Does your child struggle with attending school regularly? Do they have anxiety or behavior problems? Does your child struggle with disordered eating (either eating too much or not enough to nurture their body)? There are a few things that parents can do to help their children overcome these struggles. It is important for parents to understand the concepts of behavior modification, or how we reinforce certain behaviors and make them more or less likely to occur. I will use the example of us going to work. If we were to not get paid for going to work every day, how long would you continue to show up at work? All of us are motivated to do things by different reinforcers and as adults, many times this is money. However, we also will engage in behaviors because they make us feel good (spending time with friends and family, volunteering for a cause we believe in, etc) or we receive a sense of satisfaction from doing this activity. So if you are no longer getting paid at work and let’s say you are big into skiing or snowboarding and a snow storm comes and you really want to go ski/ride in the fresh powder, would you go to work or go to the mountains? Think about this concept in terms of your children. If instead of attending school they are able to be home playing on their phones, playing video games, watching Netflix, or chatting with friends online; don’t you think most of them would chose to do this over attending school and needing to focus and do work? So how do we help our children to see the value in making choices that will improve their lives and encourage them to be successful adults?
- Set Up Reinforcers (What Motivates Your Child?)
Children are less likely to be self-motivated because their brains are not as developed as ours and they have not had the experience we have had of working hard for long periods of time to receive something. So we have to help them develop this part of their brain. How do we do this? We figure out what motivates our child. This may likely be different for each child. For some kids it is getting to do something with a parent, playing a special board game, or having electronics. Let’s use some examples to clarify what this really looks like at home. If your child is struggling with attending school think about what they enjoy doing. For many kids it is their cell phone. So we let the child know in advance that they will be allowed to have their phone if they attend school. This may also encompass them waking up on time for school and remaining at school all day. Be very specific and clear about your expectations (You will be ready for school at this time, you will attend all of your classes, etc). If your child fails to comply, then you say, “I’m so sorry you weren’t able to be responsible for school. You need to show me that you are responsible for school in order to be responsible enough to have your phone.” Warning to parents: At this point your child is going to test you!! When implementing a behavior plan the problem behavior almost always gets worse before it gets better. Hang in there! Be strong and consistent! Try to take your emotions out of the equation. It was your child’s decision to not attend school (or be ready on time, or whatever the behavior was you were addressing) and they knew the consequences ahead of time. You can still have empathy for them, but do not give in. The more you can be consistent and clear the faster the behavior will improve.
- Be Nurturing With Clear and Consistent Expectations
Think about how when we start a new job and we are given a job description. This is our employer’s way of letting us know their expectations of us. How do you communicate your expectations of your child? There is not a right or wrong way to do this and it typically looks different in every family. Some families accomplish this by having family rules. If you want to set up family rules make sure they are written in the positive, similarly to how our job descriptions are written. State what you want your child to do, not what you don’t want them to do. For example, “Family members will treat each other with respect”. If you want to use this as a family rule make sure to also have a discussion around what does treating each other with respect look like, specifically. Other family rules may include being responsible for yourself, following directions, and attending school.
- Allowing for Natural Consequences
What are natural consequences and how does this help my child? Natural consequences are things that happen on their own without intervention from us. For example, how do you handle it if you child texts you from school and lets you know that they forgot their lunch or homework assignment at home? Do you leave work and run home and get the forgotten items and take them to school? Or do you text back, “I’m so sorry you forgot ____ at home today! Let’s talk tonight and see how we can set up a way to help you remember ____ so this doesn’t happen again.” Which approach do you think will help your child learn how to remember thins and plan ahead for their day? A major part of childhood is learning how to be responsible for ourselves and learning how our actions impact ourselves and others. If we are constantly rushing in to “save” our child from having any consequences than it is very difficult to learn. Not only do they not learn how their actions impact others, but they also don’t have the opportunity to learn how to cope with negative feelings and utilize problem solving skills. Let’s look at another example, let’s say your child leaves their scooter outside in the driveway instead of putting it back in the garage where it belongs and in the morning their scooter has been stolen. Yes, you may also be angry and frustrated because you likely had bought that scooter for them, but try to also find some empathy for your child. Allow your child to feel the loss and his/her feelings about the missing scooter. Help your child identify their feelings (sadness, anger, etc). Most importantly, do not run to the nearest store and immediately purchase them a new scooter! Set down with your child and practice problem solving with them. Maybe there is a way for them to earn another scooter (if financially possible for you) by doing chores around the house, babysitting, etc. If so, set up a very specific plan so the child knows exactly what they need to do to earn another scooter, if they chose to do so.
Following these three steps can help your child to be more successful, happy, and confident in their abilities. If you are struggling to implement any of these steps, that’s ok. These are not things that can be done overnight and sometimes it is very helpful to set up these things with a mental health professional, specifically if your child is struggling with disordered eating, anxiety, depression, or another mental health concern. I would be more than happy to help your family figure out to function better and be able to enjoy each other with less arguing.
Tonya McFarland, PsyD, CEDS, LP
Certified Eating Disorder Specialist
1030 Johnson Rd, Ste 323
Golden, CO 80401