by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
Parents of young children often call for help from a therapist when a child is having tantrums and refusing to comply with the basics such as eating, sleeping, becoming potty trained, getting dressed, and going to school or daycare. Other times the unwanted behavior may be hitting, biting, having problems with peers or adults, school or homework refusal, bedwetting, whining or tantruming frequently.
To allay your fears from the start... much of this is a normal part of a child's learning to comply and become 'socialized'. It is not an easy thing to do... to become socialized and learn to suppress your desires and comply; to keep up a demanding schedule and remember to control yourself and everything you are supposed to do, and not do. It is important for parents to relax and keep the whole lifespan of the family in perspective and strive for balance and harmony where each member of the family is getting their needs met (at least to some degree).
Realize that the child is becoming socialized to the standards of: 1. your family 2. the e-world and 3. society. Sometimes I want to put the e-world as the number one influencer of children, but I'll save that blog for another day.
Clients often lament, "How can I get my children to comply and be motivated... I don't want to have problems when they're older?" I would like to provide a few suggestions to help your child be able to manage the demands of becoming 'socialized', feel good about compliance, and through motivation develop advanced competencies for his or her age without adult pressure.
What the parent is endeavoring to do, is help create a positive feedback loop where the child is 1. confronted with appropriate demands developmentally and individually, 2. rewarded appropriately for wanted, correct or prosocial behavior, and 3. allowed to experience the 'natural' consequences of his behaviors and attitudes when off-target.
The child learns to feels good about compliance and socialization and becomes internally motivated to do well because he is being consistently and appropriately reinforced, which gives him authentic self-esteem and security, motivating him to exercise his talents and develop competencies. It is vital for the young child to be allowed to develop a sense of competency and autonomy for certain things at a young age... patience, consistency and some degree of knowledge of behaviorism and tasks and stages of childhood development. These competencies are what gives a young child or teen authentic self-esteem. When a child is really good at something, everyone knows it. There is no fooling anybody. When I'm 12 years old and better at something (hopefully not video games) than the adults, that's authentic self esteem.
Once he has reached more outside the family and is being acted upon by society, he receives positive reinforcements from his environment because he knows how (and is willing) to comply with the rigors of our system in order to survive and thrive. He knows how to predict what the results of his actions will be and he can learn to choose appropriately.
If the child has been sheltered from consequences... Mom and Dad fixing things and not letting the child experience the result of his actions... this is a very detrimental lesson for the child because he is internalizing a belief structure that is false and will not serve him in the long run. He has learned that there are no (or inappropriate) consequences for his actions and Mom and Dad will fix anything. The kid learns, "Yeah they'll nag at me for awhile but they will end up doing it for me." That might be cute when he is learning to tie his shoes ... but not so cute when he's 25 years old and bouncing checks around town.
Now you may say that compliance is a sell-out and for losers. I certainly understand that! Nobody wants to be a robot or milquetoast. Sitting in my chair working with people for a long time though, I see what happens when a person decides that non-compliance is the way to go. Pretty soon we're on the streets or in jail unless we learn to comply with the basic requirements of society. Everybody loves the idea of a 'rebel' but in reality that is risky, and often leads to a bad outcome.
In the child and adult world we are forced to comply with mandates too numerous to mention or count. The important thing is that if a child learns that compliance and natural consequences are optional... this is going to be a problem. We need to prepare our children for the realities of living an independent life by providing consistent, fair and natural reinforcements without putting so much pressure on them that they break down.
Of course parents and caregivers need to be on the same page. Parents can understand and agree to implement basic behavior techniques when training, shaping and modeling for the child. It really shouldn't be someone's opinion in matters of disagreement. Research should be done on what is appropriate developmentally and behaviorally if you disagree with your co-parent. These 'interventions' that you choose to implement with your co-parent should be deliberate and based on science not sentimentality, guilt or manipulation. If we are providing conflicting messages or choose to ignore behavioral and developmental realities as human beings, then this is simply not going to work very well and we will end up like a one-legged parent in a fanny kicking contest...
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