Children often use play and not words as a means of communicating.
In my last blog post, Parenting Tip: Love, I mentioned how important it is to a child’s sense of worthiness for parents to consistently follow through on what they say they are going to do. I want to expand on that idea to include parents following through on rewards and consequences. Let me explain. Parents often motivate their kids to complete chores and their homework with either a reward such as more time to play video games or TV time or with a consequence like taking away their cell phone or iPad for the day. I would be a millionaire if I had a nickel for every time a child or adolescent client has told me that they don’t care about what their parents tell them to do because they don’t follow through on their promises. So here are some tips for parents.
When I talk to parents about the importance of following through, I commonly hear the following four barriers:
- Fear of a tantrum or anger outburst is probably the most prevalent explanation cited by parents for not following through.
- It’s just easier to not argue with my kids than have to deal with the unwanted behavior is another common explanation that follows the above mentioned fear of anger outburst.
- Some parents have also expressed not following through with discipline because they feel sorry for their children after a major adversity (e.g., divorce or death of a parent, grandparent, sibling) and don’t want them to suffer more.
- Parents also explain they don’t follow through because the kids don’t seem to care about the consequences or rewards.
Why these barrier are counter-productive: Unfortunately, giving into your child’s requests due to fear of a tantrum or because it’s just easier not to argue is reinforcing that very behavior that you don’t want. In other words, if you give your child what they ask for because otherwise they will start to whine, the child learns that to get what they want, they just need to whine a bit and the parent (and likely others too) will meet their demands. This type of behavior also extends to later in life and can be a root cause for interpersonal problems, including marital conflict or difficulty with co-workers.
Much like giving into your child’s requests due to fear of a tantrum, giving into your child because of fear of hurting their feelings may be easier the moment, but misses several learning opportunities. For example, taking it easy on your child may send the message that they aren’t resilient enough to handle emotional pain. It also sends them the message that they can get what they want if they are perceived as being emotionally unstable. When a child has been through something that shakes their world like a divorce or a loss, they need consistency and predictability more than any other time. Stability in everything else will be a comfort to them. A 5-year-old child whose parents struggle with follow through may seem manageable, but what happens when you have a teenager who has no boundaries? What I have seen frequently in my practice are parents attempting to implement rules after years of limited discipline, and by now the teenager knows (or thinks they do) they run the household.
Kids’ attitudes of not caring about the consequences or rewards often stem from inconsistent follow through on either rewards or consequences or both. For example, how would you feel if someone tells you they will pay you for some work but once the job is done, they don’t pay. I am almost certain that most adults will quickly learn not to work for that person or at the very least avoid them. Kids will develop a similar attitude of avoidance if parents don’t follow through. A similar process can happen when parents make threats of a consequence and then do not actually deliver. As a result, the child learns that their parents threats are empty.
Tips for Following Through: The solution is to “extinguish” that behavior by not reinforcing it! To avoid unintentionally reinforcing unwanted behavior, try:
- When your child starts whining ask them to come talk to you once they have calmed down. Then reinforce that new behavior of coming to you to talk about what they want or feel by praising them. If what they are asking is not reasonable or impractical, explain that to them but don’t forget to reflect on their feelings by saying something like: “I know you’re disappointed that….”
- For youth who have experienced a major loss or negative change in their lives, don’t go easy. Don’t go harder either. Discipline as you would have. It does not mean you have any less compassion for your child’s suffering. Instead, it signals that you value them, know they can still bounce back from adversity and will continue to be a source of predictability despite the recent change in their life. Acknowledge the suffering of the loss with compassion and maintain family and home rules.
- To make kids care about the rewards or consequences, simply follow through consistently. For example, if you ask your teen to complete a task and tell them they will get to go to the theater afterwards, then let them go to the theater after they complete the task. On the other hand, if you tell the teen that they will not be able to go to the theater if they don’t complete that task, follow through and do not take them or allow them to go if they didn’t complete the task.
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My colleagues and I at Intuition Wellness Center specialize in counseling children, teens, and families. We have clinicians who specialize in working with families overcoming challenging patterns. If you believe you or someone you love could benefit from our services, we are here to help. Call 520-333-3320 for a free phone consultation.
Written: Yoendry Torres, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist
Image by Yoendry Torres, Psy.D.