From the perspective of a child, life has been full of dramatic changes in recent months. In-person school and all extracurricular activities, like dance, martial arts, and sport teams, have been cancelled for children. Summer camps and other summer activities that children may have been looking forward to all year have likely been cancelled. Fun, social outings like visiting grandma and grandpa or getting together with friends have been greatly curtailed in many cases. After staying inside for literally two months or more, now children are beginning to see what it is like when they leave the house: many are wearing masks over their noses and mouths; clear barriers protect cashiers; stickers on the floor show people where to stand or which way to walk down an aisle so there is adequate social distancing; people wait in their cars instead of in a waiting room. As a child counselor, I have seen firsthand how the nationwide “shutdown” in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the mental health of children. Even when life is stable and more predictable, many children struggle to feel empowered, capable, and independent; when there are huge changes in their lives, children tend to feel even more powerless, which can result in mood changes, anxiety, tantrums, defiance, and other behavioral acting out.
Especially during uncertain times, parents can empower their children without diminishing their own authority as parents by strategically offering their children choices. When I am working with parents who are enrolled in the parent training I teach, it is not uncommon for some parents to initially say that they do offer their children choices, but after we discuss the precise way in which offering choices is most effective, they realize that they were not implementing this skill in a way that empowers their children and that will ultimately lead to the child having improved mental health and better behavior.
Stop and think about how many things most children get to decide about their lives. Children are typically told when it is time to go from one place to another, what the family will be doing on a given day or evening, what school the children will attend and when, what meal will be offered at dinner, and on and on. Strategically providing opportunities for children to make choices helps them feel more in control, but the parent is the one who sets the parameters of the choices. Parents do not broadly say to their child, “You get to choose!” where the possibilities are endless. Rather, parents offer specific choices (“You can choose between a cup of grapes or a banana for a snack.”) where either choice is acceptable to the parent. Depending on the day, the child might choose one or the other, because he or she does not dislike either option.
Particularly when there is some part of an event or situation that is non-negotiable and over which the child has no control, parents and their children benefit by the inclusion of some detail about which the child can feel some degree of power. The teachers of a little boy I was counseling in the past consulted with me about how this boy would go into a screaming, kicking tantrum when he was told that it was time for him to leave to go to his other class. This child was already struggling with feelings of powerlessness, so when he was told to do something—by his teachers, parents, or any authority figure—it felt like a personal affront and sour reminder that he felt like a metaphoric leaf in the wind. I suggested that the next time this child was told that it was time to switch classes, that the teachers simultaneously offer the child a choice about some detail within that process. I got a call later from one of the teachers who said that they ended up telling the boy, “It is time for you to switch to Ms. Smith’s class; do you choose to bring all of your folders with you or just your purple folder?” The teacher remarked that she was in shock when this little boy stopped, decided to bring all his folders, and then went to Ms. Smith’s class without complaint, let alone a tantrum.
Some choices do not have outcomes attached to them. When a child chooses between two shirts, desserts, or which of the three toy options to bring in the car, the child is practicing independent decision making within the parent’s designed parameters. Other choices are connected to outcomes for each choice. One young girl I worked with used to take extremely long showers at night, but then she was upset and disappointed when she would get out of the shower and there was no time for her to watch her favorite cartoon show before her bedtime routine and lights out. With my guidance, this little girl’s father told her that he was going to put a timer in the bathroom when she took a shower. If she chose to get out when the timer buzzed, then she was choosing to get out in time to watch her cartoon. If she chose to stay in the shower for longer, then she was choosing to enjoy a longer shower and skip the cartoon that night.
Behavior management takes an entirely different form when parents empower their children to make choices that have natural consequences. Within this process, children learn accountability; instead of always pointing outward and blaming others when things happen that they do not like, they begin to take ownership for their choices and the outcomes that go with each choice. Parents do not gloat or rub it in the child’s face when the child is unhappy with the choice he or she made; in fact, parents empathize with and encourage their child by saying that tomorrow is a new day if the child wants to make a different choice the next time.
Every choice your child makes him or her feel stronger, more capable, and more emboldened as an independent decision maker. Especially when there are large-scale changes in a child’s family and/or broader society as a whole- as we are seeing with this pandemic and its outcomes- it is particularly important that parents use strategies that build their children up. Creating opportunities for children to make choices is one of the easiest and most effective ways to help children feel competent and empowered which invariably results in better mental health, less defiance, and overall improved behavior.