and gave you an extra reminder. I want to make sure you know that if you forget to listen again, we will have to go home.” Or maybe Jan makes sure to follow through and leave if Sally doesn’t listen again, which is better than giving up all together. Then, the next day Jan would make sure to pay close attention to how many warnings she gives Sally and follow through with leaving after the first warning. If Jan is feeling really brave she might take the option of telling Sally: “I just realized that I lost count of your reminders about not listening and I gave you an extra reminder.  Since you did not listen a second time, we have to go home. You can try again tomorrow when we come to the park.” Keep in mind that even if you have a really bad day and struggle to follow through the whole day, you can always start fresh the next morning.

How Long Before I Know if This is Working?

It takes time for behaviors to shift, if you are consistent for about two weeks you should be noticing lots of little changes or progress. Continue the consistency for four weeks and these little changes will add up to big ones. If there are minimal improvements in your child’s behavior after following through with your goals for four weeks, it might be time to reach out for additional help. Often when dealing with smart, strong-willed, and stubborn children, it is helpful to get an outside perspective on things. There are lots of details that can make or break a good parenting approach.

It is hard to be aware of all these details while emotions run high and you are dealing with problem behaviors. Furthermore, it is normal for parents and children to get stuck in patterns that unknowingly make things worse. Many of the parents who participate in our parenting program at the Santa Rosa Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy run into this exact problem. When they arrive at the center, they are typically at the end of their rope and looking for additional support. In fact, because these parents have already worked hard to try various solutions,  they often see quick results once an outside perspective helps tweak the problem areas of the interactions with their children.