"I Don't Care!"
"I'm totally stuck," said a mother to me recently. "Every time I try to set a limit with my son, and I tell him how I feel about his behavior, he either ignores me or says in a snotty voice `I don't care!' If I try to follow through with a consequence, and tell him I'm going to take away his Nintendo, he also says `I don't care.' I just don't know how to discipline him. He doesn't care if I do, so it has no impact."
The problem that this woman is experiencing is not uncommon. It stems from the fact that children, of all ages and either gender, are marvelous scientists. Remember your Jr. High and High school science classes? You were taught to formulate a hypothesis and then go about testing to see if it was true or false. Once you'd run enough tests, you could come to a conclusion. Well, children go about this process quite naturally. It's not that children don't like limits, it's that they must experiment to see if the limits are real, and if their parents are serious about enforcing them. This woman's son had formulated a hypothesis that by telling his mother he didn't care - either about her feelings or about the consequences for his behavior - he could derail the discipline. And it worked! Mom took her son's statement at face value and actually believed that her words and actions were having no impact. Not knowing what else to do with a child who doesn't care, she threw up her hands in despair and gave up. For her son, then, the words "I don't care" equaled "no discipline."
Let's take a look at how to turn this situation around, disprove a child's hypothesis and put discipline back in the picture:
* Never take your child's statements at face value. Most children speak in "kid-speak" and most adults speak in "adult-speak." They are two different languages. For a child, the words "I don't care" are a test, and really mean "I want to see if you're serious. Can I have an impact on you by saying these words?" By using this translation, instead of the literal one, you are free to answer with your behavior by following through on discipline, thus providing the answer "Yes, I'm serious, and no, you cannot derail the discipline in this way."
* Remember that children DO care about your feelings, and need limits, even though they may not admit it. The statement "I don't care" tests how easily they can disconnect from you. If you allow that disconnection by giving up on discipline, your child will feel unsafe and vulnerable.
* Refrain from responding to your child's testing. Don't get into an argument about the fact that he should care, or that he'd better care, or even that it doesn't matter if he cares or not. Any response will divert you from setting the limits that you and your child need.
* Plow ahead. Most parents find it easier to move forward with discipline in spite of their child's comments when they have a script to follow. "I" messages are one type of script that has been proven to work and that most parents find easy to use. The script sounds like this: "When you ________, I feel ___________, because ______________, I would like you to __________." Memorizing this statement, then filling in the blanks when you're setting a limit with your child will keep you on track. For the mother in the example above, an "I" message might have sounded like this: "When you play Nintendo as I'm talking to you (`I don't care, Mom') I feel ignored and upset (`I said, I don't care, didn't you hear me?') because what I have to say is valuable. (Son rolls his eyes and goes back to playing Nintendo) I would like you to pay attention to me when I'm speaking to you." While it may appear at first glance that mom is wasting her breath, the value in continuing the message throughout her son's behavior is that it shows him that she has a plan and is willing to follow through on it. Of course, there is another step in the process as well.
* Follow through. Because mom wants her son to ultimately respond to her words, she begins the discipline process by using words. If, however, she stops at this point and there are no consequences for her son's actions, then she has simply proven his hypothesis. The next step for mom would be to give her son an "either / or" choice. It might sound like this "Either pay attention when I speak to you (`I'm not listening to you, mom') or I'll take Nintendo away for a week. (`Take it away, see if I care!')" Mom should then take it away - either right away if no physical battle ensues, or after her son goes to sleep. You can see from this example that in spite of her son's efforts the discipline is enforced.
The idea here is not to disrespect your child by ignoring his comments. In fact, at a later time you could even address his comments by saying something like "I wonder if we can work on a better way for me to get your attention when you're playing Nintendo. I heard in your voice that it was tough to disengage yourself on the spur of the moment. What do you think?" If her son still affects an attitude of not caring, mom should drop the subject. Remember, though, that limits are extremely important for children. Without them the child (or teen) feels insecure and way too powerful. So even if it's difficult in the moment to ignore your child's comments, in the long run it will benefit him, and, in all likelihood the "lack of caring" will disappear.