Question: I just got my daughter’s report card. She’s in first grade and the teacher says she has a problem with accepting responsibility. She is pushing people out of lines to be first, won’t complete math assignments, “Because I’m already smart enough”, and has difficulty making friends. What can I do?
Her teacher is on the right track. Your daughter is avoiding all responsibility for her actions and because of that is locked into acting badly. What we take responsibility for we can change. If you do not acknowledge what you’re doing wrong, there’s no way to start making it right. Your daughter needs to be responsible so she can change the behaviors that are making her unhappy at school. But first she’s going to have to listen to you confront her.
I’m going to make a few guesses about how she handles confrontation. You ask about her behaviors at school and she ignores you. She’ll say she didn’t hear you, she didn’t understand you, but you’ll notice her deafness is awfully convenient. If you don’t let up, she “suddenly” gets a tone, has a melt down, stomps off, etc. If you still don’t allow her to wiggle out of this, she becomes a victim of your campaign of terror! She cries, whines and generally acts like you’re killing her. Once you realize what’s happening you’ll begin to see this cycle repeat itself every time you try and talk to her.
She will cycle through ignore, intimidate, self-victimize with you and everyone else who doesn’t like her behavior. This is very unattractive behavior and you are going to be a mirror where she finally has to see herself doing this. Identify what she’s doing and it’s potential effect on others around her. And get ready to repeat this endlessly.
- She ignores and you; reflect her behavior back to her, warn about consequences, let her get the consequence. In practice it will sound something like this. “You are pretending you don’t hear me right now. It would be a lot easier for other people to like you if you listened to them so I’m going to help you by taking a toy if you continue to pretend I’m not talking.” And you’d better start walking towards the toy you intend to take. It’s rare that you’ll get all the way there before she turns and gives you the anger treatment. She will be attempting to show you that being ignored is better than getting her full attention. Your job is to convince her otherwise.
- She uses anger to intimidate and you; reflect her behavior back to her, warn her about the consequences, let her get the consequence. (You may sense a pattern here.) “Oh, ignoring me didn’t work for you and now you’re trying to use anger to make me do what you want. You’re glaring and stomping and using a mean tone of voice. You tell me that the other kids at school don’t want to play with you and now you are showing me why they want to play with someone else. I would really like for you to have friends, so I’m going to send you to your room for a time out.” Once she realizes that punishing you with her anger didn’t work, she’ll attempt to use guilt and have you punish yourself. So plaster that smile on your face and get ready for attempt #3.
- She self-victimizes and tries to blame you. And you know what you’re going to do; Reflect, Warn, Consequence. “You really want me to feel sorry for you and I think you’d like for me to feel guilty that I’m trying to help you. But other people can’t feel sorry for you if you’re doing such a good job of that already. And it must be very annoying when you scream at the other kids and then cry about how they hurt your feelings. You really need that time out in your room so you can think about a better way to say you’re angry. I’m glad I’m here to help you so you can make better friends at school.”
You’ll notice that the warnings are about good things your daughter is not getting and the consequences are about helping her get those things. Children’s brains are wired to fixate on the good things that will happen not the negative. They can tell you all about the negative consequences, but they won’t correctly judge the likelihood of those negatives happening. Work with the positives and let them figure out the negatives. You will be far less frustrated. Keep your voice tone level and do not say any of this if you find yourself saying it sarcastically. Children don’t really understand sarcasm. They think they do, and they will use it on you, but when you use it your child will think you hate them. The reflective process cannot work if your daughter is defending herself against your hatred.
She will be telling you so many negative messages and it’s going to be hard to remain positive. Don’t go to the dark side. You can see how well that isn’t working for your child so be an example of something else. Ignore or repeat back in a calm tone all the statements about you not loving her, you being mean, nobody loves her, you like her little brother better, etc, etc.
Now practice this until next week. I’ll give you the step by step instructions on having your daughter understand and accept responsibility in my next blog post. Get the avoiding behaviors shut down and she’ll be able to take that next step.
And if anyone out there has noticed that these behaviors are way too familiar from some adults you’re dealing with? Oh yeah. You shut these down in kids or the behaviors just keep getting worse into adulthood. You can modify the steps above and they will work for adults. Remember to leave out the sarcasm, use consequences you can actually follow through on, and keep it positive. Adults can understand and correctly weight the possibilities of their actions, but they will have less implicit permission to be nasty to you if you’re being positive to them. Be positive, it annoys people who want to yell at you.
photo by RichardAlan flckr stream