Do you have a difficult child? What advice have you been given about how to teach them and handle discipline? Was it helpful? The trouble with advice is that, even when the intended message gets through, most suggestions are both right and wrong. For instance, basic learning theory tells us that if you want a behavior to stop, you need to decrease pleasant consequences and/or increase the unpleasant consequences. Rewards and punishment sounds simple enough and this works for most kids. But what if your kid just tries harder, or throws a fit when you try to reprimand them? What do you do when nothing works?
I recently attended a workshop provided by Howard Glasser, author of Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach (1999). While I do not claim to be an expert in his method, the discussion at this workshop resonates with my understanding of the power that a parent has to influence the path their child takes.
According to Mr. Glasser, parenting is often a function of energy, emphasis, and focus. Unfortunately, and especially when it comes to strong-willed children, parents often get caught in a cycle of frustration and disappointment of their child's rebellion. They over-emphasize the moments things go wrong. They have good intentions of trying to understand why and how bad behavior happens and of trying to teach their child why it shouldn't happen again. But this focus on failure risks turning negative behavior into a flame. Focus adds fuel to the fire, so the more you dwell on it, the stronger and larger it grows. If you want the fire to wane, it must be starved by shifting the focus elsewhere, and adding your fuel to another fire.
This re-focus feels similar to the way God parents us. When we strive to do his will, he responds to our “good behavior” with attention and closeness, adding fuel to the fire of our relationship. When we stumble, his response is not to focus on condemnation, but to patiently wait for us to return and be comforted by his warmth. God in his love reminds us that we are his children made in his image and meant for better things.
"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10).
Glasser calls us to refuse to energize negativity, and instead to pour attention into building up every success, guiding a child's focus toward “greatness.” This does not mean that you should ignore misbehavior, instead, respond by stating that behavior is unacceptable, and refuse to re-engage the child until they choose to behave appropriately. The problems will become more challenging if they receive all the energy and resources are being channeled. Instead parents need to consider where children are succeeding, and place their energy, emphasis, and focus there. Lean on God and follow his example of emphasizing our identity and challenging us to be more.
It is vital that parents remember that their attention is always the most important and powerful motivator their children will ever receive, and experiencing a loss of connection when they break those rules is also the most effective way to decrease negative behavior. Your approval and praise for what they do right is a powerful motivator to do better.
If you are one of the many parents who have been blessed with the challenge of a difficult child, I encourage you to read Glasser's work. I believe you will find some measure of hope that your relationship with your child does not have to be ruled by rebellion and conflict. Your child's intensity is only part of who they are; with guidance, it can be a source of strength, not weakness.