Enhancing children's lives through parent and teacher education.

Stepping Out Of The Dance

"My daughter is driving me crazy!" Elizabeth complained. "I feel as though I'm constantly disciplining her. She's rude, sneaky and really unpleasant to be around. The other day I found her hiding in the closet using my nail polish, which she knows she's not allowed to do without my permission. I gave her a consequence - I made her take off all the nail polish and told her she couldn't use it for a week, but she didn't even seem to care. It's almost as if when I discipline her about something, she shrugs her shoulders and is off to the next thing."

Elizabeth's frustration is evident. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our children seem not to listen, not to care, and appear to be determined to push us to our limits. Like Elizabeth, there are times when we wind up feeling as though we don't even like them very much. And what do we do when we know we're using the appropriate techniques, do we give up? Throw in the towel? Decide it must be the technique that's ineffective, or that our child is so difficult it's hopeless? Not necessarily.

Elizabeth, like many of us, is involved in a dance with her daughter. Dancing occurs when you lock in to a pattern of behavior with your child. To determine if you're dancing, ask yourself the following questions:

* Do you use the words "always," and "never" frequently when talking about your child's behavior? (i.e. "She never seems to care when I discipline her," "He's always doing what I ask him not to do.")

* Do you feel that your child doesn't listen to you?

* Have you adopted a consistent strategy for discipline, but it hasn't been working lately?

* Do you feel exasperated, exhausted, helpless or hopeless about your child's behavior?

* Do you feel as though you're repeating yourself or disciplining over and over and over again with no results?

If you answered "yes" to a majority of these questions, then it's likely that you're dancing with your child. If so, it's time to leave the dance floor. To see what I mean, imagine for a moment that you are, quite literally, dancing with someone. Perhaps you're doing the waltz, or maybe a tango. As you dance, you feel your toes getting stepped on again and again. Yet you keep dancing, hoping that your partner will stop stepping on your toes or that your toes won't be too bruised by the end of the dance. Imagine what would happen if you suddenly ducked under your partner's arm and left the dance floor. With no one to dance with, your partner would soon stop dancing. And once you've disengaged from the dance, your toes will stop being sore as well.

If you and your child seem to be repeating the same actions, words and scenarios day after day with no change, it's time to leave the dance floor. Here's how:

1) Determine your normal response to your child in the situations where she's "always" getting to you, "never" listening or doesn't seem to care. Are you responding with discipline? Are you walking away? Are you getting angry and yelling? Elizabeth's normal response was to discipline (and appropriately, I might add!) She would say "When you do that, I feel angry, because I asked you not to. I would like you to listen to me." Then she would give a consequence. But because it was part of her dance with her daughter it wasn't effective.

1) Make a list of alternate responses that are as different from your normal response as possible. Let me give you some examples:

Sarah was as empathetic as they come. Her children would whine, they would nag her, they would make demands. In spite of this, she always reflected their feelings, took care of their needs, engaged in problem solving with them. Instead of becoming less whiny, making less demands and taking care of their own problems, however, they had increased these behaviors. One day, Sarah was in the kitchen. Her oldest child was standing in the doorway, in tears because she couldn't find the mate to a shoe she wanted to wear to school. Her other child was whining "I want juice, I'm hungry" incessantly. Sarah decided to change the dance. She looked both children in the eyes, said "I know how you guys feel. Sometimes I'm having such a tough morning that I feel like whining and crying and having a tantrum too. In fact, this is one of those mornings." With that, she had a tantrum! She stomped her feet, shook her head and waved her arms around, and let out a long yell "AAAHHHHHHHRRRRGGGGHHHH!" Her children stopped stock-still and watched her with their mouths open until she stopped. "Whew," she remarked, "I feel better now. Now what did you want?" Her children burst into laughter, Sarah joined in, the dance was broken and their behavior improved.

Breaking out of the dance means that we'll finally get our children's attention in a way that we couldn't before. Obviously, Sarah shouldn't use this technique constantly, otherwise it will simply become another dance and her children will stop responding.

Going back to Elizabeth, even though each situation she dealt with required that she use discipline, it had become a dance, and therefore ineffective. She decided that next time, she'd respond with empathy to whatever her daughter's desire had been that prompted the misbehavior. She further decided that she would give her daughter what she wanted, under more controlled circumstances. The next time occurred rapidly. Her daughter, who wasn't supposed to have gum except with Elizabeth's permission, told her Uncle that she'd asked her Mom's permission and that therefore she could have a piece of the bubble gum he was handing out. Just as she was unwrapping the piece, Elizabeth appeared and assessed what had happened. Normally she would have taken the gum away. This time, however, she chose to step out of the dance. "Wow!" she said to her daughter sympathetically. "You must really really have wanted that piece of gum to take it without asking me." Her daughter looked at her, shocked. She slowly put the wrapper back on the gum, never taking her eyes off her mother, and handed it to her. But Elizabeth handed it back. "No, honey," she said, "Take it this time. But next time, ask me. I think you'll find that there are a lot of times when I'll say `yes.'" Sure enough, the next day, her daughter ran right over to ask her when she was offered a candy from another child on the playground.

While you may feel uncomfortable about giving in to a child's demands instead of disciplining, throwing a mini-tantrum yourself, or behaving in the opposite way from what you're used to, remember that you're not instituting a pattern, simply breaking out of an old one. Once you've gotten your child's attention, you can often return to the techniques you feel more comfortable with.

In conclusion, remember that when you're deciding what steps you'll take to break out of your own dance, you should never use sarcasm or humor at your children's expense, or do anything physically or emotionally harmful to the child. Other than that, be creative, be playful, be outrageous ... just break the pattern. You and your child will benefit from it.