THE NEW FLAVOR
Twenty years ago, a sixty-pound redheaded dynamo by the name of Sam charged into my office and made me rethink everything I'd learned about discipline during my pediatric training. He was a typical high-energy seven-year-old boy-only he hated school and refused to behave no matter what kind (or amount) of discipline or guidance I recommended to his parents. Like many other parents, Sam's mother and father wondered if they were doing something wrong. If Sam's rebelliousness was at all tied in to how they were handling things, then more than anything else in the world, they wanted to fix their mistakes.
And here were Sam's parents, sitting in my office waiting for me to explain why no amount of threats or bribes, yelling, negative reinforcement, limits, time-ins or time-outs, consistency, "good" communication, or learning from consequences was making one bit of difference. If anything, the attempts to reshape Sam's behavior were sending him into a wild tailspin. Indeed, all the textbook instructions, the same ones my colleagues and I had been dispensing for more than a decade, were only making things worse.
As Sam's parents were telling me about all the trouble that he had gotten himself into during the past week, I was struck by a depressing notion. If Sam's downward cycle of misbehavior continued, in five years' time this enthusiastic and creative youngster would likely become a sullen, resentful, and angry teenager. Although I'm embarrassed to admit it, when my advice hadn't worked in the past, I'd blame the parents, the teachers, society, television, or the electronic age. But as I organized my thoughts that day, I told myself "If Sam's parents are following my advice and my advice isn't working, then maybe something is fundamentally wrong with the advice."
That realization marked the turning point in my thinking. If I was going to be able to truly help Sam and his family, then I would need to go back to square one and reevaluate all my textbook answers. And that's how I discovered something truly amazing, something that changed how I approached behavioral problems in my office and home life forever. To put it bluntly, I realized that parents unintentionally perceive their kids as responsible for the problems encountered in their upbringing, while in reality, adults and children create their dynamics and issues together.
Indeed, when we have trouble in our adult relationships, we are told to "get real" about our contribution to problems. But when it comes to parenting, we often completely forget the concept of reciprocity and readily blame our kids while sparing ourselves criticism (let alone responsibility). For instance, take whining: a strategy that a child uses to influence his parents. For whining to be effective, there must be a whiner on one end of the equation and a parent who caves in on the other. Together, parent and child do whining, with the behavior of each an essential part of the interactions between them.
By becoming more aware of the workings of parent-child relationships, we can learn to manage our problems by changing our behavior rather than by trying to change our kids. To put it another way, if there is something about a child's habits or behavior that needs changing, the first question that needs asking is "Is this something I need to work on in myself?"
Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not claiming that you'll never need to reprimand your kids again. I'm sure there will still be times when it's needed. But what I am saying is this: These philosophies and practical skills will help you become a more insightful parent and allow you to respond to conflicts with greater self-control and confidence. They will also maximize your chance of solving problems in a fraction of the time, without strong-arm tactics.
Loving and caring for your child when he's* behaving like a little angel is easy and fun. But the true challenge, and what separates good parents from really great parents, is the ability to solve problems, ordinary and unexpected, in a way that will protect a child's core self and provide him with a strong and loving base from which to go out into the world.
THE THREE R'S
Reframe, Reflect, Resolve
Most of us think of the three R's as reading, writing, and arithmetic, the essential components to the education and intellectual growth of our children. However, equally essential are the three R's that help parents examine their own behavior. This three-step strategy will allow you to negotiate your way through almost any situation, controlling your knee-jerk reactions and choosing a way of responding to difficulties that will encourage a new reaction from your child. Each of the three steps is an effective tool on its own, but linked together, they form a powerful vehicle for working your way through problems.
The Three R's. The following questions are not intended to make you feel guilty about your past behavior. Rather, they're designed to help you understand the patterns in your actions, perceptions, or thinking that need to change in order for you to become a more effective and nurturing parent. In my experience, parents who write down their answers are more likely to make significant and lasting changes.
Reframe. Reframing means zeroing in on you and discovering how you're caught up in the problems that cause you grief. The best way to reframe your problems is to stop looking outside of yourself for answers. Learn to ask effective questions about whatever's troubling you. Here's an example of an ineffective question: "Why does my baby need me to rock him to sleep every night?" A more powerful question is "Why have I been rocking my baby to sleep for the last nine months?" Do you see the difference? Effective questions are the ones that lead you to think about yourself, your emotions, your thoughts, and your behavior. When you ask questions that focus on you, they lead to answers that you can do something about. This shift in your thinking may seem minuscule, but the positive impact on your child is enormous.
*Instead of a less effective question like: Why won't my kids stop fighting?
*How am I contributing to problems of sibling rivalry?
*Instead of: Why is my son such a slob?
*How can I help my son become more organized?
*Instead of: Why won't my child stop whining?
*How am I encouraging whining?
*Instead of: Why is my child such a liar?
*Is the way I discipline my child encouraging him to lie to me?
*Instead of: Why won't my daughter stay in her own bed?
*How do I contribute to my child's sleep problems?
Reflect. In the first step, you acknowledged that you're tangled in the situations that frustrate you. Now let's discover how. This doesn't mean you have to probe your past or get in touch with your feelings. It means you have to make clear observations about parent-child dynamics and use this information as a starting point to bring about change. Discover how you do the problem. Zoom in and focus on you. Notice your behaviors, feelings, perceptions, even your body language and facial expressions. For now you don't need to understand the motivation or explanation behind why you do what you do; just become more aware of how you're helping to shape the problem. Become a photojournalist studying you. I've put together an acronym to help you think about the ways in which your behavior, thoughts, and feelings are unwittingly contributing to the problem at hand: S-T-O-P.
See. Replay the situation that is causing you grief. You should be able to visualize the scene in minute detail.
Think. How does your thinking influence the way you respond? For example, let's say you're having trouble getting your six-year-old daughter off to school each morning. You might be thinking, "My child should be able to get dressed and ready for school without me walking her through each step." This thought may stop you from trying different ways of dealing with the situation; instead you do more of the same, and the problem escalates without any forward movement.
Observe. Take a step backward and notice your body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Imagine you're a photographer who has captured the moment on film. What do these photos illustrate that helps you better understand the problem?
Put it together. Understand the interwoven emotional and mental factors that shape the problem. For example, you may rush into your baby's bedroom and swoop him out of his crib the moment he cries. The reason you do this is that you feel guilty, and you feel guilty because you equate letting your baby cry with negligence. The more aware you are of your perceptions and emotions, the easier it is to put an end to ineffective patterns of behavior.
THE FIFTY-FIFTY FORMULA
You and your child each contribute equally to the child-rearing problems that are causing you grief.
Resolve. Get ready to solve your problems. To break ineffective cycles of behavior, you need to: 1) recognize that you're "stuck"; 2) get real about your contribution to the problem;
3) make a conscious effort to change; 4) make changes that respect your child as a thinking and feeling individual; and 5) have confidence in your youngster's ability to change.
In the following chapters, we are going to use our three R's method to analyze specific problems, and you'll use this information to move forward. If thousands of frustrated parents whom I've helped over the years could become more confident about their parenting abilities by using the strategies I lay out in this book, then you can, too!
HOW TO LEARN FROM THIS BOOK
Using the Three R's
Whether your problems are big or small, old or new, I am going to help you solve them by showing you how to respond rather than react to difficulties. When we react to a problem, we inadvertently reinforce or strengthen it; when we respond, we act in a manner that brings about change. I call this process taking "response-ability," or in other words, developing the ability to respond to a problem in a manner that resolves it.
I've organized this book to be practical. Topics are arranged in alphabetical order, and information is presented in easily handled chunks that can be put into action right away. It is designed to be a source of information, support, and guidance by leading you through a process of analyzing, strategizing, and action. At the end of each chapter, I will ask you to pause and think through your unique situation using the three R's. The act of becoming more conscious, of standing back and choosing how to act-rather than acting on impulse-allows you to guide and direct your children wisely. You have the ability to do this, and nothing is more meaningful, worthwhile, or precious.
How to Use the Three R's to Solve
(Just About) Any Parenting Problem
I'd like to show you how to size up a problem-big or small-and make an on-the-spot, in-the-moment adjustment that will ease whatever situation is troubling you. Most often the solution is straightforward and involves a combination of common sense, compassion, and perseverance. Although I cannot be there to help you analyze and strategize around your personal situations, the philosophies and skills you discover in this book will allow you to do this on your own. Remember to be guided by a solid trust in your child and steadfast confidence in yourself. And above all, relish the difficulties and conflicts you encounter, even the most nerve-racking ones, as each one provides a valuable opportunity to love and guide your child.
"My spouse and I disagree on how to discipline our toddler.
I come out being the heavy because he/she hates to see his/her 'little princess' upset."
Ask yourself, "How am I reacting to our differences?"
Reflect on It
Do I take a tougher stand to compensate? What is the impact of our different approaches? Is my child learning to take advantage of this gap? How have I tried to resolve things? Are there other issues here?
Try and understand where your partner is coming from. Make it a priority to work on your problems rather than choosing to stay angry. Be clear what it is you're disagreeing about.
"My mother in-law criticizes everything I do with my kids."
Ask yourself, "How am I giving her permission to criticize me?"
Reflect on It
What do I say or do when my in-law comments on my parenting? What message is that sending her? How can I respond in a way that tells her to stop interfering while keeping the peace?
Make mutual respect a priority. Learn to respond to unwelcome advice in a way that puts an end to it. For example, say, "I know you mean well, but I would appreciate support instead of criticism."
"My son is stubborn. Sometimes I let him do what he wants because I don't have the energy to fight."
Ask, "How am I enabling his stubbornness?"
Reflect on It
What am I doing to give him the impression that he doesn't need to listen to me?
Focus on setting limits (see "Listening," page 150). Your child may have an inflexible temperament and need warning about upcoming changes.
"My kids fight the moment they get in the car."
Ask yourself, "What am I doing about the car fights?"
Reflect on It
What am I doing to prevent car fights? How do I deal with them when they happen?
Stop responding in the same way while hoping for a different outcome. Use forward thinking and plan ways
to stop the fighting before it happens.
"My baby refuses to let anyone hold her except me."
Ask, "How am I responding to my baby's clinginess?"
Reflect on It
Am I interpreting this as a sign of insecurity? Do I force the baby to go to others? Do I try and sneak out?
Separation anxiety is a normal developmental milestone. Be reassured that your child is developing normally and loves you very much.
"My kids watch too much television."
Ask, "Why do I allow my kids to watch so much television?"
Reflect on It
Have I established clear television rules? Do I enforce them?
Set clear, nonnegotiable television rules.
"My kids refuse to do their chores."
Ask yourself, "How is my behavior connected to chores not getting done?"
Reflect on It
Do I help my kids get started? Am I providing enough guidance? Do I give too many chores?
Set a time for chores to be done. Help your kids get started. Praise them for their efforts. Don't criticize the job they've done.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Parent's Problem Solver by Cathryn Tobin, M.D.. Copyright © 2002 by Cathryn Tobin, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.