How to discipline children and teens with consequences that are effective and meaningful
Is the term “digital native” familiar?
I learned of this term during a workshop on information technology which I attended not too long ago. It refers to today’s child, a child of this digital and internet savvy generation. Computers have become part of their world, a world which has become difficult to pull them out of.
Reining in a child’s difficult behavior has always been a difficult issue. This is even more pertinent for the child of today. The landscape of discipline has become more challenging with the added obstacle of technology.
Many would be familiar with the refrain “If you’ll let me be on the computer, I’ll start my homework.” Yes, children and teenagers these days have become more adept at the skill of manipulation and getting around the parental obstacle. So with updated challenges of this day and age, how do we discipline children with consequences that are effective and are meaningful to them?
Why do children ignore the consequences of bad behavior and punishment?
It is very common these days to hear a parent complain that their children ignore their threats of punishment for using the computer for too long or for texting their friends into the wee hours of the night. The modern challenges of the internet and the cellphone, however, make it imperative that the consequences of inappropriate behavior are delivered with meaning.
Why do children ignore parents even when they say that there will be consequences for bad conduct?
Inconsistency in meting out punishment
This is an exchange between a parent and a child, who is a computer and gaming addict.
Parent : If you do not get your messy room tidied up, I will take away the computer.
The child slams the door of his room. The parent, who feels guilty for neglecting or threatening the child, comes home the next day with a new computer game for him.
The next day
Parent : I thought I told you that I will take away your computer! You’ve been in there since
dinner, and this room is still a mess!
Child : But mom, I’ve got to complete the game that you bought for me yesterday! I can’t
leave it halfway! (ignores parent and turns to his computer)
Does the above scenario seem familiar? It is very sadly a common one. Busy parents who feel pangs of guilt whenever they deliver consequences try to make up for their neglect. The result is that the child does not feel the sting of his own lack of responsibility. The inconsistency has made his mother’s threat empty. He does not feel a difference when she makes it.
Consequences of inappropriate behavior have to be delivered consistently for them to be effective. An unpredictable signals on his parent’s part give him the message that any bad form does not matter.
The above scenario is also a form of power play between a parent and child. The child has used the tool of ignoring a parent’s threat of consequence to manipulate her into giving her the freedom and even the computer game that she desires.
Ignoring consequences is a tool a child, consciously or not, may use to make a parent feel inadequate or guilty about being “mean.” This meanness is, of course, from the child’s perspective. By giving in to this manipulation, the parent in the above scenario has allowed the child to win the power struggle.
Delivering consequences means being aware that the child may know what buttons to push and not allowing him to push them.
This is yet another possible scenario.
Child : Mom, if I can’t clear the room on time, will you take my computer away?
Parent: I haven’t decided yet.
Child : Then I’ll just go and play my game.
The mother has not made it very clear what consequences she will mete out to the child for his messy room. Again, it gives the child room to maneuver and tells him that it really does not matter if he gets the room cleaned.
Not being clear about the results of improper behavior again sends the message that empty threats are being made.
Natural consequences are ignored.
In the above scenarios, the parent could have allowed the room to remain untidy for a while. Soon enough, the child would have had to look for something that he needed that he would not be able to find.
This is allowing the child to see what would naturally happen as a result of him not tidying his room. Allowing natural consequences of bad behavior may be uncomfortable (no one likes to see a mess) and requires patience but teaches far more than punishment could.
No explanation for why their conduct is inappropriate
Sometimes, parents deliver a consequence without explaining why the child’s conduct is not up to expectations. They forget to tell the child how certain behaviors can have ill-effects, leaving a child confused when he is punished.
Anger at perceived unfairness
Children would see any form of punishment as being unfair as long as it is not explained. This anger would cause them to ignore any further threat of consequence.
I have decided to include a little section on passive-aggressive behavior for children who act “in” instead of “out.” We are familiar with the child who acts out, but more needs to be addressed for a child who is passive-aggressive.
Description of a passive aggressive child
As many, if not more, children fit the description of the passive-aggressive child than the rebellious one. So who is he?
The passive-aggressive child does not openly defy his parents. He simply ignores them when they make any requests or mete out any form of punishment. This is the child who would ignore their parents or drag their feet until they are left alone. This child appears more in this day and age because the advent of the computer gives them a perfect excuse to turn to it and ignore their parents when attention is called for.
What is passive-aggressive behavior?
Children use passive-aggressive behavior because they do not want to give their parents a reason to punish them for being openly ‘rude.’ By avoiding confrontation and simply feigning ignorance, they miss being labeled as impolite or defiant.
This kind of behavior is thus used as an excuse for them to say, “I never said or did anything wrong,” and push the parent into a guilt corner when they attempt to mete out any punishment.
The child in the scenarios above ignored his mother and consciously or not, was practicing this form of behavior. It is far more difficult to deliver consequences of such behavior that have meaning in this instance.
How should we deliver consequences that have meaning?
Whether your child is passive-aggressive or openly rude, there are some steps that parents can take to deliver consequences that have meaning.
Have a problem-solving talk with your child.
To overcome passive aggressive behavior is a little more tricky, because giving outright consequence and punishment will seldom, if ever, have any meaning. It would be far better for a parent to have a talk with the child about any behavior that needs addressing.
Invite your child to talk about what bothering him.
Get him to trust you.
While you are having that conversation with your child, it is important for him to realize that he can trust you. Tell him that it is ‘safe’ to tell you what is making him angry. Trust opens the doors of communication.
Set time limits.
Whether a child is simply rude or passive-aggressive, the motivation behind the conduct is the same-perceived lack of fairness. To maintain a level of fairness while delivering consequences, set time limits. Use words like, “If you do not tidy your room by 8 o’ clock, I will come in and turn the computer off.”
Then REALLY go in and turn the computer off if it is still not being done. There will still be a tussle, but the child will have less reason to fuss because justification has been established.
Make the child accountable.
By setting time limits, the child is being shown that he is responsible for the consequences of his actions. He becomes the cause of the computer being taken away if his room is not being tidied up by 8 o’clock, and will do so because he would not want it to be removed because he gave reason for it to be.
Do not show disgust or disdain.
We want to tell the child that it is the inappropriate behavior we do not like, and not the child himself. Showing disgust, disdain or sarcasm is ultimately demoralizing and does not motivate a child to do the right thing.
Remember that facial expressions communicate far more than words, so it is good to be wary that facial expressions do not let the child sense hate or anger.
Engage your child’s self interest
A child is still developing his ego. So if parents say things like “If you say such things to your sister again, I’ll punish you,” the child thinks, “Again, it’s because of her.” He does not see the wrong in his actions but unfairness and bias for his sister.
Instead, make it about him. Say, “If you say such things, it does not make you look good to others.” Let the child know that any consequences are in his own interests.
Don’t use speeches to try to appeal to emotions.
Children will not understand the reasons behind your words about them being selfish or them being bad examples for their brothers or sisters. They will view emotion-filled speeches as nagging, blah blah and tune these out because their young minds may not be ready to rationalize.
Keep things simple. Just say, ‘We speak nicely to others around here. And if you cannot, your computer will be taken away.”
Lay consequences when everything has settled down.
As with all relationships and conflicts, nothing will register in the heat of the moment. Wait till the child is in a better mood before talking to him or her. He will be in more of a mind to take things in.
Sometimes, it takes a little creativity to make consequences stick. Take the example of the child who refuses to tidy his room. When he refuses to do it, leave him alone. When he next asks where something is, tell him it is in his room but he'll have to look for it himself. He will feel the frustration of an untidy room and when it hits, you can tell him, "That's what happens when things are untidy, you won't be able to find anything!"
Meting out consequences with meaning is a tricky business. But when done fairly and with the good of the child in mind, will tend to stick.
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