We all want to raise independently minded, creative thinkers who will one day lead the world. Until they are elected President though, how do we both encourage creativity while setting limits which will keep them safe, and us sane? Robert Mackenzie points out in Setting Limits with Your Strong Willed Child the more consistent you are with your expectations, and methods the more responsive your child will be. But what methods work best? The following are a list of 5 techniques which will help you understand your child's needs better, and communicate your needs in a way they will understand.
1. Look at the situation through your child's eyes. Ask, “What is developmentally appropriate for their age?” A child's job is to explore the world through testing limits, and play. Grocery shopping is an adult activity that isn't necessarily condusive to childhood exploration, and they know it. This doesn't mean that children should not go grocery shopping, but you need to relate the experience to something they can understand especially when you are asking them to leave an activity they enjoy. “We are out of your favorite snack, and we need to go to the store to get it.” Once at the store let them be involved in the decision making process by giving them choices. Apples or oranges? Berry cereal or oatmeal? Also you can give them a job like getting things from the bottom shelf, or using their own visual shopping list to cross off items as you get them (with washable marker).
2. Remember your job is to set limits, not to control how your child feels or reacts to those limits. It is helpful to say, "I see you are angry, take some time to think about what you want to say." Instead of, "If you stomp up one more stair you are grounded for a week!" Children are very much focused on the present. What feels good to me? What do I want? What happens when I do this? They will often engage in behaviors that surprise, and confound us. If the behavior is not dangerous it may be best to ignore it. Paying attention to negative behavior often gives it more fuel. If you must say something empathize with the child's emotion, "It looks like you are pretty upset. Is there anything I can do to help?" When you allow them to stay in control of their emotions, behaviors, and outcomes often the situation will de-escalate quickly.
3. Tell your child what to do, not what not to do. When faced with a playtime squable you might say, “When you are angry at a friend let them know 'I am angry because you took my toy, please give it back.'” When they make an attempt to express themselves focus on what they did right. If the child says,“I am angry GIVE IT BACK.” You could respond, “Thank you for telling me how you feel. Let's see if we can work this out.” How we treat our children is a model of how they will treat others, and eventually us as parents. Make it count.
4. Think ahead. Planning is everything. Don't go shopping around naps, or bedtime. Make sure to eat a good meal before going out, or bring snacks. Bring a busy bag, or favorite toy for the car. When giving a direction, or answering a question speak in the present tense. No one can predict the future but we can all argue a possible outcome.
Child, “I want a cookie.”
Parent, “No, It will ruin your dinner.”
Child, “No it won't.”
Parent, “Yes it will!”
This scenario could go on and on. Instead give concrete examples in the present tense. “We are going to eat dinner first. Chicken and carrots have nutrients that will help your body grow. You may have a cookie after.”
Sometimes when a situation is really out of control we may need to encourage good behavior by finding the good in the moment. If it is time to clean up and your child is piling the toys up in an attempt to keep them to himself point out, “ I like how you started to clean up your toys! What a wonderful helper you are!” The positive attention may be enough to plant the seed of cooperation.
5. Model good self care. Parents who eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, minimize their vices (yes this includes chocolate) and engage in meaningful activities will be less stressed and better able to be calm and assertive when frustrations strike.
With a little practice parents, and children alike can learn to use effective communications skills to create realistic expectations and peace and harmony in their home.