To be a good parent, you need to show tough love

If you wish to raise your child to be a balanced individual who understands both praise and criticism, you need to stop trying to be a good parent

A child being displined by parents

As parents we are generally wracked with guilt and anxiety when managing our children. We often feel inadequate and try very hard to be “good parents”. We may, for example, do our utmost to avoid punishing them. And when our children behave in bizarre ways it increases the problem ten-fold.

Consider this collection of odd behaviours: Tears books. Picks nose. Whines. Gets scared of the dark. Talks in babyish voice. Throws toys. Kicks. Waves arms about. Stamps feet. Runs off. Licks nose. Steals blatantly. Makes silly noises. Swears.  Spits food out. Complains of bad dreams. Wears clothes inside out. Paints hair green. Belches. Refuses to get washed. Holds breath. Walks in a silly way. Stands in front of the TV… What do all these have in common? The answer is, they attract massive amounts of attention. This attention is usually in the form of threats, punishments or reasoning—just what the attention seeking child thrives on.

What triggers such behaviour

Children who behave like this are impossible to ignore. But they don’t plan these shenanigans. A spiral escalates from some point in the past and gradually feeds on itself, as the attention seeking child is praised less and less and produces more and more irritating behaviours to attract attention. But these do not satisfy the child, so the craving continues.

If we approach this situation strictly as per the medical definition of misbehaviour, the idea is that the problem lies within the child [much like having the flu or ADHD]. Thus, it is difficult to understand a problem that arises from a parent and child reacting to each other. This is not to blame parents; they need to be dealt with compassionately.

Parents in such situations naturally feel very upset and confused. Unfortunately there is no magic pill solution that can help them, just careful strategies. These are the usual approaches: ignoring, praising, consequences. The trick is to get the balance right—a middle way—and make all techniques effective, at home [and at school].

It is difficult to understand a problem that arises from a parent and child reacting to each other

Knowing what to ignore

We try too hard to tackle all behaviours but some need to be ignored. Unfortunately, ignoring sounds simple but it definitely isn’t. Both parents need to work at this together; it requires a high degree of mindfulness. What typically happens is that we decide to ignore some minor but intensely irritating behaviours and maintain this for a few days and then we finally react. This ‘pay-out’, even if it only happens occasionally, keeps the child hooked—just like gamblers responding to a one-armed bandit.

We need patience and persistence since things can get worse before they get better, as the child may produce more annoying behaviours that used to gain attention. But this, paradoxically, shows the approach is working.

Don’t wait till it builds up

We sometimes want to punish misbehaviour. But this can backfire and we can end up inadvertently giving the child even more attention. Parents often try too hard to be ‘good parents’ and put off tackling their little prince/princess. Then, finally, a massive punishment is delivered, which is unfortunately undermined by all the attention that led up to it. If we address the situation early on (with something like time out) , when we are under control it is much more effective. But this requires the ability to go beyond the immediate demands of our angry, dominating “I”.

An enlightened approach is to use natural consequences rather than arbitrary punishment: “You didn’t eat your meal, which means you are not hungry. So you won’t get chocolates either”, “If you throw your toys, they will have to go back in the box”. It is compassionate—tough love—but it works.

We sometimes want to punish misbehaviour. But this can backfire and we can end up inadvertently giving the child even more attention

Be generous with praise

Positive attention and encouragement for trying regularly gets overlooked as we feel compelled to respond to a deluge of misbehaviours. We shower a few positive words—but these get lost amidst all the negative feedback we provide. We need to compliment and encourage children when they are behaving well, rather than wait to be dragged over when they misbehave.

So, neither pills nor smacks but a middle way is required. This involves a mixture of traditional techniques, deployed by both parents together, not trying too hard to be “good parents”. It needs compassion [for ourselves and the child] and must be maintained consistently over many weeks. It works, as the following case study shows.

Case study: How an eight-year-old responded to tough love

Eight-year-old Andy West was referred to me because he was making poor progress in school. He never got down to any solid work. Andy would misbehave when the teacher was engaged with other children. He would twist about in his seat, slip on the floor or climb about on his desk. He was constantly restless, tapping with his pencil, shuffling his feet, etc.

His parents said that Andy showed patience but lacked confidence. He had had several hospital treatments when he was younger. He showed a good sense of humour but was very noisy which irritated his parents. He was stubborn, argued with his brother and ate too much. All these brought bags of attention. Andy told me he would do jobs at home but could only get an odd word of praise. He could, however, recall much “telling off” (attention) for his irritating behaviours.

Mrs West said her approach to discipline was to “tell a few times” before resorting to threats which were rarely carried out. She agreed she had been lenient with him, trying too hard to be a good parent to make up for his periods in hospital, rather than dealing with the here and now. Both parents accepted the need to operate more as a team. They were surprised to find out their praise had not penetrated but that Andy could recall a lot of nagging. Mr and Mrs West agreed to increase their praise and to ignore his nail biting and other minor annoying behaviours. They said that it would be difficult to be firm with Andy, however.

Two months later school reported that Andy “just gets on with his work”. Mrs West had found it easier than she thought to be strict with him. Instead of trying too hard to be “a good parent”, she had accepted the need for a “tough love” approach. Andy was happier and their relationship had improved as she was nagging less. Her relationship with her husband had improved too as they were arguing less about discipline. Andy had readily helped in the house and was pleased with the extra attention this brought. Three years later Andy was still settled.

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