7 ways to be an effective parent

James Lehman explains how you can change the way you parent and why your child's behaviour has a better chance of improving when you do so.
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Updated on Apr 28, 2010 07:54 PM IST
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By James Lehman, New Delhi

Some parents are afraid that their child won't change no matter what they do. Many find themselves reacting automatically when their child behaves inappropriately; as soon as he acts out, they're yelling and screaming, or getting sucked into power struggles. And even when parents try something new, it's easy for them to get discouraged. Some try to do different things from time to time, but when these methods seem to be ineffective, they eventually give up. This is true especially if the behaviour has been a problem for years and they haven't been able to do anything about it.

I've found that if you don't really take the time to think your response through, you often wind up simply reacting to the things your children do - and not responding effectively. Many parents become frustrated with their child's behaviour and want to give a punishment right away. Unfortunately, doing this doesn't provide any effective training to the child; in the end, it's just not helpful.

There's a big difference between the words 'react' and 'respond'. When you react, it's almost like a reflex - your buttons are pushed, and you go into your routine. But if you're responding, you're being more objective. You're still going to hold your child accountable, but you have more time to consider the consequence you'll give him and what you want him to learn from it - and there's less of a chance you'll take your child's behaviour personally.

To anyone who asks the question, "Is it too late to change my parenting style?" I would say that it's never too late. It may not always be easy, but there are effective things you can start doing right away to change the way you respond - and to improve your child's behaviour.

Here are seven ways to start parenting more effectively

Decide what you want to work on first: One of the things I see with parents is that they don't know where to start. But I think it's simple: start with the things that put your child at risk. These are the behaviours that are physically or emotionally dangerous to your child. I think parents should address the things that violate their values and morals, and that are risky to the child and others. Start there.

Pinpoint exactly what you want to change: I think it's helpful for parents to break behaviours down into separate pieces and work on them one at a time. So if your child curses at you and storms up to his room and slams the door, start with the behaviour you want to change most. When you talk to him, you want to break it down. Begin with, "Don't curse. That doesn't help solve the problem, and I'm offended by it. What do you think you could do differently the next time you get upset?" Your child may not be able to come up with anything, but offer some suggestions and get him to pick one option. And then say, "All right, so the next time you're upset, instead of cursing, you'll just go to your room."

Explain the change: If you're going to change a specific response to a behaviour, it might be helpful to sit down with your child and explain what that change is going to be. I also suggest that you don't make speeches, but keep your remarks specific and focused. Remember, speeches cut down on communication.

Tell your child what the goal is: I think it's important to define your goals to your child. You can say something like, "My goal is that you don't hurt other people by saying bad words." Or "My goal is that you don't steal money out of my wallet," or "My goal is that you don't punch the wall," or "My goal is that you don't throw sand in kids' faces or bite them." It's important to realise that what comes out of your mouth doesn't always get into your child's ear the way you want it to. And so even if your child is confused when you talk with him - he may be frustrated, worried, or angry - just try to stay calm. Whatever it is, say, "Let's just see how it works out first." Your child doesn't have to agree; it's not a democracy. But it's a way of approaching problems that, over time, will change his perceptions of his relationship with authority - and his relationship with you.

Manage opportunity: If you're concerned that your child is going to do something hurtful or destructive, one of your options is to manage the opportunities he has. Opportunity management is one of the simplest ways of shaping behaviour. In other words, if your daughter can't handle the mall without throwing tantrums, don't take her to the mall. Once your child demonstrates that he can't handle something, remove the opportunity until he shows you that he can. Often, if your child doesn't have the opportunity to do something, it won't happen.

Don't appeal to your child's empathy: Asking your child, "Do you know how it feels when you're disrespectful to me?" or asking, "How do you think Tommy feels when you take his lunch money?" are appeals to your child's empathy. But children, and especially teenagers, don't experience much empathy for anybody. Instead, you have to work with their self-interest. If you want your child to change something, you have to demonstrate that he will benefit from changing; that it's in his self-interest.

If you want your child to stop manipulating, you have to say it in a way so he can see how he would benefit from stopping that. It's not helpful to say "Can't you see how much your manipulating hurts me?" Instead, say, "Aren't you sick of getting grounded for manipulating? You're the one who gets hurt when you manipulate. Remember, Josh, the consequences won't stop until the manipulation stops. So stop doing this to yourself."

Set limits and give consequences: I think an important component of teaching our kids is learning how to set limits on them. There's an old saying: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." But I say, "You can lead a horse to water and you can't make him drink - but you can make him thirsty." That's what your consequences should be designed to do. Accordingly, we can't make our child change. But if we use the right combination of consequences and motivation, we can, in a sense, make them thirsty to change.

Remember, consequences are a means to an end. And if you find an effective consequence, continue to use it. By "effective" I mean that your child responds to it, even if only for a short while. It's not always helpful to immediately go for a bigger hammer if the consequence doesn't appear to be working. You should always have a bigger hammer in your toolbox, but escalate slowly.

So how do you know if you should change your parenting style? I believe that you have to change the way you parent if what you've been doing till now has proven ineffective. There's information regarding learning effective parenting styles, giving effective consequences, and ways to have conversations with your child that promote change and don't create excuses. Do your best to access that information, both on Empowering Parents and in other trusted places.
And remember: It's never too late.

Excerpts from It's never too late: 7 ways to start parenting more effectively, reproduced, with permission, from Empowering Parents.

For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com.

The author is a behavioural therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He has worked with troubled children and teens for three decades. Lehman holds a Masters degree in social work from Boston University.

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