You know what? Stuff happens, and not all of it is good stuff. But, no matter what the stuff is, changing it from bad to good always takes a certain path. Understanding the path and taking specific steps along it to reach your goal is the way to change habits from bad to good.
Chad is a sullen, moody, withdrawn 16 year old. He keeps his grades okay in school, but he doesn’t have a lot of friends that his folks know of. He mostly gets his own meals and eats in his room. When his folks invite him for dinner, he gives a curt reply, “Leave me alone.” His two younger siblings have just written him off, figuring he’s just being Chad. His folks mostly abide by his wishes and leave him alone.
One evening the police knock on their door asking to talk to Chad. He and his folks go into the living room, where the officers inquire of Chad’s whereabouts last Friday night. After getting lame excuses, the officers show Chad and his folks video footage of a shoplifting event that night at the mall. The offender is clearly Chad.
As a first offender and a juvenile, Chad is processed, tried, given a suspended sentence with first offender status after restitution. After a year of good behavior and substantive change, Chad’s conviction is expunged, just in time for him to go off to college. How did Chad make it from this bad choice and circumstance to a good outcome? The path on this journey has 4 steps.
First, all change begins from a position of unconscious ignorance. That is, you don’t know that your behavior is problematic, and you don’t know that you don’t know. Life just goes along.
Second, there is a precipitating event that creates drama and trauma. Your world is shaken. For Chad, his proverbial “oh crap” moment came when he was arrested for shoplifting. This moves you from unconscious ignorance to conscious ignorance. That is, you know that there is a problem, but you don’t know how to get past it. This second step is where you start to want to change your behavior. During this step, you find resources, a positive network, and you make effort to change.
Knowing the problem and wanting to change moves you from conscious ignorance to conscious awareness, the third step on your healing journey. People take a lot of time to embrace the change process because change is hard. As humans, we are drawn to the familiar, even if the familiar is unhealthy. It takes time to go from the familiar unhealthy to the unfamiliar healthy and then stay there long enough for healthy to become familiar.
Chad’s folks were a big part of his healing process because they saw the shoplifting as a symptom, not as a problem. They used active listening, comforting, and guidance to help Chad come to their perspective. They did not judge, criticize, or put him down. They even helped Chad find a therapist and joined him in the therapy process, loving him through all of his ups and downs.
By the time Chad went back to court a year later, with an excellent report from his probation officer, his parents, and his therapist, he had moved on to the final step in the change process. His conscious awareness had become an unconscious awareness. That is, his changes had become new habits that felt familiar to him and which he embraced. He wanted to spend time with his family. They routinely ate together. His grades went up and he found new friends who were kindred spirit. He was more open with his feelings and more responsible with his behavior. He didn’t have to think about being good any more, he just was good.
These four steps on the healing journey are universal. Active listening, emotional intimacy, and relationship are the means you can provide when someone you love needs to trade in bad habits for good.
Many years ago, my 8 year old daughter was acting out and I sent her to her room. I don’t remember the details. Sometime later I was doing laundry in the basement. I had not processed Rachel’s time-out with her and she had not been let out of her room. Nonetheless, she made her way down to where I was doing laundry. Silently, she floated a paper airplane from the doorway to me, and then ran quickly back upstairs. There were markings on the plane, so I unfolded it. Rachel had written, “I hate you.”
Wow! I was crestfallen, heartbroken, and stunned. I finished my load of laundry, giving me time to think about how to handle this. I went upstairs to her room. She was pretending to be asleep on her bed. I went to her side, placed the airplane on the bed and said, “You dropped this.” I started to leave her room, but Rachel bounded out of her bed, sobbing, and ran to hug me.
“Daddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I was mad. Please forgive me.”
I folded her into my arms for a big hug and walked her back to her bed. We talked and worked it all out.
Looking back, apparently, I had sent my little girl to her room without adequate active listening and context. She felt unheard and schemed to float her feelings to me on the paper airplane to get my attention. It worked!
As we talked afterwards in her room, she recounted her perspective. I said, “I understand your anger, but what else were you feeling?”
Anger is funny like that. About 98% of the time, anger is secondary to a more primary feeling. Because anger is the most socially accepted negative feeling we have, we use it to cover unheard, frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, worried, and a host of other feelings. Only about 2% of the time is anger the primary feeling. Another way to tag it would be “righteous indignation.” We’re mad because something is just not right. Think a young mother yelling at her toddler in the grocery story because he’s grabbing at things. Think any instance of child neglect, abuse, abandonment. Mostly, righteous indignation occurs when there is a power differential and the victim is helpless.
So, I active listened, validating Rachel’s anger, but asking also, “what else are you feeling?” During the course of our talk, I saw her emotional fever going down. She then could accept my parenting perspective in correcting her behavior, and I helped her talk about ways she could avoid future such difficulties.
For a relationship-building teachable moment with your child, acknowledge her anger, but then find the primary feelings behind the anger by asking, “What else is going on?”
Crash! Mom heard to sound coming from her 13 year old daughter’s room. “Now what,” she muttered as she dried her hands before leaving the dishes to make yet another kid rescue.
“Chad, look what you’ve done,” Jenny screamed at her 10 year old little brother. “Get out of my room, you jerk!” Mom hurried her pace, sensing her children coming to blows.
Sibling rivalry is only one of many daily challenges for parents of strong-willed children. It would be common for mom to storm into Jenny’s room and begin barking orders. “Jenny, don’t talk to your brother like that.” “Chad, pick up that mess. What are you doing in your sister’s room anyway?”
Unfortunately, such common occurrences will likely lead to hurt feelings, emotional distance, and continued power struggles. When you are able to trade in divisive “me against you” talk for “we and us” talk, you are on the right track.
First, without comment or criticism, separate your children in the moment. Take time to find out what happened, from each of their perspectives, using your active listening to understand the feelings behind the actions.
Second, when you sense your child’s emotional fever is going down after active listening, ask what they might have said or done differently to have achieved positive outcome.
Third, identify what each child did to add to the difficulty between them, and give each a time-out to formulate an apology to the other. Behaviorally and developmentally, the rule of thumb is to give times-out that are no longer than 2 minutes for every year of your child’s age. For Chad, at age 10, that would be 20 minutes. For Jenny, at age 13, that would be 26 minutes. In reality, such a brief time-out may serve its purpose, but also is an opportunity for you to step away, settle down, and bring reason to the conversation.
Finally, after these times-out, talk to your children together both to structure the apology/forgiveness piece and to jointly address specifics that could help avoid such encounters in the future. For example, Chad could knock before entering his sister’s room, and Jenny could make some time for her brother doing something he likes, like competing on a video game.
I don’t know any parent who can avoid those moments where they say “Uh oh. Here we go again.” However, taking these steps will turn those uh oh moments into teachable moments for your children.
My daughter was 4 years old a long time ago. I was talking to my neighbor over the fence in our yard. Rachel came up to me, tugged on my pant leg, and announced, “I need some attention.” Whoa! I stopped my conversation with my neighbor and gave Rachel the attention she asked for.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if our children asked for our attention in that manner all of the time. Alas, not so.
Molly was on her cell phone with the mother of one of 9 yr. old Alexa’s friends. They were just gossiping. Alexa guessed who her mom was talking to and decided that she wanted to talk to her friend as well. She proceeded to paw at her mom, dramatically her to give her the cell phone so she could say “hi.” Molly got mad.
She asked her neighbor to hold on a sec and turned to her daughter. “If you don’t stop bugging me while I’m on the phone, I will pop you so hard you won’t be able to sit for a week,” she threatened, wagging her finger in Alexa’s face. Alexa stopped, turned dejectedly and shuffled away, whimpering about how mama just doesn’t understand.
In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I note that the concept of attention has an absolute quality about it. That is, either positive attention or negative attention will fill the bill. Sadly, positive attention seems to be much harder, longer getting, and less frequent than negative attention. So, kids naturally find negative ways to fill their attentional needs.
Another visual image I share with readers in chapter four, Children Never Mean What They Say, is this. Imagine that children have 100 parts to them. Whatever type of attention they seek, it will always add up to 100. So, if a child has 12 parts positive attention, by definition she has 88 parts negative attention.
Now, here’s where you come in as the parent. Whatever part you pay attention to grows. So, if you talk to your daughter about the good choices she is making, the positive parts grow from 12 to 14. By definition, her negative parts shrink from 88 to 86. Conversely, your yelling, discounting, ignoring causes the negative to grow and the positive to shrink.
Mom and dad, pay attention. Focus on what your child is doing and saying right while ignoring as much as possible what they are saying and doing wrong. Where correction is called for, talk to your child after all has settled down with a prompting comment such as, “Golly, sweetheart, that wasn’t like you. What else is going on? How do you think this might have turned out better? Such questions get your child’s brain moving back in a positive direction. Paying attention to these details will lead to many teachable moments.
Do you wonder if your child has a weight issue? Overweight? Underweight? If you wonder at all, don’t wait to help them do something about it.
Nine year old Jenny never liked it when the teacher told the class to line up for the two captains to choose sides. Not only was she never selected to be a team captain, she was always chosen last, whomever of the captains was stuck with the last pick. Jenny had battled overeating as far back as she could remember. She just couldn’t help giving herself heaping portions and asking for seconds. Munchies? Forget about it. It seemed like there was always something sweet-tasting close by. Because of her weight and being uncoordinated, she was always chosen last.
Six year old Bobby didn’t have Jenny’s problem. He was athletic, slim, and had an abundance of energy. In fact, too much energy. The doctor had told his mom that he was hyper, whatever that meant. Now he takes pills to help him slow down. But he likes going fast. He just doesn’t like getting into trouble and forgetting to slow down enough to do his schoolwork. He hates it when he hears the boys calling him “stupid.”
These children have weight issues that both need to be addressed by their parents and by their pediatrician. Physicians encourage parents of all children to get them regular check-ups monthly after birth, every 6 months sometime later, and at least annually up to age 10. There are medical charts that indicate average weight for children according to age and height. There’s also an average range for body mass index. If these numbers are in the average range, but your child has body image issues anyway, use your active listening to help her understand her feelings and plan activities and encourage positive self-worth and social interaction. If your child is getting medicine for being hyper, watch his weight carefully. This kind of medicine can have a side effect of children losing their appetite. Keep your child healthy with a high protein, high caloric diet to encourage weight maintenance.
Stay on top of any weight issues your child may have. Include them in your discussions, at an age appropriate level. Don’t wait. You may just help them avoid both physical health and mental health concerns in the long run.
You remember vividly when each of your children were born. For moms, there is pain in childbirth. Don’t let anyone convince you that it’s just pressure J. However, this pain of childbirth is immediately thereafter replaced by the sheer joy of holding your newborn, nestling in your arms. For dads, I remember feeling awed, thrilled, and terrified. A definite OMG moment. When my baby looked up at me, I knew she was a keeper.
What new parents don’t realize is that all babies, no matter what the circumstances, are born with an invisible sign hanging around their necks. I call it the IALAC sign, I-A-L-A-C, which is an acronym for “I am loved and cared for.” Each baby feels that love as they emerge from the womb. While lots of other emotions surround the birth, love is the predominant one. The IALAC sign remains, hidden but there, around our necks as we grow older.
And yet, life events can chip away at our IALAC sign. Little 3 year old Julie got yelled at after accidentally knocking over her mom’s favorite lamp. It shattered on the ground. Ten year old Bobby didn’t get much playing time with his rec league basketball team. When he asked his coach, he was told that the team was winning and he wasn’t good enough to beat out the starters. Amanda, a 15 year old high school freshman, tearfully showed her failing history test score to her dad. He said abruptly, “Well, sweetheart, you should have studied harder.”
At those moments, when this kind of stuff happens in our lives, a little piece of our IALAC sign gets torn away. Soon enough, the original sign can disappear all together. However, because we all must wear an IALAC sign throughout our lives, a new sign will appear. We were born with “I am loved and cared for.” Difficult events coupled with unkind words re-works our sign to now read “I am lonely and confused.” The kinds of caring, Christian parenting, communication tools I offer through my book and classes helps our children maintain their “I am loved and cared for” sign, even when our children make their way through the stress and strain of life. What message is your child getting from their IALAC sign?
“Aww, Ma. Do I hafta? We just did all this stuff in school today,” 8-year old Adam complained. “Can we just skip homework tonight? I promise I’ll to all of it tomorrow night.” Mom raised her eyebrows, looking skeptical of Adam’s assurances.
This kind of parent-child exchange is typical of what is frustratingly referred to as “the homework wars.” Almost all families with school-aged children have some version of this. Doing homework becomes a nightly battle, a test of wills with your otherwise wonderful, loving youngster. It is a test of wills, an opportunity to set healthy boundaries with your child, and a pathway to successful academics.
In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I caution that children will always test the limits. This is not because they want to be free of them. It’s to be sure that they are there. What child says, “Oh boy. I have lots of homework tonight. I can’t wait to get started and practice what I’ve learned today in school.” Shall we say…not many.
In this test of wills, your child wants you to set the firm boundary. The answer to his question, “Do I hafta?” is a resounding “yes.” However, the wars ramp up when each side digs in for battle. Do you want to avoid the homework wars? Then don’t engage. Doing the homework is not an option. How your child does it is negotiable.
Have this discussion outside of homework time. Engage your child in a curious discovery of what works best for him. Decide on a designated homework spot, e.g., desk in his room, kitchen table. Talk about the time that works best for him, e.g., right after getting home from school, after dinner. For elementary school-aged students, sit beside your child and coach/tutor as needed, but without doing any of it for him. For middle school students, be in the proximity of where they are doing homework. Be available. Encourage with “how’s it going in there?” For high schoolers, encourage their good work habits. Where low or failing grades are the outcome, homework time becomes study time to bring the grades up.
When the process is well-defined, put it into place for a short period of time, a week or two, with reward or consequence in place for after the time frame is over. Revise as needed, but be firm with your limits. You can survive the homework wars by negotiating a peace treaty that involves your child successfully getting his homework finished.
If your answer to this question is “no,” forgive me, but either you are lying, clueless, or gullible. All children lie. Some just better than others. The question is, what do we as parents do about it?
Four-year old Mandy slips unnoticed into the family living room, as her mom is in the kitchen finishing clean-up from supper. Mom pauses in her work and just listens. She hears nothing. “Mandy, sweetheart, what are you doing?” she calls out. After a longer than expected silence, Mandy responds, “Nothing.” Mom puts up her drying towel and goes to find her daughter.
In the living room, Mandy was attracted to the shiny, glass figurine of a ballerina that had been up on a too-high-for-her shelf in the bookcase. She had slid a plastic play chair over to the bookcase and was reaching for the figurine when her mom rounded the corner to the living room.
“Mandy!” The little girl froze at the sharp call of her name, losing her grip on the figurine. It fell to the floor and crashed into little pieces. Mandy teetered standing on the chair. Mom rushed to catch her, saving her from spilling to the ground as well.
“Ooh, baby. It’s okay. I’ve got you.” Soothed her mom, assuring that her preschooler was all right. Mandy sat in her mom’s arms and began to whimper. Mom rocked her gently until Mandy calmed.
With crisis averted, mom is at a choice point. Is this about power or relationship? Is this about mom’s authority or Mandy’s choices? If mom goes the power route, she scolds her daughter and punishes her. “What were you thinking, young lady?” Mom begins to pick up the pieces of the figurine. “You grandmother gave this to me after I won a dance contest as a teen. Now look at what you’ve done.” Mom vents at her daughter’s expense. Mandy cries softly, but pulls away from her mama, feeling distant and guilty.
If mom goes relationship and choices route, she calms her daughter and they carefully pick up the pieces of the figurine together. As they do so, mom asks, “Honey, I’m glad you’re okay, but what were you thinking? This isn’t like you. What else is going on?” Mom’s observations and questions open the door to understanding Mandy’s feelings through active listening. When settled, mom can address Mandy’s poor choice, set healthy boundaries, and give her a brief consequence to help her make better choices in the future. A crisis averted becomes a teachable moment.
Early in our marriage, my wife received a unique, stocking stuffer, Christmas gift. It was a circular pot holder. On it was this message. “This is a Round Tuit. Did you ever think about something you had to do, but failed to get around to it? Well, now you have one, so, stop making excuses and do it.”
Often parents think about doing things differently with their children, but seem to be stuck in the same ol’ behavior patterns. If what you are doing isn’t working, then change it. The standard definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Now in middle school, 12 year old Anthony continued to get up late, miss breakfast, and run out the door, often missing his school bus. He rang up the tardys at school and was getting extra assignments because of them. He wanted to change his morning habits, but he didn’t seem to ever get around to it.
With yet another tardy slip in hand, he slumped in the chair at the kitchen table. His mom sat down next to him and heard his tale of woe. She used her best active listening, without judging, without her own solutions. Seeing that he was more settled, she added, “I have some thoughts about your frustrations. Do you want to hear them?”
Mom went to the family events calendar on the corkboard and retrieved the family “round tuit” potholder. “Here,” she gave the potholder to her son, “I think you need to hold onto this for a while.” Both laughed, as the round tuit potholder had been passed from one family member to another over many years.
Mom and Anthony then talked over a plan that involved collecting his stuff and setting his clothes out at night, an earlier bedtime, two alarm clocks set a distance from his bed, post-it prompts around his room and the kitchen, and cash incentive for daily and weekly compliance to his new morning routine and reaching his goal of being on-time for school each day. The round tuit potholder stayed in his room as a reminder, until his new routine was set in stone.
Do you need to get a round tuit? This cute little reminder will help you move from planning helpful changes to actually doing them.
Behavior management is in your job description as a parent. Some parents don’t like this job, and their kids run wild. Other parents see this as their only job, and their kids are rigid, uncreative, and often fear-driven. In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I offer step-by-step directions of a relational, interactive version of behavior management centered on what I call The Good Kid Chart.
Eight year old Dante was bossing his little sister around and getting her to do his chores. “Son, you know better than that,” growled Dad. “How would you like me to do that to you? Go to your room.”
Well, yeah. That’s exactly how Dad was treating Dante. Where do you think Dante learned to boss his sister around and get her to do his work? Is he going to learn not to boss his sister by being sent to his room?
The Good Kid Chart is the focus of a productive, positive, change-oriented version of standard behavior management. The name itself is a directive on helping your child become a good kid. After you and your spouse identify the target behaviors you want your child to work on, sit down with him to review the procedures. Target behaviors, by the way, are always positively oriented. No one wants to work toward a negative. So, “Don’t be bossy to your sister” becomes “Play nicely and treat your sister with respect.”
There are four components of the system. During a family meeting with your child, orient him to The Good Kid Chart. Active listen his protests and prompt his working on meeting the target behaviors. Then compile three lists of 6-10 items each. A list of daily rewards, of weekly rewards, and of consequences. The more involved your child is in creating these lists, the more he will buy into the process. Daily and weekly rewards are always within your time and resource limits. Consequences occur with severe outburst. If you want Dante to play nice with his sister and he yells at her and pushes her down, that’s severe. He not only does not get a sticker on his Good Kid Chart, but also gets a punishment. Allowing him to pick one of 6-10 consequences helps him own his punishment. If he refuses, you get to pick two.
The Good Kid Chart. What a great way to create teachable moments and help you child become the person you want him to be.