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Written by Jodie Martin Category: Common Issues
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Family Counseling

Parenting as a Skill


Parents are made, not born! Learning how to deal effectively with another human being (either adult or child) is a skill-specific exercise in communication.  Parents are often confronted with limitations in their skills as children mature and begin to test limits.  It is natural to want to meet one's own needs and it may be difficult to get others to delay meeting those needs for the sake of family harmony.  It is necessary for families to learn more about effective communication skills and how to apply those skills in developing a structured reinforcement program to use across a broad spectrum of different settings both within and outside the home.


Communication Skill Training


People have ears but they do not hear, they have eyes but they do not see!  Corporations in America spend millions of dollars each year on educational programs designed to teach and improve communication skills.  Being able to understand and to seek clarification as needed is an essential ingredient to successful living in today's complex society. 


Active listening requires that you provide feedback to the other person by offering paraphrased comment concerning what you heard them say.  It requires that you slow your thought process down and that you process the information more thoroughly.  Concentrating on what the other person has said is important to achieving an understanding of what is being considered.


Body language may represent as much as 75% of the message we send to other people.   Knowing what the body is saying is another part of how we communicate.


Token Economy Development


The term "token economy" developed out of research in the 1960s with autistic children.  These children, born with a genetic defect which left them largely unaware of the world around them, displayed significant behavioral problems.  They would engage in repetitive head banging and other self-injurious behavior.  In attempting to gain control over this behavior researchers developed a behavior specific approach using the principles of reinforcement.  Using simple M & M candies the child was trained to extinguish the inappropriate behavior and increase the appropriate behavior.  A graduated method of reinforcement dramatically increased these children's ability to function and be responsive.


Developing a program for your child consists of several specific components.  These include (1) the behaviors you wish for him/her to engage in (2) the rewards he/she desires and (3) a tracking system for these two parts.


First you will need to set down with your child/teenager and identify what are the activities or items which they would like to possess or engage in.  For example, an elementary child might enjoy staying up past the assigned bedtime.  A teenager might enjoy renting a videogame or going out with friends.  These activities should include not only special events such as going to the movies or weekend trips, but also the everyday actions such as watching television and telephone use. It is important that this goal be achieved in cooperation with your child/teenager.


Second, you will need to identify what are the behaviors you would like to encourage with your child/teenager.  Cleaning up his/her room, taking out the trash, completing homework assignments without repeated conflict are examples of typical "target behaviors". 


Then,  you will assign relative weights (either "tokens" or "points") for each activity.  The goal is to offer the highest payoff for those activities which are most desired so that the child/teenager is most responsive to completing those particular behaviors. Let the child know that "bonus" chips or points are available for the quick compliance with a request. You should give these chips out when the child has responsed in a particularly helpful manner or is pleasant in interaction toward completion of the task. Typically you will use poker chips for preschool and elementary school age children while you would use abstract "points" for your teenager.


Assign a relative value to each chip so that you have denominations.  A white chip might be worth one (1) while a blue is worth five (5) and a red worth ten (10).  Keep the chips in a secure location that is not accessible by the child.  Help your child to make a bank for their chips so that they can feel involved in the process. 


As these relative weights are assigned you will then develop a "Daily Tracking Sheet" which consists of a single page listing the assignments completed and the activities engaged in.  Much like an accounting sheet this form enables you to track the relative effectiveness of the program.  An example sheet is attached for your review.


Several points should be kept in mind as you begin working with this program.


Number 1: The language of the program must be behavioral in description.  This means that your conversations with the child/teenager should be focused on measurable, observable behaviors.  "Cleaning up your room" is unclear in meaning while "clothes in cabinet, dirty clothes in hamper, dishes to kitchen and sheets straight on bed" is behavioral specific.  The activities should be described sufficiently so that someone not present could perform them.


Number 2: The "Cinderella" effect is critical to avoid hording of points/tokens.  Remember what happened at the stroke of midnight to Cinderella.  For the purpose of this program you should remind your child/teenager that all points/tokens collected through the week are returned to the bank on Sunday (or whatever day you choose).  This avoids the excessive accumulation of points with the child.


Number 3: If other children are in the house you will most likely need to establish a behavioral program for each of them.  Otherwise the one child may feel singled out.  This also takes advantage of the natural competition between siblings.  However, be aware of the need to establish unique programs for each child.


Number 4: Points/tokens are not taken away during the first part of the program.  It has been observed that if you "catch kids being bad" you often have bad kids with the reverse ("catch kids being good") being also true.  Although the program will develop into extracting a cost for inappropriate behavior through a reduction in points or payment of tokens, it is important that you start off with a positive approach.  It is not uncommon that starting with such an approach often is sufficient so that negative reinforcement is not necessary.


Number 5: It is critical that you have reinforcement available both in an immediate as well as delayed form.  This is particularly true for younger children who may have little concept of time.  You need to reward appropriate behavior as soon as you can, in some cases immediately.  Don't simply give the child a token for good behavior, but rather specifically point out what they did and why they are receiving the token. 


Number 6: Pay attention to your child.  It is not uncommon that the child gets no reward for appropriate behavior and may need to misbehave to get the attention of a parent.  Early in the program you need to establish a time when you focus exclusive attention on your child in a special "playtime".  Do not direct this playtime but rather participate by commenting on what you observe and offer strong encouragement of appropriate behavior. 


Number 7: While there is a requirement for documentation it is essential that this be done on a daily basis.  Both parents in the home need to understand and be involved in the daily tracking of behavior.  Inconsistency of a parent means that the program will not provide a measured sense of reinforcement.


Number 10: Learning to give effective commands is important.  Parents, in their communication with children, may phrase a directive in a passive manner, or as a simple request. 

Empathy in Kids

Supper was not going well for 2-year-old Benjamin. As his frustrations escalated to the brink of a full-on tantrum, his 4-year-old sister, Ellie, assessed the scene. "He's angry," she told her mother, Susan Rivers, of Newton, Massachusetts. "What can we do to make him happy?" With her mom's help, Ellie brainstormed a few options. Perhaps they could offer Benjamin a cookie. Or maybe playing with his Legos would bring him out of his spiral. "She was really trying to understand his feelings and figure out what strategies she could use to reduce his frustration and cheer him up," Rivers says.

Ellie's concern for her brother is touching, to be sure. But it could also be the key to her having a more joyful life. Empathy -- the ability to understand and be sensitive to other people's feelings -- helps us to be more deeply attached to our family, friends, and even strangers. "Empathy is probably the greatest single gift of our species," says Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy, in Houston, and the coauthor of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential -- and Endangered. "We wouldn't have been able to survive without creating relationships and groups that could function together."

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is also a crucial building block for other caring emotions. "It's how we develop gratitude, hope, and compassion -- which is the ability to act on your empathy," explains Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist and happiness expert at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. One study there found that kids as young as 18 months could master a key component of empathy: the ability to tune in to people's emotions. By age 4, they move beyond making physical caring gestures and start to think about others' feelings in relation to their own. Many of these responses happen naturally, but you can make a more conscious effort to promote empathy-boosting experiences for your children. Consider these 11 things you can do to raise a truly caring child.

Show Empathy to Others

Your son notices if you are rude to your server when she brings you the wrong order. That's why San Francisco mom Kat Eden tries to be understanding when others make mistakes. Eden follows up with her sons, ages 5 and 7, with statements and questions such as, "I wonder how the waitress was feeling when she gave me the wrong meal" and "How do you think it would feel to be that busy at your job?"

Write Genuine Thank-You Notes

Eden also helps her kids move beyond the standard "Thank you for the Polly Pocket" boilerplate by asking questions such as, "What would it be like if you spent a lot of time choosing a great gift for a friend and she didn't thank you?" and "How do you think Timmy will feel when he gets his very own letter in the mail?" Don't insist that your child pen the note herself -- if she's young enough that merely thinking about what to say is a huge task, write it for her and let her sign it.

Be Consistent

If you tell your daughter to be mindful that her words have an impact on others' feelings but then you turn around and lay into your husband for some minor misstep, you're sending her confusing messages, says Robin Stern, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of communications andeducation at Columbia University's Teachers College, in New York City. So apologize to your husband in front of your daughter. Then say something like, "I was feeling really sad that Daddy had to work tonight, and I took it out on him. I'm sorry I acted mean."


Boost Her "Feelings Vocabulary"

Spend a few minutes each day pointing out different expressions and giving them a name -- happy, sad, mad, angry. You can ask your preschooler to help make "feelings flash cards" by cutting out pictures of faces from magazines and gluing them to index cards. As your child gets older, the emotions can get more nuanced -- surprise, shyness, confusion, irritation -- and you can add body language to the facial gestures. When you read books together, encourage your child to name the emotions of the different characters.


Praise Each Other Daily

Use mealtime as an opportunity for emotional reflection. "Try to resist fighting about food so you can focus on simply being together," says Dr. Perry. That's what the Cleveland family, of Minneapolis, does. They start their dinners by having each person, including their sons, ages 10 and 12, offer one compliment and one thank-you. "Some nights it's as simple as the fact that we're having hamburgers, but they appreciate the effort I took to make them. It's a nice way to connect," says Anne, the boys' mother.

Recognize Kindness

When you watch your daughter offering a playmate some apple slices, call attention to it by saying, "That was very kind of you to give her a few when you didn't have very many." Then add something like, "I'll bet she was a little envious that you brought a snack to the park when she didn't. How do you think it made your friend feel when you shared with her?"

But Don't Overdo It

Sure, it's great that your son can thank the convenience-store clerk. But lavishing praise on him for fairly ordinary tasks won't make him more empathetic. "Overpraising is a distraction," says Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., author of The Self-Esteem Trap. "When kids expect praise for very small accomplishments, it actually gets in the way of their thinking about other people's needs."

Address Your Child's Needs

If it's the middle of the afternoon and your toddler is melting down, Dr. Carter suggests you say something like, "You probably need a nap. I get grouchy when I'm tired too. Let's go home and lie down." This shows in a warm and loving way that you understand and respect how she's feeling.

Promote Emotional Literacy

A growing number of schools have programs that teach social and emotional skills. Exploring a topic on an emotional level lets children get more involved in a subject -- and therefore remember what they are taught, says Marc Brackett, Ph.D., deputy director of Yale University's Health, Emotion, and Behavior Laboratory and lead developer of the Ruler Approach to Social and Emotional Learning, which includes a Feeling Words curriculum for pre-K through 12th-grade classes. So when kids learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, they also spend time talking about how his wife, Coretta Scott King, felt on that awful day and how they would have felt if they were Dr. King's widow.


Parenting Skills

The Key to Family Harmony

Being consistent -- setting limits for your child and sticking to them -- is a proven way to inspire cooperation, kindness, good manners, and more. We've got tricks to help you stand firm.

By Alisa Bowman from Parents Magazine

When we were on vacation with my parents, my father cooked an unusual pasta, chicken, and vegetable concoction. My 6-year-old, Kaarina, looked at it and said, "What is that?"

"I can make you something else," Dad told her.

"No, she'll be fine," I said. After all, she normally has the choice between eating what I've cooked or eating nothing at all, and that rule had been working wonderfully for us.

My dad ignored me and went back into the kitchen. Then he returned with grilled cheese.

Not wanting to make waves, I told myself, "We're on vacation. Let it go." I let it go night after night as he made her one special dish after another.

Two weeks later at home, I made chicken and corn on the cob, which Kaarina had always liked. That night, however, she whined, "I hate corn on the cob!"

"You don't have to eat it," I responded calmly. "You know the rule. You can eat this or eat nothing. It's your choice."

She started wailing and I sent her to her room. When I checked on her, she screamed that she hated me. When I checked again, she proclaimed that I was the worst mother in the world. The episode dragged on for more than an hour, leaving me drained. Had I set myself up for this power struggle? Probably. If I'd just stuck to our usual food policy on vacation and firmly told my mild-mannered father not to cook Kaarina different meals, I'm sure her tantrum would have been averted. "If you give in one out of ten times, it's worse than giving in every time," says Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct and a lecturer at Stanford University. Inconsistent parenting -- enforcing rules, routines, and consequences sometimes but not always -- encourages kids to do exactly what we don't want them to do: whine, complain, bargain, question our judgment, and ignore us.

Of course, being perfectly consistent is easier said than done. For example, even if you have a "30 minutes of TV a day" rule, you might break it when you're on the phone and need your kids to be quiet. Or, like me, you might expect your kids to follow a rule that you don't always follow yourself. Kaarina isn't allowed to say the word stupid at school and yet I often say it at home, especially when I'm referring to our new dog who's just destroyed something else in the house.

However, being a predictable parent should be your ultimate goal. "Consistency lets children know that they have a decision: They can listen to you or they can live with the consequences," says Patti Cancellier, education coordinator for the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Maryland. To help you stay strong and inspire great behavior, consider these common reasons why parents cave.



Your kid whines for candy on the checkout line. You say, "No." She drops to the floor and does that thing that causes single people to roll their eyes and whisper, "Natural birth control." Now you're the store's main attraction. "You feel anxious and uncomfortable and you just want that feeling to go away," says Dr. McGonigal. So you buy the candy, and your kid turns off the tears. The problem, of course, is that this only sets you up for a repeat episode that will be louder than the first.

The Solution

Weigh the short-term payoff of giving her what she wants (ending the meltdown, buying your groceries in peace) against the long-term cost of giving in (future tantrums that are more mortifying). Then slow down your breathing, taking ten seconds for each breath. This will activate your prefrontal cortex -- the self-control center of the brain -- and make the hard job of parenting feel easier, says Dr. McGonigal. With your new resolve, you might ditch the groceries and take your kid straight to the car. Or you might leave her on the floor to finish the tantrum. I tried the latter strategy recently when Kaarina had a conniption on a beach boardwalk. I sat on a bench while she writhed and screamed belly down right in front of me. Yes, people stared, but no one called the police and her antics did come to an end.

Faulty Reasoning

This was my mistake when we were on our trip with my parents. I thought, "Two weeks of unhealthy eating isn't going to mess this kid up for life. Why bother my dad about this?" Perhaps you've come to a similar conclusion, but it was "What's the harm in five more minutes of video games?" or "One late night isn't a big deal." Except it is a big deal. If you bend the rules this time, you are only giving your kid more power next time -- power that you can be sure he will use against you with a comment like, "You let me stay up last night. Why can't I stay up later tonight?" These are some other types of faulty reasoning:

My child didn't do what I said, so I should ask again. And again. And again, more loudly. Rather than getting your child's attention, this encourages him to tune you out, says Cancellier. He thinks, "I know my mom isn't going to do anything about this until she asks me the sixth time and she's very angry." So he waits for the sixth ask.

I want my kid to cooperate, so I'll threaten the worst possible punishment I can think of and pray that he behaves so I don't have to actually punish him. If you don't follow through with this mega-consequence, however, your child will learn that you don't really mean what you say, and he's probably going to rebel even more, says family therapist Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting.

The Solution

Only ask your child once, stand next to him with a hand on his back and a smile on your face, and wait, suggests Cancellier. If he's giving you a hard time about a decision you've made, restate your position and shift his attention away from what he wants right now -- more TV time or potato chips -- to something he wants in the future. You might say, "You're not going to have more TV now, but if you go to bed without a fuss, you can have TV again tomorrow."

If you still have a battle on your hands, it's time for a consequence -- one that you can and will execute, even if it seems a bit wimpy. Maybe you take TV away for only three minutes. Next time you can take it way for ten. This is more effective than threatening, "I'll take it away for a month," and never doing it. "If you warn him that you'll take it away for three minutes and follow through, next time he'll think, 'I better listen because she's really going to do it,' " says Runkel.


You're on the phone and your kid asks you for a cookie. You say, "Whatever, honey," and hand her the package so she can take one herself. You don't think about it again until later when you find the empty box and a bunch of crumbs on her bedroom floor. Been there?

Being distracted weakens our resolve and erodes our memories, causing us to forget the rules and consequences we're trying to be consistent about, says Runkel. This happens whenever we're trying to do two things at once, as well as when we're hungry, stressed, or sleep deprived.

The Solution

You need to be rested to be a consistent parent, so be just as strict about your own bedtime as you are about your child's. Also take a hard look at your schedule and your family's schedule, too, suggests Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It -- and Mean It. Consider cutting back on playgroups or extracurricular activities if they make you feel anxious and rushed. Remind yourself that not every e-mail or text needs to be answered today, the house doesn't have to be immaculate, and many of the items on your to-do list can wait until tomorrow or even until next week or month. For tasks that require your full concentration, try not to multitask. If you need to pay bills or use the computer when your children are around, plan to put your spouse in charge.


We all have situations that tend to push our buttons and make us want to give in. Your child might say, "Dylan's mom doesn't force him to do it!" when you ask him to put away his toys, or "I hate you" after you impose an unpopular consequence. Whatever the trigger, it causes us to second-guess ourselves and wonder, "Am I being too hard on him?"

The Solution

Think about how fortunate your child really is. He is clothed, fed, loved, and sheltered. He might even have a room full of toys, too. Then flip the guilt, suggests Runkel: Feel guilty about not being consistent rather than about standing firm. "You don't promise to give your kid a puppy for Christmas and then give him a stuffed animal instead. If you say you're going to do something and don't follow through, you're breaking a promise," he says. Remind yourself of all the gifts consistency gives your child: security, stability, dependability, and so much more. Then, rather than feeling guilty, you'll be able to enjoy the sound of his feet stomping up the stairs to straighten up his room because you'll know you are not the worst parent in the world. On the contrary, you just might be one of the best.


Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Parents magazine.



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