If you therapeutically treat children and or adolescents with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, you often hear parents ask the question: “can you get my child to behave?” However, the question a parent should really be asking is: “can you help me get my child to behave.” What we have here is a psychological “chicken or egg” dilemma. Do you work with the child first, or the parent(s) first. Things that make you go hmmm?
At the Albert Ellis Institute and in my own private practice, I always conduct a full assessment of the parents and the home environment to determine if the child’s behavior is the result of a specific psychosocial stressor or a systemic, dysfunctional parent(s) or home environment. In my experience it is often a top down issue; that is, it is usually due to ineffective parenting and the maintaining conditions of the home environment. Perhaps the parenting style may work for one sibling, but not for another. The full assessment reveals the ineffectiveness of the parenting style with a particular child and from there I begin to work with the parents first and may never have to see the child. In this case it is the parents who come first and, change first.
It is important for parents to know that they are role models and that their behavior and attitudes serve as the first examples of human behavior, which their children are likely to observe and imitate. Because children have a limited frame of reference, if they observe parents behaving in a certain manner, they are likely to follow suit, whether the behavior is appropriate or inappropriate. For example, I have had parents tell their children to stop cursing while the parents continue to freely curse. I have had parents tell their kids to stop screaming while the parents are screaming at the kids to stop screaming. Finally, I have had parents who tell their kids that being physically aggressive is inappropriate and unacceptable, yet the parents were physically aggressive with their kids. If parents’ behaviors do not match their stated expectations and rules, a mixed message will be communicated to their children; and children focus more so on behavior than words. As such, it is important for parents to avoid the phrase, “do as I say, not as I do.” This statement almost never works with kids.
In many cases parent training is the solution. Parent training draws upon decades of research demonstrating the effectiveness of psychology applied to parent-child interactions. Parent training addresses issues of effective behavior change from the blatant to the subtle. The implementation of any behavior change requires a number of essentials to be successful. First, you as the parent must be willing to make the necessary changes in your behaviors and attitudes. Second is the unwavering commitment to make your child a priority. Parent training and behavior modification requires commitment and consistency. Even if done correctly it takes time, not just one or two days or tries. When I hear parents tell me behavior modification does not work it is usually some type of incorrect application of the principles involved, and not that a particular child is the spawn of Satan and not that the principles will not work. Third, it also requires that the parents’ frustration tolerance exceed their child’s frustration tolerance during the “extinction burst” period. So, if your child is the spawn of Satan, give parent training and behavior modification a try and trade in his or her horns for a halo.
Next up: Haley Elder, M.A., on Negotiating Anger in the Apple