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Families In TroubleRTÉ One

Improving the behaviour of your child!

David Coleman gives his tips for coping with all that the day can throw at you.

You and your child are in the supermarket. You are focused on your list and the special offers.  You just about notice your child asking you for a DVD they saw on the way into the shop and you tell them to shush that they are distracting you (surely if those oranges are two for the price of one they must be reaching their display-by date...). 

As their whinging and demanding becomes more insistent your tolerance drops to be replaced by a rising anger (they do this every time, trying to wind me up - there's no way they are getting a DVD out of this one.).  You warn them in cold and hard tones that they need to stop their whining and that they are not going to get the DVD and that if they don't pull it together you will never ever bring them shopping again. 

Your child dissolves into tears.  The wailing increases to a volume and pitch that attracts stares from all around.  You feel guilty thinking maybe you were too harsh and you are embarrassed by the scene created (oh God please be quiet, how much is that DVD anyway? well okay just this one time but never again, acting like they were, shocking .) and you get the DVD as long as they just stop crying. 

A few sniffles later and the DVD is in the trolley and you move on.

If this could be you describing your child then don't worry, every other parent has probably experienced something similar at some stage.  If this is a regular pattern for you and your child then this is also probably a good time to change something about what you are doing.  A huge proportion of childhood behaviour problems are rooted in family habits and well-worn patterns of family interaction.  The old adage of 'not being able to see the wood from the trees' holds true - when you are caught up in your own family system it can be very difficult to realise that there are things you can do to make the behaviours different.

In my own experience, both as a parent of three children and professionally, the most effective change in a child's behaviour usually comes when their parent changes how they act towards the child.  More often than not we fuel the flames of a tantrum or increase the obstinacy of a faddy eater by what we say or do.  The real trouble is that we are not aware that we are doing it.

So what should we be doing to reduce and even eradicate the kinds of tantrums I have described above?  We should be giving them lots of quality attention so that they know they are loved and recognised as important in their own right.  We should be rewarding their good behaviour by noticing it and praising it.  We should be setting clear and firm limits to guide their behaviour.  We should apply consequences to let them know when they overstep the limit we have set.  We should.and the list could be endless and seem unattainable for us normal human parents.

In the real world where we are assailed by lots of pressures from inside and outside the home all we need to be doing is to be 'good enough' parents.  We don't have to strive for perfection (its just not possible!) we just have to be 'good enough'.  So, rather than getting hung up on the "shoulds" of idealism lets stick to the realities of what is achievable.  I've listed my own five top tips for 'good enough' parenting that I try to apply with my own children and that I always recommend to parents. 

. Spend some time each day having fun with your child (even a few minutes of snuggle time, story time, drawing, horseplay or such like) and it will build up a positive relationship
. Catch them being good and let them know that you have noticed it.
. Think about what you want to say especially if you are setting a limit or warning of a consequence.  Don't threaten in the heat of the moment.
. Be consistent - always do what you have said you will do
. Be consistent - keep regular rhythms and routines; children love the predictability of it and it reduces their anxieties.

Let's apply the first two tips to the example I gave earlier.  If you can hold on to a memory of the goodness within your child (behind this 'bold' behaviour) it will help to reduce the anger and frustration that you feel, allowing you to think and act more calmly.  That memory will be there if you have taken the time to build a positive relationship with your child and if you can think of the examples of when they behaved well.  Also if children are used to your praise they will seek it more often than your wrath.  In an example like the one above a parent's assumption is often that your child is bold and demanding but really they are probably just excited and stimulated.  Supermarkets assail the senses; bright colours everywhere, tasty smells, strange sounds and lots of textures amongst the products on display.  Highly stimulated children will often act in giddy, excitable or demanding ways.  Their behaviour is more likely to be because of the supermarket environment and not because of a 'bold' personality trait. 

The other three tips all go together.  Again taking the example from above the parent in it reacted in the heat of their own anger rather than by thinking about what they really wanted to achieve in the situation.  If the parent's goal was to avoid buying the DVD then a calm but determined refusal to buy it, followed by some distraction would probably have done the job. 

Once the parent in this example began to threaten consequences then they were setting themselves up to have to follow through on the threat (tip 4).  In this example the threat (of never ever bringing the child shopping again) wasn't realistic or achievable and the child probably saw it as a bluff.  Unfortunately the message the child picks up is that their parent doesn't stick by their word.  A better reaction may have been to warn of a consequence that was achievable such as going outside until they stop demanding (and then be prepared to carry your child out if necessary).

Consistency, rhythm and routine are a struggle for us parents in the hectic pace of our lives these days but they are an invaluable support for our children.  If, in the example above, your child knows from the sheer force of habit that a DVD is out of the question they will usually not even bother asking.