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Managing Your Child’s Behavior with Choices

A parent recently said to me, “There are certain things that I know are going to set my son off.  Before I even tell him it’s time to for bed, that he needs do his homework, or his game time is over, I already know he will throw a tantrum as soon as the words are out of my mouth.”  Another parent was telling me that if she says right, her daughter will say left.  “She is so contrary.  Even if doing what I tell her to do is clearly to her benefit, she will still choose to be defiant– to her own detriment!”  Although the reactions and choices of children can sometimes be baffling to their parents, there is virtually always a reason for the things they do.  When children are defiant, they are frequently looking for a momentary feeling of being in control which feels—at that moment—like empowerment; however, the power a child feels when being defiant or throwing a tantrum is superficial and short-lived.  After the incident has passed, the child goes back to generally feeling powerless, so you can bet that the next time an opportunity arises to get another power fix, the child will take it. 

How can we stop this vicious cycle?  The reality is that there are many decisions and factors that are outside of a child’s control.  If your children are young, think about how many choices are made for them rather than by them.  Beginning at a very young age, even before a child reaches age two, children have an in-born drive to seek autonomy and feel powerful and competent as individuals.  Even the sweetest, most agreeable children will begin to act out in a variety of ways if they start to feel powerless. 

Children who feel some degree of control over their lives have consistently fewer behavioral challenges, such as defiance, than children who feel powerless.  Parents have the ability to empower their children—even numerous, multiple times throughout the day—by offering choices.  Of course, there will be some things that are nonnegotiable, but in most cases a choice of some kind can be packaged within the expectation.  Even very young children pounce on the opportunity to make a choice, when that opportunity is given.  Simple choices are developmentally appropriate for younger children while older children can handle slightly more advanced choices (where there are more than two options, for instance). 

While this strategy can be used to manage behavior, it’s a good practice to offer choices at other times as well.  For instance, if you know that your child likes both green beans and broccoli, instead of just choosing one of the vegetables to cook, allow your child to choose which side (or dessert, or something else) you’ll have as a family that night.  Maybe your child isn’t ready to put together an entire outfit by herself, but she is still able to choose between two outfits or shirts and doing so is good for her.  If your child has to do homework, a choice might pertain to when or where he can do it.  Look for any and every opportunity to offer a choice. 

It’s not about “good choices” and “bad choices.”  Those are judgements with which the child may or may not agree.  Something that a parent would call a “bad choice” may feel like a very good choice to the child because it gives the child something he or she wants (like attention).  Parents are like guides, helping their children learn how to make choices that lead to the goals they desire. 

All too frequently many parents find themselves in power struggles where there is never a true winner.  It’s important to remember that when you approach your child with only imperatives, and the child’s choice is only to comply or not comply, the stage is set for defiance and other problem behaviors.  The child wants to show that he or she is in control, and the parent is determined to show the child who is really in control: “Go to your room.”  “Do your homework.”  “Get off the iPad.”  “Clean up your toys.”  “Turn off the tv.” “It’s time for bed.”  When children are told what to do without any degree of choice within the imperative, it is a natural and healthy response for the child to be resistant.  Parents who begin to view their child’s behavior through the lens of choice begin to realize that children DO have the freedom to choose in almost every case, at least to an extent.  Each choice leads to a natural or pre-determined outcome.  A child may or may not like that outcome and based on that experience may choose differently the next time.  Imagine how much a child learns by working through this process as opposed to just learning to comply no matter what!

If you begin implementing this strategy of offering choices to your child, what you will likely discover is that at first you are racking your brain to think of what choice might be offered in each given scenario.  Over time, however, a paradigm shift occurs.  It’s kind of like learning a new language; at first you mentally translate everything in your head from your native language, but at some point you become so fluent, you no longer need this step.  When it comes to choice-giving, the shift occurs when parents begin to automatically view all of their child’s behavior through the lens of choice.  After all, it’s your child—not you—who wants 30 minutes of game time (or whatever the “currency” is for your child).  With practice, children learn to choose behaviors that result in bringing the outcomes they desire.

Garrey Landreth, a leader in the field of child-centered play therapy, described a time when his children were young and rode in the back seat of his car on commutes.  Like many siblings, his children would frequently bicker and argue loudly during those drives.  After this pattern emerged, Dr. Landreth talked to his children and made it clear to them that they could choose to bicker and argue in the car, but if they did choose to pester each other, they would be choosing to not watch the television that evening after they got home.  If they chose to get along with each other the entire time in route, then they would be choosing to watch television for 30 minutes that evening.  Predictably, his children argued in the car the next day.  When they were dismayed to not watch tv that night, Dr. Landreth responded with kindness and empathy.  After all, he wasn’t the one who was denying them tv time; they had made that choice themselves.  He reminded them that they could choose differently the next time if they wanted to do so.  Yes, parents set the parameters of the choices, but beyond that, it’s up to the child. 

As a play therapist, I sometimes have children– especially if they are new to the process—who do not want to leave the playroom when their time is up.  I give a notice when there are five minutes remaining, but after the final minutes have passed, these children will say something like, “I want to stay longer” or “No, I have to do something else over here!”  I validate the child’s desire (which is legitimate) and then provide a choice which may vary depending on the child and circumstances: “I know you would love to play some more, but our time is up.  As we leave the room, you can choose for me to turn out the lights or for you to turn out the lights.”  Even a choice that simple diverts the child’s attention and will make their eyes light up, forgetting all about their disappointment.  They enthusiastically respond, “I want to turn out the lights!” 

When parents “take away” privileges, the child views the parent as the giver and taker of good things.  There is no personal responsibility within that view.  When consequences are worded in this way, children tend to feel resentful but even more importantly, it’s difficult for children to fully appreciate the connections between their actions and any outcomes.  They are not only denied the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, but children begin to view themselves like leaves in the wind—impacted by outside forces and utterly powerless themselves.  How much better it is to teach children that they will always have the power to choose—at any age—and quite often those choices have outcomes!  Imagine the lifelong implications!

Keep in mind that children will inevitably make choices at times that bring outcomes they do not like.  These are wonderful opportunities for children to learn that they do have the power and control to impact their own lives and experiences.  If they aren’t used to this feeling, there will initially be some resistance to that kind of accountability.  The best response at such times is for parents to reflect the child’s feeling about the choice the child made, and then make a brief reference to the fact that the child will have other opportunities to either make the same choice or a different choice; it’s up to them.  For instance, a parent might say, “You’re disappointed that you chose to lose your after-dinner game time, but tomorrow you will have the opportunity to choose again.”  At this point it’s important that parents resist the urge to lecture their children.  The situation in itself will teach the lesson; lectures are not needed.  Finally, even older children benefit from having a fresh start with each new day!