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Monday, 11 December 2006

What Should Jenny Do? a Behavioral Approach to Powerless Mom

Written by  Naomi Baum, PhD.

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Jenny has it right when she says she thinks kids need structure, chores and rules. She recognizes that she has trouble following through. That's one step in the right direction.

Jenny tends to request something of the kids and then immediately begins compromising and modifying her position. She needs to think through ahead of time where she is likely to end up. If she is going to end up by caving in completely, she might as well not get herself all worked up and do whatever needs to be done herself. If, however, the issue is a rule, she might consider the following guidelines to help her choose her rules and make them stick.

  1. Less is more. Pare down the number of rules in your household to a bare minimum. Two or three rules is enough for starters. That doesn't mean that you let everything else go to pot. You can comment, ask, request. The difference with rules is that there are clear consequences for breaking rules.
  2. Consequences. Make sure that once a rule is instituted there is a clear consequence for breaking the rule. Make sure your children know what those consequences are and that you are willing to implement them. Don't choose consequences that are too harsh or that are impossible to enforce.
  3. Follow through. Once you have determined that the rule has been broken, allow for one warning, but no more. Do not threaten. Remind your child that he has broken the rule, and if appropriate, that he has one more chance to make amends. If he doesn't within a specified period of time, apply the consequence. Explain in a calm fashion that your child's behavior is unacceptable, and that as a result you are responding. It is likely that your child will resist, cry, struggle, be unhappy, or some variation thereof. Undoubtedly, he or she will be surprised the first few times you follow through.

Children quickly learn when their parents mean business, and after the first few attempts to check out whether you are serious or not, they will get the message. It is likely that there will be a marked reduction in the target behavior within a short period of time. As the rule gets more firmly embedded into your child's lifestyle, you can move on to new rules and new consequences.

In each scene, Jenny whines and begs and her children disregard. They have learned that if they ignore their mother long enough, she will leave them alone and they will be able to continue undisturbed by her demands. They have learned to live with her disapproval and don't seem to let it bother them.

Jenny seems to back herself into corners she doesn't want to be in and then has trouble getting out of them. Rather than taking a harsh stance and then giving in, she should consider what her minimal position is and stick to it. The children will then begin to learn that she means what she says. They obviously will test her at the start, but they will learn that she is paying attention to their needs as well as hers.

For example, she might have told Jesse firmly in the first scene -- first unload and then eat your snack. If it is clear to her that she is going to give in to him from the start, it's wiser not to take him on. Why bother reminding him that dinner is soon, if you know that he is not one to forego a snack? A wise parent knows that he can't quibble with his children about everything, and mom needs to learn to pick her fights.

In the juggling ball scene, it is important for parents to take sides as little as possible in fights between siblings. Mom might have said --Jesse, hitting is unacceptable. You are absolutely right that Josh shouldn't have put your balls on the radiator, but you still may not hit him. Being totally one-sided, and ignoring the wrong that was done to him, is bound to lead to tremendous anger on Jesse's part.

Jenny also needs to learn how to stop putting her children down and making them feel bad. Telling Josh that she hopes he gets in trouble with the teacher is both unhelpful and unloving. Simply telling him that he can either chose to work with her now, or manage on his own later would be enough. If he chooses not to work with her, he will suffer the natural consequences of his actions. Mother does not need to rub it in.

Alternately, she might offer him a choice of two times she might be available to work with him. Giving children two limited choices is often a useful route to go. Saying to Josh: "I have time now or at 7:00, which do you prefer?" gives him a sense of control over his life, while still not putting Jenny at his whim.

Both Josh and Jesse have learned that their mother is basically ineffectual and doesn't need to be listened to. They laugh at her punishments, ignore her rules and requests, and seem to do pretty much what they want. It will take some time and much effort on Jenny's part to turn things around. Following the few guidelines suggested is a start. A parenting group focusing on effective discipline might also provide some support for Jenny, who appears to be handling her children's discipline on her own.

Last modified on Tuesday, 09 April 2013 15:24
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Naomi Baum, PhD.

Naomi Baum, PhD.

Naomi Baum is the Director of the Resilience Unit at The Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma and the National School Resilience Project. Her work at ICTP focuses on developing programs to build resilience in communities that have been highly exposed to trauma and stress. She has successfully brought her approach to Biloxi, Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Her work there included seven visits to the city, she trained teachers, social workers, school nurses, and counselors. She has also worked with the population in Haiti following teh earthquake. She has written about Trauma and Resilience in several published articles and books.

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