If you’re a parent of a toddler, this situation will sound all too familiar: It’s 5:30 p.m., you’re just about finished preparing dinner and your toddler is screaming at the top of his lungs, refusing to wait for his dessert. He wants his ice cream right now and is intent on acting out until he gets his way.
Based on his past behavior, you know he won’t eat his dinner if he fills up on dessert, therefore you repeatedly explain to him that he will have to wait.
Your words, as usual, fall on deaf ears, and despite your best efforts to reason with him in a gentle manner — which requires every last bit of patience you can muster — his tantrums escalate rather than dissipate.
So, you go to phase two: time-out. You instruct him to go into his time-out corner and silently pray he will sit still, think over his bad behavior and emerge from his corner a renewed, well-tempered kid.
In my house, this scenario got played out many times a day with my then 3-year-old, who would simply wail in his time-out corner and then would gradually inch his way out.
For many beleaguered parents the time-out approach simply doesn’t work since it doesn’t change or halt the bad behavior — it just transfers the problem to another room.
Enter Dr. Beth Grosshans, a child psychologist who has worked with over 400 families on issues pertaining to children’s demands. In her new book, “Beyond Time-Out, From Chaos to Calm” (Sterling Publishing 2008) — which I now consider a trusted resource and reference — she offers parents a discipline program to help parents manage their child’s behavior when time-out is an ineffective option.
“Many parents are struggling and at a loss when helping their children at basic functions like sleeping alone, eating, exercising self-control, respect and cooperation,” Dr. Grosshans said in a recent phone interview. “Although they’re trying harder than ever to be good parents, the strategies they’ve been given are simply digging their holes deeper.”
The psychologist believes the chaos that has taken over so many households is due to an “imbalance of family power” (IFP) — in which power has been taken away from the parents and transferred to the kids.
In order for our kids to embody all the characteristics we wish for them, such as independence and good judgment, it is predicated upon them having parents who are in the lead,” said Dr. Grosshans.
“Unfortunately, in far too many homes, it’s the kids who rule the roost and when kids run a family, they ruin a family and, unfortunately, themselves along with it.”
Dr. Grosshans is quick not to point fingers at parents, rather believes this IFP phenomenon is a result of the prevalent parenting advice over the last 40 years, which encourages parents to talk, negotiate and reason with their kids.
This advice, although motivated by the best of intentions, has created a generation of parents who have transferred their power to their kids and are intimidated about asserting their roles as authority figures.
“The surprising thing is that kids with IFP are actually struggling with too much power and as a result become extremely anxious and oftentimes their anxiety is not diagnosed as such,” said the author.
She noted kids who live in a family with IFP will suffer both short- and long-term consequences that extend far beyond tantrums if it is not swiftly corrected.
“These kids tend to be less responsible, lack a sense of purpose and tend to blame others. They have a false sense of entitlement and ultimately their relationships suffer,” she said.
In her book, Dr. Grosshans identifies four parenting styles which almost always result in IFP: The pleaser, the pushover, the forcer and the outlier.
The pleaser is a parent who will do anything to avoid upsetting his child while the pushover, a cousin of the pleaser, completely defers to her child’s desires. The forcer refuses to take his child’s feelings into consideration and is a strict disciplinarian and the outlier is emotionally distant from her child.
When kids in IFP families misbehave, the majority of parents will put their kids in time-out and ignore their tantrums. But according to Dr. Grosshans, it’s at that very critical moment when your child is in the throes of a tantrum that, rather than ignoring her, you should help her learn how to soothe her anxious feelings and learn appropriate behavior.
Putting a child in time-out and leaving him in a room where he will continue to kick scream, or simply leave, doesn’t go far enough and parents needs to know what to do next,” Dr. Grosshans says, adding spanking or bullying also should not be used to quell a child’s bad behavior.
So what’s a parent to do?
Dr. Grosshans’ solution is to “combine love with leadership and to go beyond time-out.” In her book, she outlines a carefully scripted five-step action plan she developed call the “Ladder,” which guides parents through a method of calming children.
The program is difficult to narrow down to a few sentences — you’ll have to buy the book to learn how to truly flesh it out — but here are a few points from the book which will give you a general understanding of the approach.
#1 Say something once. Give a reminder. And then act.
#2 Keep any tone of anger or irritation out of your voice. Really there shouldn’t be any. You are dealing with a child, after all, and a child’s failure to comply is hardly anything for an adult to get worked up about.
#3 Give your child the opportunity to learn that your authority has to be respected and you will settle for nothing less.
Dr. Grosshans isn’t talking about power, domination, oppression or robbing kids of their voice, she pointed out.
“The Ladder simply gives parents permission to be in the lead.
“There is nothing equal at all about your relationship with your child and if you try to manufacture friendship as opposed to leadership, it’s never going to work,” she stated.
When you reinstate the appropriate parent hierarchy with parents on top, where a parent has finally been able to embrace her essential role as a parent, your kids will actually feel a great sense of relief,” she concluded.
Do you think this is a method that might work in your family?