Having a tough time getting through to your children? Is your teenager turning a deaf ear on you? Does talking to your children feel like speaking to a wall?
Young children are not little monsters and teenagers are not aliens from outer space. After all, as parents, we were all once infants, toddlers, young children, teenagers, and adolescents.
We did not arrive at adulthood overnight but through decades of growth and conditioning. Being an adult is no excuse for forgetting how we had felt and thought during the various stages of growth we had been through before.
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Be it with young children or teenagers, effective communication requires a willingness and effort on our part to understand them. As Stephen Covey wrote in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Children, teenagers or even adults want to be loved.
When they feel understood, they feel loved. When they feel loved, they feel secure and have little need to prove themselves or to seek attention through misbehaviours.
Children are social beings. Their actions and behaviours are driven primarily by a need to establish a sense of belonging, to feel accepted and to feel important. According to Abraham Maslow, human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs, and that certain lower-order needs are to be met before higher needs can be satisfied. In the famous Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need to be loved follows right after physiological and safety needs, both of which are readily satisfied in most families.
Love and ‘belongingness’ form the primary source of motivation in most behaviours in children. It is a basic human desire to want to feel accepted, to belong to groups such as family at home or circle of friends at school. Only after they feel accepted and loved that higher-order needs such as self-esteem and self-actualisation become relevant.
Parents often want to bring out the best in their children. They want to raise children who are able to actualize their potentials with confidence. What many have overlooked is the need to first establish a solid foundation for self-expression by making their children feel understood and loved.
Instead of encouragement, affirmation, and acceptance, children are often greeted with criticism, threat, scolding and nagging that bear the signs of disapproval and non-acceptance.
Some children cope with these negative remarks through quiet desperation, while others turn to various forms of approval-seeking or rebellious behaviours.
Why do children scream or cry? Most of the time, it is to get their parents’ attention. Parental neglect is one of the most common causes of misbehaviours in children.
Understanding the motivation behind children’s behaviours enables us to respond more consciously to their unmet needs. Most parents make the mistake of reacting to their children’s behaviours and focusing their energy on correcting them. No good lah.
When parents are preoccupied with correcting children’s misbehaviours, they seem to be more interested in dominating their children than in considering their well-being.
But children will behave like children, and each child has his or her own unique set of behaviours that is shaped largely by the child’s personality. A child’s personality is influenced by several factors, including the genetic constitution, early childhood experiences, and birth order.
Not much could be done about the genetic constitution of our children, other than to help them uncover their innate gifts and develop them into productive use. As parents, being their first points of contact and often, the primary caregivers, we play a crucial role in shaping their early childhood experiences.
Firstly, children learn from us by imitating our behaviours. Secondly, the way we respond to them will inevitably condition their thoughts and behaviours. A child that grows up with parents who are loving and encouraging are more likely to feel confident, while a child who is faced with frequent criticism and disapproval is likely to experience low self-esteem and feel rejected. Lastly, a child’s birth order influences the environment in which early childhood development takes place, particularly attributed to the absence or presence of siblings.
A single child seldom experiences competition for parental attention, while sibling rivalry is an expected norm in a multiple-child family. The first child usually receives a lot of attention in the earlier years, only to realize that parental attention needs to be shared with subsequent siblings. The youngest child is greeted by parents who are more experienced and less zealous compared with the eldest and typically learns faster so as to keep up with older siblings.
Having two boys in our family has taught us to appreciate the uniqueness of each son. While we would like to think that we tried to bring them up in the same manner, the truth is otherwise. This is clearly evidenced in the fewer number of photographs we had taken of Dylan, our younger child.
We sent Sean, his elder brother, to a playgroup when he was three and a half years old, thinking that he might benefit from socializing with other children. We did not see the need for Dylan, as he had always enjoyed Sean as his playmate.
With an elder brother as a role model and a competitor, Dylan seems to pick up new skills a lot faster and is willing to learn new things more readily. At four, he cycles and plays the piano, Scrabble, and Chess almost as competently his brother who is two years older. We learnt that the influence of birth order is not to be underestimated.
Besides understanding the factors that shape a child’s personality, it is also important to understand the intention behind their actions and behaviours. Children’s behaviours are often the means for either seeking attention or asserting their power or individuality. Behaviour is essentially a manifestation of one’s inner thoughts and emotions. Intrinsically, it is the means for interacting with the outer world to fulfil their innermost desires.
What does a child want most from his parents? Attention.
“Look, Mum!”, “Look at me Dad!”, “Did you see what I did?” are some of the words we often hear from young children. In fact, older children need attention too, only that they are seldom as explicit as the younger ones. By the time we reach adulthood, instead of asking for attention or communicating our needs verbally, we turn to expectation, hoping that others can read our mind or decipher our non-verbal language.
The other major purpose of the behaviour is self-expression. Children have the innate desire to express their individuality. So do parents. And when the two clashes, the result is a power struggle. Power struggles are a common aspect of all relationships, including that between parent and child.
Disobedience and stubbornness are symptoms of power struggles. Parents tend to try to dominate their children by getting them to do things. “Pick up your toys”, “Brush your teeth”, “Tidy up your bed”, and “Practice your piano” are some of the common instructions that many children stubbornly disobey.
As parents, it is natural for us to expect our children to behave in a certain manner, and to follow some simple instructions. But children, especially when they feel unloved, are fond of battling domination and engaging parents in power struggles. “If I win, I get to do things my way,” is probably their attitude for establishing some power and sense of importance.
To really help our children, we need to avoid ‘fighting’ with them.
That requires us to respond to their disobedience or stubbornness with empathy rather than anger. “What is my child trying to achieve through behaving in this manner?” is probably more useful than “How can I make him listen to me?” Obedience is to be encouraged, not coerced. Telling our children that “It is important to brush your teeth regularly so as to prevent tooth decay” is probably more effective than “How many times must I tell you to brush your teeth?”
For a peaceful parenting experience, it is imperative that parents stay out of power struggles. Instead, they should choose to state the desired outcome, empower their children with the choices to take actions, and let them take ownership of the consequences of their choices.
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At times, a trip to the dentist to fix a nagging toothache may be a necessary lesson that will last them a lifetime. Natural consequences can be the best teachers compared to traditional methods such as rewards and punishments.
Children are not zoo animals. Rewards and punishments are techniques for training animals, not raising children. They work on the basis of motivating children through manipulating their tendencies to gain pleasure and avoid pain.
Either way, they condition children to respond to external influences, rather than relying on their internal compasses for direction. Rewards train them to think, “What’s in it for me?” while punishments make them either to live in fear or to think that, “It’s alright so long as I don’t get caught.”
Doing something well is in itself, a source of satisfaction. Rewarding a child for a job well done runs the risk of turning an intrinsically fulfilling deed into a means to attain external gratification. What is preferable is that we help our children remain inspired from within, instead of being motivated by external reward.
Punishment can instil hurt and fuel revengefulness. A child who is being punished for hitting a younger sibling is probably going to feel even more resentful towards the latter. A child who feels that he is being punished unfairly is likely to feel angry. Punishment may be effective in commanding immediate compliance but often fails to teach children to behave well in the long term.
In the absence of rewards and punishment, what can parents do to influence children’s behaviour? Let them experience the consequences of their actions and guide them to take alternative actions for avoiding the undesirable consequences.
Instead of conditioning them to strive for rewards or avoid punishment, we must seek to activate the internal compass that can guide them towards the desired outcomes. For example, a child who studies diligently feels good when he does his best in preparing for the examination. It is not about going after a prize promised for excellent results or avoiding the punishment for failures.
Guiding our children to face the consequences may be painful, but requires us to firm and empathetic. Unless it is life-threatening, we should make no attempt to bail them out of the situations they have put themselves in.
An irresponsible child will lose certain privileges until he can demonstrate a satisfactory level of responsibility. A careless child who loses his toy will not have the toy replaced.
Our role is to help them appreciate the law of cause-and-effect that underpins the relationship between their actions and the corresponding consequences, and show them how they could alter the consequences in the future by taking charge of the cause. Realizing that they are in control of the cause will encourage them to rely on self-direction rather external influences. In that way, the will feel empowered from within.
In summary, it is critical that we develop a keen awareness of the intentions behind our children’s behaviours. We need to understand what is it they want to achieve, and guide them to fulfil their intentions through more constructive or appropriate means.
And remember that a parent-child communication based on mutual understanding and respect is a real possibility when we begin by listening with empathy instead of commanding with authority. When in doubt, be reminded that you too were a once a child or a teenager and ask yourself: “What do I really need from my parents?” and then strive to give your children what they might need from you!