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. Often there may be issues with performing daily responsibilities, whether going to school or attending on-line school or an alternate educational plan.. 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, you must 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, and encouraged by the family group to thrive.
Realize that the child is becoming socialized to the standards of: 1. your family 2. the electronic world and 3. society. Parents often complain, "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 self-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 challenges developmentally and individually, 2. rewarded appropriately for wanted, correct or prosocial behavior, and 3. allowed to experience the 'natural' or negative consequences of his behaviors and attitudes when off-target as long as safe.
The child ideally learns to feel good about compliance and socialization, and becomes internally motivated to excel because he is being consistently and appropriately reinforced by his environment and trusted people. This gives children security, motivating them to exercise talents and develop competencies.
It is vital for the child to be allowed to develop a sense of mastery, competency and autonomy starting at a young age... Caregivers and parents need to exercise extreme patience sometimes to allow space for the child to be inept while gaining and mastering skills and abilities.
These competencies are what gives a child or teen authentic self-esteem. When a young person is really good at something, everyone knows it. There is no fooling anybody. When I'm 12 years old and more ingenious at something than the adults, that's authentic self esteem.
Here is where obstacles to developmental processes occur with the covid-19 situation. In normal times, developmental science indicates than once children reach the age when they are socializing more outside of the immediate the family, and are being acted upon by society, they receive reinforcements from their environment. This shapes their behavior and attitude and allows the child to become more self and peer focused rather than focused on parents. This is a learning phase for individuation from parents, adulthood, intimacy and the formation of their own new family that occurs later.
In the current era, much of the reinforcements are derived from social media which may be largely hidden from the parents; we may not know much about the influences shaping the personality of the child. This is a problem because now more than ever, parents have a normalcy bias to the time when they were young, which may been even before cellphones. So it is imperative for adults to understand that the child's world may have little or no resemblance to their own childhood, and making comparisons or assumptions on this basis is going to hurt your credibility and influence as a parent.
Children are being prohibited from developing close personal relationships with peers and communities. The longer-term consequences of the lockdown is unknown in terms of young people having the desire and ability to form and sustain new families.
In the time of covid. make sure you are allowing your child the opportunity to develop life-sustaining personal competencies such as fixing things, cooking, cleaning, counting the budget, playing music, sewing, woodwork, gardening, whatever works in your family and is a practical life skill.
If children are sheltered from legitimate demands and consequences long term, they internalize that there are, in reality, no imperatives or consequences. This is a 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, and Mom and Dad will fix anything. The kid learns, "Yeah they'll scream at me or take my stuff away but they will end up doing it for me." That might be cute when he keeps forgetting his stuff so he gets to see you for a minute... but not so cute when he's 25 years old and bouncing checks around town. We need to prepare our children for independent life by allowing consistent, fair and natural consequences, without putting so much pressure on them that they break down.
Co-parents can understand and agree to implement basic behavioral strategies when training, shaping and modeling for the child. It really shouldn't be someone's opinion in matters of disagreement. If you disagree with your co-parent. the 'interventions' you choose should be deliberate and based on science not sentimentality, guilt or manipulation. If we are providing conflicting messages or choose to ignore developmental realities as human beings, this is not going to be optimal for the child.
Parents should research what is appropriate developmentally, take into account the current obstacles to normal development, and creatively provide alternative opportunities in spite of the lockdowns. We need to understand that developmental processes are being thwarted, (long-term effects unknown) and try to provide alternate avenues for self-mastery, skills development as well as peer-group socialization.
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