Q: My kids have always responded to me counting out a warning, as in, “You need to do this before I get to three. One … two …” But what happens when they don’t listen anymore? What do I do when I finally get to three?
A: Before I get into specifics, let me share a story from my parenting life.
On this particular day, I told my daughter to clean her room. She, of course, said no. Before I knew it, it escalated to this: “Either start cleaning your room by the time I get to three, or you won’t get any dessert tonight. One … two … three! OK, no dessert. Now, I’m going to count again, and if you’re not cleaning your room, you’ll lose TV for the evening …”
Nope, it didn’t work. I kept upping the ante, and within a few minutes, she’d lost cookies for five years, the chance to see a movie until after college, and the chance to see her friends until roughly the next Ice Age. (Not the next movie with Ray Romano, but the actual next Ice Age.)
Back then, I was Mr. Mom and hadn’t become a social worker specializing in family therapy, but I didn’t need training to realize I was floundering. I backed off, apologized to my daughter for losing my cool, and told her we’d wipe the slate clean while we figured out how to resolve the issue of her room.
So when I say your question is common among parents, I mean it. Here are a few tips that might help you not only when you get to three, but to avoid having to count in the first place.
Avoid power struggles. The fact that parents count to three means the kids aren’t doing what we want in the first place. When that happens, we think we have to prove to the kids (and ourselves) that we’re in charge. In fact, the opposite happens. Kids realize that if they can get us in a power struggle, we might not be all-powerful after all. (“Ignore that man behind the curtain; I’m the all-powerful Wizard of Dad!”)
Ironically, if you win a power struggle with a kid, you still lose. The child doesn’t walk away thinking, “Dad was right after all. I’d better clean my room.” Instead, the child thinks: “Dad won that argument by being more stubborn than me. If I can just be as stubborn as Dad, I can win the next time.”
Power struggles are about nothing but the power struggles themselves. The child doesn’t learn the lesson that you’re trying to teach, and you just drive yourself crazy. That’s why we should avoid power struggles whenever we can. (Nobody’s perfect, though. If you catch yourself in a power struggle, it’s okay to be the one who calls timeout so everyone can calm down. It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s role-modeling for your children what to do when things start getting out of hand.)
Consistent boundaries help keep you out of power struggles. It’s our job as parents to set rules and expectations for our children, and to communicate those in clear, easy-to-understand fashion. It’s also important not to argue about those expectations. Attention increases behavior, so if you give attention to your child for arguing about whether he has to clean his room, you’re encouraging him to argue.
Set your expectations simply: “I expect for you to clean your room,” and then walk away from the conversation. When kids realize that you won’t argue, they’ll eventually stop trying and instead work on meeting your expectations.
I can hear you now: “Life doesn’t work like that. That’ll never work with my kids. What if they just refuse?”
That’s when you use the “First, then,” rule. It sounds like this: “First you clean your room, and then you can go to the movie with your friends.” Or, “First you do your homework, and then you can play the game.” Let them make the choice, and let the consequences do the work for you. You’re not saying they can’t go to the movie; you’re saying they can earn it. If the kids choose not to clean their rooms, they’re also choosing not to go to the movie. It’s really up to them whether they earn the reward or the negative consequence.
But don’t try to force your choice on them if they decide not to do what you want. That leads to another power struggle and keeps them from experiencing the natural consequences of their choice.
When you first try this approach, expect an “extinction burst,” which is a fancy way of saying that things will get worse before they get better. This is natural and understandable. The kid needs to test you to see if you mean what you say.
A good example is what happens when a young child wants a candy bar in a store. The parent says no, so the child starts crying. If the parent gives in, the kid learns that crying gets him what he wants. So the next time the parent says no, the kid starts bawling again; when the answer is still no, he tries the next extreme behavior – maybe kicking and screaming, or smacking a magazine rack, or throwing candy bars at the parent. That’s the extinction burst. If the parent holds his ground, the kid eventually learns that he can’t get the candy bar by acting out and gives up. But if the parent gives in again, the kid learns that the more extreme behavior works, and he’ll do it again the next time.
The best way to handle an extinction burst – heck, to handle a good old-fashioned fit – is to give it as little attention as possible. After all, if a kid throws a fit and nobody pays attention to it, what’s the point in doing it?
If those approaches don’t work, you might have to give negative consequences to your child. If so, be careful what you threaten to do because you’ll actually have to follow through. The severity of the consequence (“You’re grounded for a month!”) isn’t as effective as the certainty of it (“You knew that behavior would get you grounded.”). If the child knows that a certain behavior leads to a certain consequence 100% of the time, he knows where the boundary is and is less likely to test it. Again, the key is to be consistent (and to remember that if you ground your child for a month, you just grounded yourself for a month, too).
Kids of all ages want rules, structure, and routine. It makes them feel safe to know that their parents care enough to hold them to a set of expectations and rules. It confuses them, though, when they can lure parents into power struggles or positions where the parents start to openly question what they should do. That encourages children to act out just to determine where the boundaries really are. If you still feel like you need to count to three with your kids, remember this – if you’re not sure what happens at three, it’s best not to start counting in the first place.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy in Worthington, Ohio. He’s also a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. To schedule an appointment, call Carl at 614-477-5565.)