Tackling Behavior Problems

Tweens feel guilty when they don't do what they are supposed to do or when they do things they've been told not to do. As long as you remain flexible about bedtime, your tween will probably stay up too late and struggle through his days in a state of chronic exhaustion. Remain flexible about chores, and your child probably won't do them. Be flexible about how much time your child spends watching television or playing video games, and he will probably dedicate exorbitant amounts of time to undesirable pastimes. Be flexible about your child's diet, and he will probably subsist on junk food. Try to shape your tween up by nagging, and you will probably fail. In other words, unless you take charge, neither of you will be happy with yourselves or with each other.

Parents who fail to take charge complain that time is at a premium and usually say they lack the strength to discipline due to chronic stress and exhaustion. They are convinced that getting their child to comply with basic household rules would be an ongoing battle requiring more energy than they can summon. They hesitate to make a concerted effort because they doubt their youngster would ever come around.

If you communicate the rules clearly, apply consequences consistently, and praise everything your child does right, most behavior problems can be eliminated in less than two weeks. Instead of vacationing out of town, take an in-town vacation while your child is in school. Rest during the day so that you'll have the energy to set limits when she gets home.

While it is true that taking charge requires quite a bit of energy at the outset, most tweens will improve dramatically when limits are consistently enforced for five to ten days. Eliminating behavior problems and ending the cycle of guilt, nagging, and recrimination inevitably improves the parent-child relationship. The savings in time, energy, and stress from the reduced conflict lasts for years; the reduction in guilt and worry can last a lifetime.

Advance Preparations

Begin by listing your child's problematic behaviors, e.g., not getting ready for school in the morning, talking back, watching violent television shows and movies, snacking on junk food, getting too little sleep and exercise, not cleaning his room, arguing with his siblings, not doing his homework, and so on.

When the problems crop up over the next few days, mention to your child that you and he need to figure out some enduring solutions so as not to encounter the same difficulties, conflicts, and clashes again and again. Encourage him to think of what could be done to eliminate them once and for all. Suggest he talk to his friends to see how their families deal with some of the behavior problems. Tell him that you will consult your friends, too.

Spend a few days listing as many solutions as you can think of for each problem. For instance, solutions to the problem of not getting ready for school on time in the mornings without a struggle might include such things as deciding what to wear and laying out clothes the night before, packing his backpack the night before, not watching television before school, and so on. If you can't think of any good solutions for some of the problems, put question marks by them.

Brainstorming Solutions

Next, sit down with your child and tell him that you have been lax about helping him in several areas. Admit that this has made things harder and less pleasant for both of you than necessary. Apologize for not having dedicated enough time to helping him in the past. Announce that you are now ready to eliminate the friction so he can be a happier kid. State that you know it's not good for him to have you “on his case.” Share one of the problem areas, present the possible solutions you developed, solicit additional suggestions from him, and add any new possibilities that occur to you during the discussion.

Enlist your tween's help defining exactly what could be done differently to solve a problem. It may be helpful to go along with his proposed solutions even if you are skeptical that they will work. Not all of the problems can be fixed overnight. By taking his suggestions seriously, you can encourage him to engage in the problem-solving process.

For instance, if your child says he could get ready for school on time in the morning if you wouldn't keep reminding him to hurry up, you might try it for a few days. Perhaps his irritation about being pressured has caused him to drag his feet. It might be worth following his suggestions. If it doesn't work, you can follow up with the solutions you believe would work best.

Defining the Rules

The next step is to formulate some new rules. For getting ready for school on time, the rules might be:

  • You cannot pressure him.

  • He is to be ready on time.

Solicit your child's input to decide what the consequences will be for breaking each new rule. For instance, you might agree that if you pressure him to hurry, the consequences are having to apologize to him and put money in the family kitty, which will be spent on a family outing. If your tween isn't ready for school on time, the consequences might be an earlier bedtime on school nights.

Write up a contract for your tween to sign agreeing to abide by a specific list of rules or accept the consequences, which should also be spelled out. Tweens are impressed when treated like adults and are inclined to take contracts seriously. Parents feel better knowing that their child understands exactly what the rules are.

Understanding the Consequences

Consequences for breaking rules should be designed to help, teach, and solve problems rather than to punish. Punishment causes tweens to realize that they have done something wrong but doesn't help them know how to do things right. Too often they end up feeling badly about themselves, angry with their parents, and hopeless about being able to get along better.

Often the difference between a punishment and a consequence is subtle, having more to do with the presentation. You can threaten an earlier bedtime if your tween can't get ready for school on time in the mornings and then be angry when you follow through, snarling that because he “blew” it he has to go to bed early. Alternatively, you can say that he is such a vigorous, energetic, athletic child, he obviously requires more sleep than less active youngsters, and he also seems to benefit from a more structured morning schedule. Your tween might not be happy either way, but perhaps he will get the message that the problem isn't that he's bad but stems from a real need.

A punishment for not getting to bed on time could be being grounded. A consequence might be having to come home directly after school the next day and go to his room to rest without such distractions as computers, telephones, and TV.

As an adult, there will be times when he doesn't get enough sleep but has to put in a full day's work anyway. He needs to know the correct action to take: manage his work responsibilities as best he can, then come straight home and take it easy in hopes he can rest. Parents are often surprised to hear their tween propose consequences that are harsher than they would have dreamed of imposing. It's important to help your child understand that the goal is to find consequences that will teach him what he needs to know to eliminate the problem. Often the best way is to consider what the consequences and solutions would be if the same problem happened as an adult. The consequence of arriving late to work in the morning could be losing a job. The solution depends on what caused the late arrival: not being able to get out of bed, not being able to get organized to leave on time, not leaving soon enough to arrive on time, and so on.

Re-evaluating the Rules

Sometimes a tween doesn't think there should be any consequences for breaking a particular rule because he doesn't think it's necessary and doesn't want to abide by it. Amid the accusations of “That's not fair” and “You're just being mean,” conscientious parents will pause to reconsider. At those times, it can be helpful to remember that your duties are to protect your child and to prepare him to become independent.

Tweens often want parents to abide by certain rules and to suffer consequences for breaking them. A tween favorite is requiring parents to speak politely instead of yelling. A popular consequence is requiring offenders to apologize and pay a fine, with the proceeds designated for a family outing.

Ask yourself whether this rule is needed to keep him safe or to help him to function better as an adult. Having to come home at a particular time for dinner or to call if he's going to be late is important. Showing up late and not calling will definitely create problems when he has a family of his own. Telling your tween you want him to be considerate of you may not carry much weight. Help him understand that you are trying to prepare him to get along with a wife someday, and he may be more motivated to learn to comply with a rule he dislikes.

It is understandable that no matter what you say, your tween may be upset about a rule prohibiting chips and sodas before dinner and fail to see its value. If he plans to live in a messy house, you may not convince him that it's important for him to learn to return his dirty plates to the kitchen after snacking in the den. Nevertheless, as the adult charged with his care, you must set the rules you deem necessary rather than allowing tween logic to prevail. If your tween storms out of the room when you solicit his input regarding rules and consequences, you can either decide on your own what they will be and inform him of them via a written list, which includes a date that the new rules will take effect, or wait until he's calmer to continue the discussion. Either way, begin enforcing some of the rules as soon as possible. If he is too defiant and out-of-control to cooperate, see Chapter 19.

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