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The #1 Phrase that Shifted My Entire Approach to Parenting

In this blog post, I'm going to tell you, hands down, the Number One phrase that completely shifted how I view and approach parenting. Trust me, it's a game-changer. Especially for kids who struggle with big emotions and challenging behaviours like...
  • whining
  • ignoring you
  • not listening
  • constantly negotiating
  • refusing to do what you asked
  • telling you no
  • having major tantrums or meltdowns
  • yelling, screaming, swearing
  • biting
  • hitting
  • kicking
  • or fighting with their brothers and sisters and friends
But first... a little background you can probably relate to. As a parent of a toddler, preschooler, or school-aged child, you already know that there are very few things in parenting that go the way we envision them in that perfectly planned out scenario we have in our heads... So when things aren't going quite the way you hoped, like maybe
  • your child just refuses to pee on the potty
  • she's constantly whining, or
  • he just (for the love of god) will not go to sleep
Naturally, like any great parent, you just want to fix it. Here's how that tends to go...

The Typical Parenting Approach

You Start With Enticing Rewards

First, you start out with the kind, patient, hopeful parenting approach. You offer your sweet little bundle of joy all kinds of great rewards for good behaviour. This step probably comes too late in the game most days, and most likely resembles something more like a bribe that a well-planned out reward. But they tend to look something like this:
  • You promise them cookies if they're good in the grocery store.
  • Or special outings if they sit nice for the dentist.
  • Or a new toy if they behave well at daycare or school for the next week
  • Or a super fun playdate at their favourite place ever if they get along with their siblings
  • Or you spend two and a half hours putting together the most beautiful little sticker chart you ever did see...
Your child is super excited about it, and so are you! For like, a day. And then you find yourself dealing with a massive tantrum in the middle of Superstore because they didn't earn that cookie. Or they scream the whole way back from the dentist - not because the dentist sucked, but because they didn't earn that park trip. Or that beautiful sticker chart gets ripped off the fridge, crumpled up, ripped into tiny pieces, and thrown on the floor. When you can't understand why this isn't working, you probably move on to the next approach.

You Give Constant Reminders and Get Stuck in the Negotiation Trap

When the rewards don't seem to work, you probably break into rational parenting mode.
  • You give your child all the great, logical and rational explanations of why it's so important to listen.
  • You tell them all the amazing and exciting benefits they get from listening and behaving.
  • You follow that up with five minute and two minute and one minute warnings.
  • And you throw in a few little reminders here and there of all the great rewards they'll get for good behaviour!
At this point, you start to become annoyed with having to be constantly on them. Reminding them, negotiating with them, and bribing into bigger and better rewards. And you find yourself frustrated with the fact that you're trying so incredibly hard to be calm and patient. You're working your butt off to help them, and they still don't listen or do what they're told to do! But at some point, all that patience wears thin, and you almost instinctively moving on to the next parenting strategy that basically every parent uses.

You Inevitably Find Yourself Punishing

The rewards don't work. Reminders are getting you nowhere. And all the negotiation is driving you insane! So, obviously, the next logical step is to go the punishment route.
  • You try taking things away.
  • And when that doesn't work, you take more things away.
  • Or send them to their room.
  • Or start shoving all their toys in a garbage bag to be thrown out or given away
  • Or you don't allow them to go to that big birthday party they've been looking forward to all week.
You think to yourself, "This has to work - they love their [favourite thing] more than anything in the world!" Then you hear that little voice from behind you say... "I don't care. Take it."

And Then You're Right in The Peak of the Escalation Trap

You yell, you scream, you say things you don't mean, you spank. They cry, you cry... And you find yourself sitting on the bathroom floor with a glass of wine, wondering how the hell you're ever going to get through until bedtime. (You know how it goes) And while the yelling and spanking might have stopped the behaviour or broken the escalation trap for a brief moment, you end up feeling guilty, and wondering to yourself if you're failing as a parent. Is this what parenting is really all about? Does it ever get easier? You wipe away your tears, compose yourself, and apologize to your little one (who, by the way, probably appears as though nothing has even happened). You get a bit of relief, thinking that maybe - just maybe - your little one got how upset you were, won't want to go through that whole ordeal again, and things will be better next time. But then, the whole cycle inevitably starts all over again the next day (or hour). If this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone! Sooooo many parents just like you are stuck in this seemingly never-ending cycle. But the good news is - it doesn't have to be this way. We'll get to that in a minute... But first, you need to understand why these parenting approaches don't work.

Outdated Parenting Approaches and Why They Don't Work

There are a lot of outdated approaches to parenting. They're the same ones our parents used, and the same ones that pretty much everyone around you advocates for. I mean, if you just reward your kids more, punish them more, or show them who's boss, they should listen, right? These approaches to handling your child's behaviour problems just seem so logical. And some of them actually can be helpful components within a much more comprehensive approach, and when they're used strategically. But in and of themselves, these approaches are typically
  • used in ways that do more harm than good
  • too simplistic
  • don't take the whole child into account, and
  • don't actually get to the root of the problem.
These tactics have been around forever because they do actually work for some kids. (Typically the kids who listen and are well-behaved most of the time already anyways.) But they tend not to work for the majority of kids or over the long-term. And they definitely don't work for kids that have trouble dealing with their big feelings, or who have attention or behaviour problems. If you're a parent of a child with behaviour problems, by now, your progression probably just skips the first three strategies and starts with the yelling. You feel stuck in this endless cycle with no hope of ever getting your kids to listen and behave without yelling and fighting. And as the difficult behaviours persist, you feel completely inadequate and helpless to change it. You feel like you're constantly being judged and blamed as a parent. But the reality is, it is not your fault. Basically every parent uses these same strategies or approaches or tactics (at least some of the time, to some degree). But they work a whole lot better with some kids than others, and in some situations more than others. And the tough reality is... some kids just have more challenging behaviours than others. And if that's your kid, they probably require a totally different approach if you want to get any real traction. And here's why...

Outdated Approach #1: Rewarding Your Kids for Compliance

This approach assumes that kids' behaviour will improve if they're rewarded for doing what they're expected or told to do. It therefore assumes that kids aren't doing what they should be doing because of a lack of motivation. By offering kids a reward for compliance, their motivation is increased, and they'll do the thing they don't want (listen or behave) so they can get the thing they do want (reward). It's simple. It makes sense. It's easy enough to implement. And it works really really well for kids who truly suffer from nothing more than pure lack of motivation. The problem? Almost never is the issue purely lack of motivation... especially for kids with behaviour challenges. Like I said before, this is mostly true for kids who typically already listen and behave well most of the time. Another problem? We tend to over-reward kids in society with external things, like
  • stickers
  • treats
  • toys
  • prizes
  • expensive outings
And research has shown that those external rewards can actually undermine and diminish existing internal rewards, like feelings of
  • pride
  • pleasure
  • fun
  • enjoyment, and
  • accomplishment
Plus, the rewards tend to get old over time, so kids will work less for them. Especially since we already reward our kids in so many different ways all of the time. I mean, decades ago when kids would rarely (like I mean, maybe a couple times a year!) get a new toy or a treat or a playdate, I'm sure the effectiveness of this approach was much greater! But that's not the case in today's world. So in today's day and age, when you use this approach, you may actually be undermining your child's existing intrinsic motivation and may actually wind up unintentionally reducing the very behaviour you meant to increase!

Outdated Approach #2: Not Allowing Your Kids to Fail

This approach is where the logic and the negotiation comes in... You want your kids to succeed, of course! You want them to listen and behave, and you want them to get those rewards and avoid consequences. For a parent, there's probably no worse feeling in the world that seeing your kids go through challenging experiences like failure and rejection and pain and sadness. So naturally, you want to shield them from those experiences to the greatest extent possible... And that's not a bad thing! You just want your kids to enjoy their blissful and innocent childhood as long as they possibly can. But here's the part you were probably never told... Overprotecting your kids from failure unintentionally communicates to your kids that they shouldn't fail, or that they can't handle failure. This can lead to your child avoiding tasks or activities that are new or challenging, giving up easily on even minor setbacks, and feeling inadequate or striving for perfection. Not allowing your child to experience minor failures early in life can also make failure much more painful and intolerable when it does occur (and inevitably, it will). Allowing your kids to experience the consequences of their choices, including small, handleable (is that even a word?) failures, rejections, conflicts, challenges, problems, and losses is a healthy and important aspect of their development. When kids are allowed to experience minor failures, they learn to cope with those emotionally when the consequences are still small. And they also learn that their choices affect their outcomes. This builds their level of frustration and stress tolerance and resilience, as well as their feelings of competence. It also allows them to experience failures they can later reflect on and learn from so they're better equipped for the bigger failures and challenges in life. Also, by giving your kids tons of warnings and reminders, you're usually doing nothing more than frustrating yourself, and either prolonging the inevitable. That is, if you don't end up giving in first. Either outcome unintentionally serves as reinforcement for your child to continue or increase those behaviours, instead of stopping them.

Outdated Approach #3: Punishment will Teach Your Child to Behave

Now, before I jump into this section, please do not for one second think this means kids shouldn't have expectations and accountability for their actions. However, accountability and punishment are very different things. All great parents have expectations of their children. And all great parents hold their children accountable for their actions, which sometimes comes in the form of consequences. The key here is that the consequences are related to their actions. They are communicated and implemented in a calm, matter-of-fact, and respectful manner. And they have the purpose of teaching skills and behaviours, as well as the connection between actions and outcomes. Punishment, on the other hand, is meant to "teach the child a lesson" by inflicting pain (either emotional or physical). Punishment is often doled out with the idea that if the child experiences enough emotional/physical pain, they won't repeat that behaviour in the future. (More on the difference between punishment and consequences in a later post) This approach assumes that the child is intentionally choosing to behave in a certain way, and when they experience the pain of that choice, they won't do it again. When punishment doesn't work (which it typically doesn't), inevitably parents continue to pile on more and more punishment. This is typically done by
  • adding more of the same type of punishment
  • adding different punishments
  • intensifying the punishments, or
  • lengthening the time of the punishment.
One of the reasons this doesn't work is that it's usually perceived by your child to be unfair (and if that's the case, I'm sure you've heard them say so!). They don't understand the connection between what they did and the punishment. And when that connection isn't made, learning doesn't occur, but resentment sure does! So this parenting approach unintentionally damages the trust, safety, and respect within the parent-child relationship. When your child's feelings of trust, safety, and respect within the relationship decrease, they're even less likely to listen and behave for you. In addition to this, kids who struggle a lot tend to get a lot of attention for big emotions and challenging behaviours. And all that attention they're getting tends to (yup, you guessed it!) unintentionally increase the likelihood of those big emotions and challenging behaviours recurring again and again. It's a vicious cycle...

Outdated Approach #4: Spare the Rod (or the Yelling) and Spoil Your Child

Yelling, spanking, and similar approaches fall under the broad category of punishment, and the above information applies here as well. But I've chosen to give them their own special category for a couple of reasons. First of all, I don't think any well-intentioned parent sets out to yell or spank their child into submission. So this usually is more of a last-resort or unintentional approach to parenting that comes after an escalation of behaviour and emotions, or after a long time of attempting other methods of dealing with them. Secondly, while punishments such as losing privileges and other things are seen as unfair by the child, they are generally accepted and even encouraged approaches to parenting, even amongst professionals. Yelling and spanking, on the other hand, are more fear-based tactics. They can (and often do) lead to negative and lasting long-term impacts on a child's sense of safety within the parent-child relationship. They're less widely accepted by society as a whole, and are discouraged by professionals as an approach to dealing with misbehaviour. Advocates of spanking will argue the benefits of getting a child to comply. And of course, logically, this makes a lot of sense. As an adult, you're bigger, stronger, and have a great deal of power and control over your child. So of course in the short-term, with no other options for your child, you can get pretty quick compliance through yelling and spanking. However, the research very consistently shows that children who are consistently yelled at and/or spanked as children have much more negative outcomes as they move through childhood, adolescence, and even into adulthood. These include higher rates of:
  • physical illness and disease
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • future behaviour challenges
  • addictions
  • school-related problems
  • relationship problems, and
  • delinquency
So don't let the short-term benefits of compliance through these fear-based tactics fool you - you don't get something for nothing. The behaviours may stop for the moment in the short-term, which can trick us into believing that this approach works. But instead of getting less frequent over time, more often than not, the behaviours will persist, get worse, or shift to different (sneakier or less obvious) behaviours over time. So, with all of these parenting approaches being so ineffective (at best), what the heck can you actually do to get out of this cycle and find something that actually works?!? Well, let me tell you... I was never a spanker, but I sure was a rewards/punishments, reminders, lectures, naggy, and yes (gulp) even a yelly kind of mom (hey, I'm not perfect either...). But none of those things worked. I mean, at least not long-term. One day, several years ago, I was at a children's mental health conference and Ross Greene was speaking. (Side note: Ross Greene is amazing! I highly recommend anything by him for parenting in general, but especially if you have a child or teen that struggles with big emotions or challenging behaviours. You should seriously buy all of his books... as soon as you're done reading this post!) I will never forget this phrase, because as soon as he said it, it was like a lightbulb went off above my head (you know, like in the cartoons). I just had this huge "aha" moment. That realization of why none of these approaches had ever really worked all that well. That phrase was this...

"Kids Do Well If They Can"

He wen't on to say that it's not "Kids do well if they want to" or "Kids do well if we reward or punish them enough" or "Kids do well if we scare them enough". It's quite simply - kids do well if they can. And I finally understood it. The reason none of those approaches work in and of themselves, especially for kids who already struggle with emotional or behavioural challenges, is because we're not really taking a closer look at what's keeping our kids from listening or behaving in the first place. We're simply seeing that they're not, and trying to make them. It's kinda like trying to treat a gunshot wound with a bandaid. Sure, you can patch up the hole and slow the bleeding. And it might even appear on the surface like you've fixed it. But you're not actually treating the problem, you're just covering it up. And if you don't do something different real quick, it won't be long before you've got a much much bigger problem on your hands! You see, behaviour isn't just behaviour. It's so much more than that. Kids behaviours are the window to their thoughts, their emotions, their relationships, and their beliefs about themselves, others, and the world around them. If your kids aren't listening or aren't behaving, the vast majority of the time (Ross Greene would say all of the time, but hey, I'm a bit more of a realist) it's because they have some sort of skill that's lagging behind where it needs to be in order to follow the direction you've given or to behave in the way you're expecting. Read that phrase again and let it sink in for a moment...
"Kids do well if they can."
So if they don't do well or if they aren't doing well, they probably can't. And no amount of rewards or reminders or punishments or yelling is going to change that.

So How Does That Mean for My Parenting Approach?

It means that, in order to make lasting changes, to get your kids to listen or behave well, you first need to figure out what's getting in the way. And in order to figure that part out, you have to approach the situation from a place of curiosity.

Be Curious About Your Kids' Behaviour

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help guide you in the process:
  • What is it that they're having difficulty with, specifically?
  • Why are they struggling with it?
  • Are there changes that can be made in their environment that can set them up for greater success?
  • Are there things that you can be doing differently?
  • Do they just need more guidance, help, or support?
  • Do they require more time or better clarification of expectations?
  • Do you as a parent need to provide them with more consistency or accountability?

Ask For Your Kids' Thoughts and Opinions

Oftentimes, asking our kids a few questions can also be really helpful to get their perspective. And this can shed some light on their inner experiences as well. Younger kids might not know what they're feeling or thinking, so don't be surprised if they say "I don't know". They're not lying to you - they probably really have no idea. If they do, however, then listen to what they have to say, and be open to addressing their thoughts, fears, concerns, worries, or challenges. You might just be surprised at how solutions that may seem trivial or silly to us adults can totally be a game-changer for them! Have the conversation when you're both calm and able to talk, and start out by saying something like "I noticed it's been really hard for you to _________ lately, and I want to try to understand and help you." Here are a few questions you can ask your kids:
  • What part of [the situation] is the hardest for you?
  • You look really [insert feeling here] when [situation happens]. What makes you feel that way?
  • What do you think about when [situation happens]?
  • How do you feel when [situation happens]?
  • What can I do to help you?
  • What do you need from me?
  • What do you think we can do next time instead?
  • When you're feeling too [mad/scared/sad/worried] what helps you feel better?
Don't be afraid to try a few of their suggestions out if they do offer some insights or ideas. If nothing else, you'll have built up a foundation for talking about the tough stuff, and they'll see they can trust you to work with them to try to help solve their problems. At best, maybe they'll have a really simple solution you never would've thought of that will completely resolve the situation! That may seem a little far-fetched, but it does happen! Seriously! And I'm still (very pleasantly) surprised every time it does!

Create A Plan Together

Come up with a plan with your child. Let them know what's expected of them, and what they can expect from you. Tell them what you'll do differently or what they can do differently next time. Talk about your expectations, invite them to ask questions if they don't understand, and let them know how you will hold them accountable if needed. Be specific, and if possible, practice the steps you talked about! The practice is fun for little ones, and it really helps solidify the steps when they're calm and able to go through the motions, so that when it happens for real, they don't have to think as much about it.

Implement Your Plan

The next time your child is in that situation, remember the plan and implement it. They may need your guidance and support the first few times, and that's okay! Each time, they'll be learning, until eventually, they get it! Approach this like an experiment. You've tweaked some things, and now you're testing it out. It's not set in stone, so you can always revamp. But give it a good few attempts first (as long as there's no major safety issues that come up!). Sometimes, we jump ship too quickly if something doesn't go right the first time, so try to have patience and be consistent with implementing your plan for a while before deciding it's not working.

Evaluate Your Plan, and Repeat!

Here's where you need to ask yourself (when you're calm and able to think critically, rationally, and honestly) what worked, and what didn't? Even if it was a total disaster, you can gather some good information on what didn't work and why, which can get you closer to what might work better. Keep what worked, take the information on what didn't work and make any necessary changes, and implement the 2.0 version of your plan. Don't forget to get your kiddo's feedback as well, and simply repeat the steps above. This isn't a quick fix. It's a solid plan to get you slowly but surely to the root of the problem, and solve it once and for all! It will take time. You'll probably have some challenges and frustrations along the way. But focus on making little tweaks here and there, and eventually, you will get there! If this post was helpful, let me know! I love hearing about the incredible changes parents make in their own lives and the lives of their kiddos! Seriously - that's why I do what I do! Good luck to you!