The out of control child

Many parents are often at wits end when trying to deal with a child who is out of control. The irony is, of course, that the child is not out of control. The child is in total control. What the parent, and more often the mother, means is that the child is out of their control, the mother’s control. The cry for help is “Help, I’m not in control of my kids!” In situations like this, the issue at stake is, indeed, control. Who has the control? Who has the power? More often than not, it’s the kid. Why is that?

There is not just one answer. However, it is important for parents to understand that children are in a developmental stage where they are experimenting with and learning about control and power. It is both necessary and important that they develop these attributes. Can you imagine an adolescent or young adult that has not learned how to have some control and power in life? That would not be healthy at all. But, if parents are not aware of this need of their child’s or if parents are not aware of ways to handle this development, the kids can develop unbridled.

Some of the basic tenets for parents to keep in mind are:

  • Control and power is a two way street. Children can only play the power game when parents are willing to play along. Parents can easily stop any power trips by simply not participating in whatever is going on.
  • All behavior exhibited by children, not matter how unruly or controlling, is designed to meet some need or needs. Often that need is attention. And for children, negative attention is often better than no attention. Sometimes, intense negative attention can be better than mild positive attention. Check out our blog post about the positive intention of negative behaviors.
  • Rewards and even simple acknowledgement for acceptable and desirable behavior is much more effective than punishment for problem behavior. In fact, a child striving for power and control will interpret punishment as a sign of success in the play for control. After all, the child did make the parent do whatever they did to dish out the punishment.
  • Responding to an out of control child can require a strategy. Like playing a game of chess, it may be necessary for the parent to anticipate what the child will do when they intervene. The parent may need to know ahead of time what to do for the next step–and the step after that. Parents need to be prepared with counter moves.
  • Bribery is both ineffective and a poor model to teach children. Bribery is when you offer something a child wants IF they will stop whatever they are doing. A regime of natural consequences is much better. Natural consequences lay out ahead of time and objectively exactly what behaviors bring about what consequences. Some behaviors will bring about pleasant consequences (money, game playing time, special treats, etc) and some behaviors will bring about unpleasant consequences (no TV time, grounded, etc.)
  • Despite the behavior, it is still important for the child to know you love them. Be careful what language you use with your children. You can state your anger at them without demeaning them as a person. For example, “I’m very disappointed in your behavior” rather than “You’re such a screw up.”
  • Children have an uncanny way of working one parent against the other. Parents need to be on the same page, unified and supporting each other.

Children are very creative and never more so when they are exercising their intelligence trying to get or maintain power and control.

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