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When Kids Won't Listen

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When kids won’t listen
by Sandy Kleven, LCSW
One mother was sad, the other was scared and both were at the end of their ropes. The dads too were beside themselves feeling helpless and frustrated. They all had kids who were out of control. And these challenging children were not teens. They were 7, 8 and 9.
When parents run out of answers they come to my office. They tell stories of children who are always fighting, who destroy things, run off, and won’t go to school. They have kids who swear at them and never help out. When parents bring these serious problems to a counselor, we try to help them find answers.
What makes a child obey a parent? Is it lectures, yelling and threatening? I ask the parents this question and they always say no. Then I ask what they do to get their kids to mind, the answer is: lectures, yelling and threatening. Some parents are at the point where they discipline by screaming.
“It’s not working,” said more than one.  “I don’t know what else to do.”
No families are the same but a few general ideas can help turn things around.
We start with these basics: You can’t make anyone else change and you can’t win a power struggle with a kid. You have to make them want to mind.
The problem to solve is this:  How can we get the child to cooperate?  How can we make him want to be good?
Children will cooperate when they want to please their parents. Many out of control children have stopped caring about that, for a lot of reasons. They say they get blamed for everything. They say nobody loves them. They say no one ever believes them. Sometimes they will add that their parents fight all the time or drink too much but the kids talk most about their own sense of not measuring up. Sometimes the kids will only shrug their shoulders offering nothing at all about what’s going on.
What can you do with a kid like this? It’s like they’ve given up on us too.
In some ways you have to start over, re-connect and make a fresh beginning. Here are some ideas to start out with:
1) Separate the behavior from the kid. Imagine that the manager of AC walks up with your child in tow and says he stole a CD player. Make your child accept responsibility for what he or she has done but don’t call him a thief. Here’s one way to build self-image even when they do wrong.
“It is so unlike you to steal. You have always been honest. I am disappointed but I know it won’t happen again.”
Compare this to “You are nothing but a common thief. I will never be able to trust you again.”
Which do you think will have an effect on the child’s behavior?
2) Build your loving, friendly, and supportive connection with him or her. When this connection is intact, they want to please you. They want to make you proud of them.
3) Reinforce their good behavior with praise and recognition. Say “Hey, good job.” “Thanks a lot.” “You are so thoughtful.” “That was so nice.” A child who is berated and but down will not rise up strong.
4) Let them hear you talk to others about them, saying good things and telling amusing stories about things they have done. Show your pride.
5) Don’t try to have talks about behavior when you are angry. Wait until you both have settled down. Wait until the next day.
6) Negotiate. When you want a child to make a big change, be willing to give them a reward to work for. The rewards don’t have to be big but they can be plentiful. Like this: Tonight you can chose the TV show we watch. Tomorrow you can decide what we will eat for dinner. Here’s a coupon for ‘get out of jail free. The next time you are in trouble you can trade it in instead of being grounded. “You can ride shotgun.” Sit with your child and make a list of possible rewards. Use them to keep your child moving along the right track.
7) When they mess up, and they will. Make consequences strong but short. Don’t ground them for a week. That’s the same as punishing yourself. Express your feelings but not with your own emotional explosion. Just say it.
“When you stay out and don’t even call me, I worry about you. I don’t like to have to go out and look for you. I want to be able to trust you.”  Use words that move a child in the right direction.
8) When you look at them “see” in them, the child you want them to be, a confident adult with self-respect and respect for others. Kids live up - or down - to our expectations.
Some parents say, “I can’t just sit there and smile when he’s doing bad things.” 
Did I say that? I ask. Did I say to do nothing? No way. Speak your mind. Just do it in a way that keeps you on the high ground, not on the level of the child with your own out of control reaction. I remind parents of their goal: to encourage this child into responsible adulthood.
Even when children act up, scare you and disappoint you, treat them with kindness and respect. They will respond to your positive direction and begin to change. Don’t give up. And let them know you love them no matter what.
A parent called me last week. She said she had a bad weekend with her child but added. ‘I was mad but I didn’t yell. I didn’t feed into it. It was better. The whole thing was over a lot sooner. I just wanted you to know that I am trying to change.’

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Holding Our Own 
Sandra L Kleven, LCSW
3978 Defiance Street
Anchorage, Alaska 99504
907 332 6735
907 764 - 1945