In couples and family counseling, we are sometimes asked if we have a magic wand or pill to make children behave. Many parents feel frustrated and overwhelmed about child rearing from time to time. Although there is no magical answer to changing your child’s behavior, there are some strategies that can be helpful. One strategy is having family rules. Almost every family has rules, but are those rules posted? From our experience working with families, we can tell you that unless your rules are posted their existence is questionable and although individuals can recount the rules, rarely matched perfectly. Rules have varying intentions and purposes and come in different forms, but generally tend to work have two common traits: First, they are specific and second, they are easy to understand. Here are two types of rules we have found in our discussions with families that may clarify the importance of these two traits.
‘Do’ rules are teaching tools, and they are effective in most situations because they guide your child’s behavior in a positive way. Here are some examples:
• Sit down to eat.
• Speak in a polite voice.
• Wear your seatbelt in the car.
• Be gentle with each other.
• Be home by curfew.
It is better to have more ‘do’ than ‘don’t’ rules.
Use ‘don’t’ rules when it is difficult to explain exactly what to do instead. Here are some examples:
• Don’t spit.
• Don’t ask for things in the supermarket.
• Don’t get in a car with any other driver who has been drinking.
Tips and strategies:
First, as the old saying goes, “Less is more”. Have two to four clear household rules, discuss them with your children, explain the consequences for not following through with the rules and then post them some place that you can refer to them when needed. A quick reminder is always good. “What are the rules in this house?” Too many rules are overwhelming to both parents and children and ultimately both give up on the rules.
A second strategy is having consequences for your child’s behavior. Don’t forget that consequences are both positive and negative. If your child’s behavior is negative, the consequence is negative. If your child’s behavior is positive then the consequence is positive. Parents often wonder why they need to use positive consequences. Positive consequences encourage your child to continue to do that behavior. Use things your child enjoys as positive consequences. Play a game with him/her, let her/him choose what you will have for dinner, generally spending time with your child is a great positive consequence. Negative consequences also work best if you take away something that is meaningful to your child, such as a favorite toy, friends or a cell phone. For younger children planned ignoring works very well. Planned Ignoring is paying no attention to a child when they misbehave – not that you are ignoring the behavior, you are just not giving attention. It means not looking at them and not talking to them while they behave that way. For example, if you’re having a family meal and your child is bouncing up and down on the seat, you could leave them out of the conversation and not look at them until they stop. When they stop, you could say, ‘I love it when you sit still on your chair at dinner. Why don’t you tell us what you did at preschool today?’ The key is to reward your child with lots of attention when they behave well – but don’t give them any attention when they behave badly.