What are the issues around "control" with a child?

The issue of "control" is more philosophical than question-and-answer, where Ward's thoughts on the matter should be considered before getting more-deeply into the therapeutic process with yourself or a child.

There are dozens of ways to parent and, Ward believes strongly, neither one is any more right than another. However, there are also varying degrees of effectiveness, and some ways are far, far less effective than others. On one end, parents who attempt to control every aspect of their children's lives - especially when the children are in their middle to later teen years - find themselves battling ineffectively and ultimately losing. It's not uncommon for teenagers trying to assert themselves to move out inappropriately (sometimes into dangerous situations) because their parent or parents weren't able to find compromises or negotiate solutions. For younger children, attempting to control everything can build long-term resentment. On the other end, parents who allow their children virtually unbridled reign over the family, school, and community - kids who can do most anything they want - are setting themselves up for a very serious problem in the future. Children who are allowed to use violence, aggression, verbal threats, crying, or other inappropriate methods to get what they want have an extremely difficult time in society, especially as they age.

How do I balance "control" with my own children?

Ward has a saying: "Moderation in all things, including moderation". This speaks to parenting as well as most qualities of life. A parent must provide "lots of love and lots of discipline" to be effective - learning to do this well is an art form, one that few parents accomplish entirely, although many struggle successfully with it over the years. One of the first steps is to determine whether control is really necessary. This is known as "picking your battle" as a parent. Does it matter that much if your 11-year-old son doesn't like the neighbor kid, or your 5-year-old is crying because she didn't get her way? Parents oftentimes make the mistake of not letting children fail, and learn, on their own. But in issues of control that do matter, such as going to bed at night, avoiding dangerous situations, or being able to follow directions from an adult, parents need to win, they need to be in charge. For parents who have a particularly difficult time figuring out how to do this, a specialist in child and family therapy such as Ward is a good resource, even if you only meet him for two or three sessions, and even if it's just to realize you're doing the right thing and only need to do more of it.

How do I negotiate with an angry, oppositional teenager?

It's not easy, and it's particularly difficult without a third party involved. However, for parents who realize their child is too old to simply be told what to do (in other words, the battles are really starting to interfere with the child and family's ability to function), negotiation is the most appropriate process.

The first step I negotiation with a teenager is to establish rapport. The means setting aside - for the moment, at least - emotions and personal feelings about the topic. This is NOT the time for lecturing. If it's about whether to use the family car, stay out later, or see a boyfriend who's not approved by the parents, for example, parents and teenagers need to keep the situation in perspective. No one will live or die over this issue. In ten years you'll all probably laugh about it, even though it seems deeply serious right now. This is an excellent time to use some humor and self-deprecation. It's also a very appropriate time to show equality and respect for the teenager, to bring him or him "to the negotiation table" in a far and equitable way. This means truly seeing the teenager as a young adult, not a child, who will find a way to agree on some kind of compromise and stick to it (possible failure, and the response, will be built into the compromise in a moment…).

The second step is to write down, on paper, intended goals. The teenager should spell out what he or she ultimately wants, being as reasonable as possible, as should the adult. The challenge here is to determine what ultimately matters and whether there are some common themes. Writing the goals down helps to remove some of the tension and emotion.

The third step is to look closely at the goals and see if there aren't "smaller" versions of each that could be accomplished first. If so, a sense of trust and success can begin, which helps move the parent and teenager toward the second step of more compromise. Moving little by little breeds accomplishment, bits at a time. For example, if a father doesn't approve of his 17-year-old daughter's boyfriend, attempting to control her contact with him is only going to lead to escalating conflict. The father and daughter could, instead, spell out what they ultimately want. He might want her to go to school regularly, achieve certain grades, be home at certain times, and do some particular chores around the house. In exchange, his daughter might only have the boyfriend over to the house and restrict phone calls to 15 minutes. Once some time has passed, they can agree to the next step, where she will achieve significantly higher grades, for example, and her father will allow her to go out on weekends. Over time, with success, there is more and more compromise, and conflict is greatly reduced because both "parties" are working toward the same goal.

What is incremental consequencing?

Incremental consequencing is the practice of responding to a child's misbehavior (which should be clearly against the rules - no gray here) with a consistent, increasing response. For example, a child may refuse to clean his room. His mother then gives him a clear, warning (the first step) with a specific consequence for his continued refusal. If he still doesn't clean his room, his mother counts to five. Assuming he ignores her, the boy is sent to a time out chair or a place nearby where he is made to feel uncomfortable and can't have what he wants. If he refuses to go there, or doesn't take his "space" appropriately, then he is sent to his room. If the child is unsafe or explosive in his room, the police are called. If the child continues to be dangerous, he is taken to a hospital for protection and stabilization. There are no exceptions - the child is up against a wall of accountability that denies him the ability to take control back from the mother. All she has to do is stick with the plan.

Incremental consequencing helps parents by ensuring they're following virtually the exact same procedure of accountability for their child, and it helps the child by laying out the specific responses to their behaviors. Ultimately, the child simply gives up fighting for control and follows the rules. It's rather simple, although putting such a plan into practice takes serious discipline, simplicity, respectful handling of emotions, and consistency from the parents.

Where can I go for help?

Of course, Ward Halverson is the best first resource in the Herkimer County area for issues about children and family. He understands the challenges that parents face on a daily basis - particularly as a parent of four children himself. Every day Ward works with children and their parents to help them find success - one family at a time.