How to be ignored by your kids in 3 easy steps
First, a true story...
The other day while on a plane, a woman sat next to me who I had been observing just moments earlier while at the gate waiting to board. It was quite the show to say the least. After asking her teenage son to stop slapping his brother’s head and then running away, the boy merely rolled his eyes and kept at it.
His dismissive snort at his mother’s request suggested she was being ridiculous by asking such a thing. At the same time, the younger daughter was jumping up and down on the seat singing a song. The mom asked her daughter to sit down, but the girl bolted down the long hallway leading out of the gate area. In mid-stride, the girl surely heard her mother’s threat of “Don’t make me count to 3,” but by the time she got to 7, the girl could barely be seen. Meanwhile, I noticed that the husband, who was quiet and obviously irritated with his wife’s nagging, kept telling her that the kids were tired and “just being kids.” He also kept reminding the kids that “mom is just stressed out right now.”
While we chatted on the plane, she discovered that I was a child and family psychologist and immediately began asking me how she could get her kids to behave. She had a lot to tell me, which took nearly the entire 50 minutes from takeoff to landing. Essentially, her oldest boy has AD/HD, and as she explained, he really struggles with being impulsive and hyperactive. He was basically running around annoying everyone all the time. I believed her because he sure had annoyed me. "I have tried everything with him,: she said, including removing privileges, giving rewards, setting up a behavior modification chart, changing medications, seeing a therapist; all to no avail. Nothing worked she assured me.
Her next youngest boy was quiet, reserved, and “a good boy.” He did get teased a lot at school and missed some school because of frequent stomachaches. But otherwise he mostly kept to himself and wasn’t a behavior problem. The youngest daughter, the future Olympic sprinter I’d seen in the gate area, never listened to her, threw amazing tantrums, and “probably has AD/HD too, but we haven’t confirmed it yet with our doctor.”
I find myself in this situation frequently. Because I travel so much, I meet many people from all over the world. When they ask what I do for a living, I usually get one of two reactions. The first is they ask if I’m analyzing them. Sometimes it hurts when my eyes roll that far back into my head. You have no idea of the depth of my lack of interest in analyzing you. The second reaction is that some will quietly tell me about a problem they are having and ask how I suggest they deal with it.
So back to this mom. You would think that after spending 10 years in college and another 22 years working with teenagers and their families that I would have a ready answer for these parents I meet on the plane that would fix things efficiently and quickly. She wanted me to tell her, in the 3 remaining minutes we had, how to fix her children’s behavior problems. If you were to do a quick Google search or review any number of parent blogs, you could find countless 3- and 4-step approaches to fixing behavior problems in children. Here’s a sample one and it won’t do jack for this mom:
Step 1: Be Consistent Mean what you say. If you mean you are going to count to three and then impose a consequence, don’t count to 7. Make your expectations clear, and always follow through. There’s no room for gray area here, because if you change your mind, your child will learn that they just need to work harder the next time to get you to give in again.
Step 2: Reward Positive Behaviors
In his work on marital relationships, Dr. John Gottman came up with a “magic ratio” that says, in essence, happy couples have on average five times as many positive interactions as negative interactions. Personally, I think this is a great rule of thumb for all relationships. We should be providing at least five times more positive validations compared to every criticism. Positive reinforcement will literally result in an increase in the behaviors we want to see, so naturally we should spend most of our time reinforcing these behaviors. You can even use a reward system by rewarding those behaviors you want to see the most. My kids and I have had many a Slurpee together over the years with this very thought in mind.
Step 3: Pick Your Battles If you pick every battle, you’ll lose them all. This is the single best way to teach your kids to blow you off. This was certainly the case with this mom, right? She nagged about everything and had no energy to follow through. I’d encourage her to pick the battles that are most important to her. In our home, I can’t stand fighting. I just won’t tolerate it. So, when our kids are fighting, I’m willing to make their lives miserable unless they figure it out and resolve it. It’s a battle that’s important to me, and I will win it. With my teenage daughter, I don’t truly care if she is home by midnight on the weekends or if it’s 10 minutes after midnight. She’s a pretty responsible kid and this just isn’t a battle I need to get into with her. So for this mom, she needs to figure out what matters most and then win those battles.
So there’s the 3-step approach for this mom, and like I said, in her case, it won’t do jack for her. Is it just bad advice? Why won’t it help her? Because even the best advice is sometimes just missing the boat. In three minutes’ time, there’s not much I could say to her, and I was only able to provide her the name of a colleague in her city that could help her find a good therapist. I’m sure she thought she sat next to the world’s worst psychologist with that response.
If I had more time, however, here’s the 2-step approach I would have taken:
Step 1: Trade seats with your husband. He’s the one that needs the counsel and advice. Step 2: No, seriously, I realize you just got upgraded into this nice seat, but go get him because none of what I told you earlier will matter if he doesn’t listen to what I have to say.
The Real Problem
Yes, misbehaving kids are a problem, and this mom could probably do better at being consistent, rewarding positive behaviors, and picking her battles more wisely. However, the best parenting advice in the world cannot fix one parent undermining the other. I don’t care which direction this takes, and I’ve seen it go both ways. Sometimes as parents we just spend too much time trying to “make up” for the perceived weaknesses of our spouse. This problem is normal because we all have different personality styles and backgrounds, and so our parenting styles can sometimes be highly conflictual. So back to this husband. What will help him? Do I have a multi-step plan for him? Of course I do!
Step 1: Stop Undermining Your Wife
I realize you think she is too harsh and negative, and you wish she could just relax and not make a big deal out of everything. I get it. You work all day and want to come home to some peace, and most of what you see is your exhausted wife who is yelling and nagging the kids to get their homework done. Remember that she is in the trenches all day long. You guys chose to have her stay at home to raise the kids while you became the breadwinner. This means that she’s been at war all day while you’ve been at work. You coming home to smooth things over is just making things worse. Would you like me to give you a 2-step plan to make your wife resent you? Step 1: Come home and criticize her parenting flaws, and make sure the kids see this so they know they don’t have to take her seriously. Step 2: Never mind, Step 1 is all it took. This is the message I want you to understand: YOU are creating these little monsters, not her. By telling her that their misbehaviors are just “kids being kids” and by telling them that “mom is just stressed out right now,” you have completely undermined everything she’s been working at all day. They can now blow her off just like you do because this is what you’ve taught them is okay. You wife has ZERO credibility with the kids, and this is because of you.
Step 2: You 100% Must Establish Credibility for Your Wife
Understand that it is your job to help establish credibility for her. That means having her back regardless of how ridiculous you think she is being. The only exception to this is abuse – if she is hurting the kids, then, of course, you have to step in. (By the way, not letting Johnny play with his Xbox for the next week because he keeps forgetting to turn in his homework is not abuse.) So when she is telling Johnny to stop slapping the back of his brother’s head and running away, you definitely do not follow up by telling Johnny that Mom is just stressed out right now. You support her even if you don’t like it. And you act like you like it. You can hash the details out with your wife later in private. My rule of thumb in your family is that because she is the one who is in the trenches, she gets 80% of the vote. So support her first, and then you can work on coming together in private moments later. If your wife feels your support, she will be 10 times more likely to ease up and see things your way, or to at least be influenced by what you have to say.
In this family’s case, they were a “traditional” family in that he worked and she was a stay-at-home mom. If both parents work, or mom works and dad is the stay-at-home parent, credibility still must be established for both parents, and especially for whomever is doing the bulk of the day-to-day parenting. Dr. Gottman also found that successful, happy marriages include spouses who allow themselves to be influenced by the other. Unfortunately for men, he also found that, for the most part, women already tend to do this, and it is primarily the husbands that must learn to accept their wives’ influence. See my article on how to get on the same parenting page for more information.
Step 3: Get on the Same Page
As impossible as it sometimes is, try to get on the same page with your parenting goals. At least try to get close. This will require you to sit down and talk about how you want things to be in your family. What kinds of goals do you have? What is important to each of you? Which battles are the most important to you? What kinds of structure and rules do you want to establish? What do you each need from the other in order to accomplish these goals? Learn how to talk about difficult things, like how you want her to stop yelling all the time, or how you want him to support what you’re doing with the kids. You can learn more about how to get on the same page and have these difficult but rewarding conversations.