Here is July’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
Our 9 year old son is arguing with us more and more. He often yells to get his point across, and regularly refuses to do his chores when first asked. We put him in time out, but it doesn’t seem to change his behavior. It is also very difficult to get him interested in any sports, or outdoor activities. My husband and I are both very athletic. Any tips?
Dear Perturbed Parents,
We have worked with so many families like yours. It can be hard to figure out how to motivate your child, and how to deal with difficult outbursts. I will turn this question over to my associate, Matt McFadden, LCSW, for his response:
Matt says: “I will answer the second part of the question first as it may help shed some light on the frustrating behaviors you mention in the first part of the question. Every child (and every person for that matter) longs to be known, loved and accepted for who they are, just as they are. After the basic needs for survival, this may be the greatest common need we all share.
There are many different personality types, often in the same family. It is helpful to have a sense of your own personality type and your son’s so that you are not asking too many things of him that run counter to who he sees himself to be. A very basic and enjoyable introduction to these concepts is available in a book called The Enneagram of Parenting by Elizabeth Wagele.
It does not sound like your son is very interested in sports or physical activity. What is he interested in doing? The first advice I would offer is to let your son know that you are interested in what he likes, and make time every day to play with him in an activity of his choosing. During this time, he leads, you follow. You are not his parent during this time, just a playmate interested in spending time with him doing something he loves. This regular practice will mean a great deal to him, and may itself actually solve some of the other behavior problems.
You and your husband are athletic. That is wonderful! You are great role models for him about leading a healthy lifestyle. As kids get older and become adults themselves, it is this modeling that will stick with them and help determine their own behavior. Instead of becoming frustrated trying to get him interested in a sport, I would suggest spending time each day (or as often as possible) as a family outdoors, engaged in an enjoyable physical activity (which he can sometimes choose). Climbing trees? Great. Hide and seek? Wonderful. Kickball? Awesome. Race around the house? You get the picture. Playing sports might have been great for you. It might not be his thing. But modeling and helping him find fun ways to be physically active will help him now and in the future.
Time-Outs can be an effective part of a system of accountability and behavioral change for your child. Time-Outs, though, by themselves, do not change behavior. They merely stop a negative behavior which is occurring, provide time/space to calm down, ponder one’s actions, etc. There are many systems available to help children increase their behavioral accountability. There are some central themes, however, which increase the effectiveness of whatever system you choose.
1.) Empathize when your child has strong (or any) feelings. This is one of the most important things you can do as a parent. Let your child know that you can see that they are angry, sad, frustrated, embarrassed, etc., and that you accept them having this feeling, you understand. This does not mean that you accept the behavior that accompanies the feeling, or that you have to give in to a demand which accompanies the feeling. You are just letting them know that you see them, and you are with them and accept them just as they are. This is also extremely important for younger children who are just beginning to experience their feelings. Your empathy and naming of the feeling helps them to learn about the feelings they are experiencing, and to know that all feelings are okay, even strong ones. Most kids will learn to stuff the feelings they think are unacceptable to you, and this can lead to mental health issues or behavioral problems down the road.
2.) Establish clear behavioral expectations. Even though all feelings are acceptable, not all behaviors are acceptable. It can take time for children to differentiate between feelings and the behaviors that they feel compelled to engage in when they feel a certain way. The best way to help them in this process is first to empathize with the feeling you see/hear (#1 above), and then to be clear about what your family’s behavioral expectations are, (and to make sure the adults are modeling this as well). Make it your goal that your child not be surprised that their negative behavior is resulting in a consequence. If they talk back to you and you put them in time out without ever having had a conversation that this behavior will result in a time out, the child will not be able to fully experience the consequences of their actions, and the power of their choices. It is always best to discuss these expectations during a time of calm, and to involve your child in determining what the proper consequence should be. This will increase their compliance with the consequence.
3.) Follow through consistently with consequences. If your child hits you one time and you put them in time out, then the next time they hit you the behavior is ignored, they will become confused. It is extremely important that you follow through consistently. (Warning! This can be much harder to practice than it sounds).
4.) Use natural consequences whenever possible. A natural consequence is connected to the behavior exhibited. For example, if you have told your child it is not okay to bounce a ball in the house and they keep bouncing a ball in the house, tell them they can take the ball outside to bounce it, or you will take the ball away. Natural consequences make sense to kids.
Regarding chores, it is often best to take yourself out of the role of “chore master”, as you then become someone to argue with. It is always easier to argue than to do what is needed. I would recommend having a family discussion about responsibilities, and the need for all family members to pitch in. Talk to your child about what chores you would like them to do and see how they feel about it. Then create a chore chart (perhaps with some incentive for completion). This takes you out of the role of chore master and a potentially negative interactional pattern with your child.
If you try these tips and don’t see any progress, or things seem to be getting worse, I would recommend a consultation with a mental health professional who has experience working with kids and families.”
We hope this response is the start of some helpful answers to your parenting dilemma, and we hope you know we are available to support you, if needed.
Shelby (and Matt)
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.comfor useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.