Dear Dr. Meg,
We have a strong willed son who is 11, and the third of four. We have a lot of challenges in our household, an older brother with Aspergers- I could ask questions all day… Our 11 year old son struggles with controlling his temper and his mouth. He yells at us, screams, stomp his feet, refuses to do what we ask without force. Half the time he is charming and silly, if a little pestery, half the time he is quite a monster. This is not the question, the problem is that we have been working on this endlessly, we have been disciplining, talking, explaining- he’s gotten spankings, been grounded, done push ups, and still it continues. We don’t see any improvement, his control is not any better. This is embarrassing, exhausting, and confusing.
What do you do when the regular discipline doesn’t work?
Dr. Meg’s Response:
Your 11 year old doesn’t sound like a very fun person to be around so let’s help him become a nicer person. I suspect that you are making one or two very simple mistakes. Parents do this when they are exhausted- particularly when you have the stress of living with a child with special needs.
Here’s where I would start. Sit down with your husband if you are married and discuss two behaviors that you won’t tolerate in your son. Write them down. You may each have different behaviors but the two of you decide on two that you are going to go to war over (and at this point, war is involved) with him.
Then, decide what consequences you want to enforce when your son does these two things. You need to do some detective work here and find out what his “Achilles heel” is. All kids have one. Does he love being on the computer, to watch certain shows, or play baseball? Is he on a soccer team he loves?
Once you both decide the two things you won’t tolerate and what you will take away if he disobeys you, then both of you sit down with your son when life is calm and have a discussion with him. Do this when he’s in a good mood. I would say something like this:
“Son, Dad and I have noticed that you are yelling mean things to us and we wouldn’t be good parents if we allowed you to keep doing this. It’s disrespectful to us and to you. So here’s what we’re going to do. ANY time you yell mean things to us, you won’t be allowed to go to baseball practice. I know this sounds harsh but you are important and your behavior is important.”
He may get mad or even start yelling. At this point, stay calm and tell him “Do you see what I mean? This is unacceptable. Dad and I are fine with negotiating with you about certain things and we will always listen to you if you’re upset, but no yelling at us is allowed. From this point on, we will not tolerate it. Do you understand?”
Ask if he has questions. He probably won’t and he’ll run off in a huff. This is normal. Now, the horse has left the gate and he is preparing to test you. Soon he’ll do exactly what you told him not to do and NO MATTER how tired you are, the consequences you explained are given. I don’t care if his baseball team is in state finals, he won’t go to practice and if he yells again, he won’t go to the tournament. I don’t care if he has his cell phone taken away for six months or if he you take his computer away for good. No backing down. This is important because he will try to wear you out so that you’ll cave. He knows he can do this and he’ll simply wait as long as it takes for you to give in because he knows that you will. You have a history together. He may scream, run to his room and slam doors but he’s cooking his own goose.
If you’re exhausted, you probably have given up on consequences because you feel they either don’t work or you’re too tired to implement them. When you reach this point, strong-willed kids feel like they have you over a barrel. They feel they can do whatever they want because they’ll just make your life more miserable until you give in.
Once you restart down this path, it is imperative that you not give in. The most important thing you need to accomplish in the next month, if you do nothing else (cook, perform well at work, clean, etc.,) is to make sure that you do not reneg on the consequences. You must stand firm until he reaches his “breaking point.” All kids have one and it will take your son a while to get there but finally, when he realizes that you mean business, he’ll cave and obey your two rules. He will find that it’s not worth disobeying because the punishment isn’t worth it.
It may take your son one month or two but I promise, he’ll break if you are strong. You and his father need to be a united front here. Once he gets that you are serious, then you can add another rule and another and he will listen much more readily. Remember too, that your goal is to get him to obey you in these two areas.
There is only one reason kids disobey their parents repeatedly: because they can. They wear parents down so that we give up. This is death to us. So stay tough, keep things simple and once you declare war, there’s no going back. And remember this when you want to cave or start yelling back at him. In a few short years he will have a set of car keys in his hands. If you don’t get him to yield to you now, he could kill himself.
Finally, make sure to check how you are relating to him. If you yell at him and you ask him to stop yelling, then you must stop. Don’t ask him to do something that you aren’t doing. If you are disrespectful to him, it’s tough to ask him to respect you. So be sure to take inventory on your behavior to make sure you are being the parent that you really want to be.