Relationship Building: An Alternative to Consequences and Punishment

I work with many parents who have “little people:” Children that fall into the 2-5 age range when the urge for independence and assertiveness create all sorts of behavioral problems. This is also the time when separation anxiety appears and children become clingy and controlling. The urge for independence creates power struggles between child and parent and parents often hear the word “No!” coming from their child and see folded arms and tantrum-like behavior. Parents are often shocked by this and feel fear and the need to “nip it in the bud” and deliver harsh consequences in order to prevent the behavior from happening again. The parents are often surprised to see the behavior raise its ugly head again just a little while later. Our culture has labeled this time as the “terrible two’s” and new parents will often live with dread as they look upon their precious infant and think that in just a few years this precious baby will sprout wings and scales and spew fire killing us all. I hate this. The real reason behind society’s view of the “terrible two’s” is the idea that I, the parent, should be able to have my life the way I want it and my kids just better get with the program or else they are “bad” and “stupid.” Many parents will use spanking repeatedly, thinking that this will extinguish defiant behavior during these years, and most who’ve used it sheepishly admit to me that it doesn’t work.

Now, I am not a counselor who thinks that a child should not receive consequences, in fact, quite the opposite. I am a teacher of consequences but the consequences that I teach are those that are natural consequences (“Those who refuse to pick up their toys will lose the privilege of playing with them” “When you scream at me I can’t hear what you’re saying” “Those that want to play sports will have their homework done and get good grades”) The consequences that I teach preserve and create relationship; these consequences teach the child something and help build character and responsibility. Spanking says, “If I catch you you’re going to get it!” Spanking is usually done out of the parent’s fear and anger and I always ask parents “If spanking worked, why do you have to do it again and again?” I don’t want to get into a dissertation about spanking, it is a topic for another time. However, I want to help parents understand what is going on during this “defiant” stage and help you see an alternative for coming up with consequences for defiance.

First, the brain is doing some major changing during the ages of 2 – 5. Cognitive awareness increases, emotional maturity expands, and the process of being able to reason, think, and make decisions develops. The result: The child can do more for herself, think better, converse about all sorts of new things, and understand more of how the world works. The downside: FEAR. The child begins to see that things die, people move away, babies are born which takes away time from ME, Mom might forget me, etc. You get the idea. Children instinctively know that to be connected to caregivers is the number one way to survive, but they also are beginning the journey of independence which will take them into adulthood. The child’s behavior that appears to be negative is usually a way to get Mom or Dad’s attention. I spoke with a parent last week whose four-year-old began waking up in the middle of the night and asking for water, a story, even a Band-Aid for a “boo-boo.” I helped Mom see that the real issue was fear, and that what her child wanted was reassurance and comfort because at her stage in development the increase cognitive awareness had made the child realize that she could be forgotten or abandoned. The mom and I created a plan for the mom to build relationship with her daughter for 10 – 15 minutes each evening, instead of punishing the “clingy” behavior. The mom let me know a few days later that the negative behavior was gone and she was grateful. The girl was sleeping through the night again. The mom told me that she joined her daughter in play by simply sitting on the floor while her daughter played around her and the mom let her daughter join her in some new chores that satisfied the daughter’s desire to help and be in control. The mom was very grateful and she realized that her efforts to punish the negative behavior had only made things worse.

Second, when you see your child’s new “defiant” behavior don’t be shocked. Think “Aha, this is my child growing to a new level.” Welcome it, and celebrate it. How do you do that? Make time for relationship and find outlets for the new energy. Some examples are:

-New Chores (washing dishes, helping with the yard, washing the car, unloading groceries, etc.)

-New Challenges (learning to ride a bike, introduce an instrument, climbing, building, painting, etc.)

-New Cognitive Awareness (going on nature walks to notice new bugs, animals, and plants; reading higher level of books together, going to museums, libraries, etc.)

-New Play (learning a new sport, practicing a new skill like a video game or pretend play with puppets, LEGO figures, Dolls, etc.)

Each of these has one common component: RELATIONSHIP. Each gives us a chance to teach, be taught by our child, and both learn through spending time together. Shoot for 10-15 minutes a day, and a bit longer on weekends or when there is more “down” time. I often tell parents that they are great “managers” but lousy companions in relationship. Kids at the ages of transition, regardless of the age, need relationship with parents or caregivers to remain emotionally stable. For example, many teens are “bored” and hibernate because the parent has given up on attempting to build relationship because they are waiting for the parent to come to him. The teen is really wishing for the parent to notice them or create a space for time and relationship but they won’t put it into words. Defiant behavior at the teen stage is a clear indication of a need for new chores, responsibility, getting a job, and also relationship with the parent.

Remember to examine your child’s defiance and I hope you see it in a new way. Outright disrespect needs consequences and you as a parent should have a “policy and procedure” manual to deal with it. However, don’t discount the need for relationship and that often, building relationship removes the need for consequences because the real reason for the kid’s behavior is a desire for reassurance, comfort, and connection. They are discouraged or feeling insecure, but they can’t put it into words. I hope this helps you as you move forward in your parenting journey!