Retraining the Intractable Child

It takes clarity and consistency for parents to retrain a child. Retraining takes concerted effort and considerable time. It is not a quick and easy fix. It is worth it to regain your authority.

Clarifying Structure

The opening step in retraining your freedom-loving child is to clarify the basic parental rules that children in the family are expected to follow. Write out on large paper the five or ten most important rules, explain them to your child, and post this paper in a conspicuous place where it can catch her attention daily. State the rules specifically, not abstractly. Not, “Treat each family member respectfully,” but “Ask and be given permission before using another family member’s belongings.”

Each morning before or after breakfast for the next three months, or for however long it takes for the child to mostly conform to these rules, you and the child will read them aloud. This exercise is partly to remind the child about the behavior you want, and it is partly to represent your renewed seriousness about having rules followed. This exercise not only clarifies what you expect; it shows that you mean business. The specific written statement has symbolic value: the child has been put on notice that you have changed.

Committing to Priorities

The intractable child is usually acting out of parental bounds in so many areas that it’s hard for parents to know where retraining should begin. If you try to change everything at once you will end up changing nothing because the efforts are too scattered to be effective.

Instead, follow the rule of three. At one time, commit to consistently address no more than three behavior areas you’d like to change, and accept that you will only intermittently, as remaining energy permits, keep after the others. This means setting priorities. Which of the misbehaviors do parents consider most in need of change? If they select putting an end to hurtful name-calling as the most important, then patrolling that verbal behavior, acting to discourage its occurrence and to encourage nondestructive alternatives, is where they invest their primary attention until their child learns a more constructive habit of communicating frustration. When the new habit seems mostly in place, then they can drop name-calling from their list of priorities and add another.

Lack of consistency is the most common failure in parental discipline. Inconsistent discipline keeps parenting from being effective. Stay on your tactics like a broken record.

Providing Consistent Supervision

When parents swear that they have tried everything to get back in charge, they are mistaken on two counts. First, no parents have tried everything, because there are an infinite number of influential choices they could try. Second, and most important, they don’t give what they’ve tried a fair try—repeating it with enough regularity over time to convince the child to finally change behavior in response.

To retrain your intractable child, you must commit to consistency. If your priority is getting your child to stop using hurtful language when she’s frustrated by parental denial, then you must address that expression each and every time it occurs with the correct response until the name-calling diminishes or ceases. You also need to provide constructive alternatives and praise the child when she makes a better choice. “I really appreciated how you took yourself to another room to calm down your frustration when I said ‘no,’ and then afterward talked to me about your disappointment.”

Connecting Choice and Consequence

At this point you may wish to post a list of daily privileges the child gets to enjoy at home. Privileges are any valued activities that require parental provision or permission. This list may include having a certain snack food, watching a favorite TV program, playing a video game, shooting hoops in the backyard, instant messaging on the computer, or whatever activities the child likes to do.

Then explain, “We want you to get to enjoy your full list of privileges each day, and you can, so long as you follow the rules. That’s your choice. Follow the rules and get all your privileges. Break a rule and lose a privilege for that day. If there’s no time left that day, then lose a privilege the day after. Choose to follow the rules, and full privileges will be enjoyed for the day. Choose not to follow the rules, and some privilege will be taken away that day. Our wish is that each day you start with full privileges and end up choosing to enjoy them all.”

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