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Should You Try to Change Your Child's Behavior?

A lot of people, myself included, struggle with how to change their child's behavior. That's why I've fielded so many reader questions about how to get kids to listen. I believe that this change is warranted and positive in the following cases:
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A lot of people, myself included, struggle with how to change their child's behavior. That's why I've fielded so many reader questions about how to get kids to listen. I believe that this change is warranted and positive in the following cases:

1. Your child is hurting someone.

2. Your child is making someone's life more difficult (like here, where a six year old won't sleep on her own and the mother is exhausted, or here, where a nine year old won't respect a parent's boundaries)

3. Your child is self-sabotaging and his behavior is preventing him from doing something he wants to do.

The first two are straightforward, although some parents feel guilty about disciplining a child for making the parent's life harder. I say, if you are too irritated to function well as a parent, you must encourage your child to stop doing whatever behavior is extremely irritating. Whining is a good example, and a good example of "encouragement" is a system where your child gets a sticker for every half hour without whining and then after five stickers he gets another sticker or however those sticker charts work. Or else just use time-outs, which are easy if you read 1-2-3 Magic and disregard people who say that time outs are worse than spanking, because here's something worse than time-outs: losing your temper frighteningly and screaming at your child because he won't stop whining.

The third case is the most controversial, because many parents find it difficult to accept what a child truly wants to do. Many times, they just project what they would want to do if they were their child. For example, a parent who always struggled with social anxiety might say, "My child doesn't interact much during playdates. I need to work with him on that. He's just anxious, and if he learns to be social, he'll make friends easily and be happy" (unspoken ending: "unlike me as a child.") This is a nice sentiment and would be very helpful if children were exact copies of their parents. If this child is truly socially anxious, yearning for connection, and needs some exposure in order to conquer his social anxiety, then this is a good parenting move.

But what about the case where this child just doesn't want to interact at playdates? Maybe he is uninterested in the play. Maybe he is on the autism spectrum, even "just" mild Asperger's. Maybe he's bored by the other kids you pick for playdates. Maybe the game is not that much fun. Maybe this child is a natural introvert. There are many lifestyles this child could have as an adult where socializing in groups is unnecessary. For example, he could be my web guy, who I only interact with via email and for all I know is an android. He could be a scientist who spends much of his time in a lab. He could be a blogger.

Another example is a parent who wants a child to participate in sports or summer camp or something "because it will be good for him." If a child doesn't like sports, does this hurt anyone? Do sports always, universally, make people happy? I myself despised all sports that I was ever forced to play, and any summer camp that wasn't specifically designed for dorky people. As an adult, I have never thought that my life would be improved if I had been on a team. I believe it would have gone a lot like summer camp, i.e., it would have been a horrible time suck and made me horrifically anxious and unhappy from the first day of it till the last (with a spike in anxiety during "Color War," aka "The Extrovert's Paradise").

Now, I am not saying kids shouldn't be made to do things they don't like. Instead, as usual, I recommend that you be clear and concrete about why your kid needs to do these things, and err on the side of assuming that you know next to nothing about how your kid's life will turn out overall. So, if you want your kid to study, say something like, "You can't get into college without passing your classes, and it is important to me that you try college, because then I will feel more secure about your possible career options in the future, when I'm not going to support you."

After this open admission, you can whip out a graph of salaries for people with and without an undergraduate education if you like. However, don't convince your kid (or yourself) that you know what will be "best" for your kid. Maybe your kid will be an entrepreneur, many of whom reject formal education. Maybe he will be an artist or a writer. Maybe, and nobody likes to think this, your kid will be depressed and anxious in college and will end up in mental health services, or worse. The point is, you don't know, and pretending that you do is dishonest to yourself and your child.

The point here is, don't try to change your child for covert reasons that have to do with your own anxieties or your own childhood experiences. I have loads of clients who tell me that their parents were dead wrong in pushing them down various life paths, whether this was forcing them to play Little League or forcing them to break up with the "wrong" guy. These aren't teenagers. They are adults, ranging from their 20's to their 70's, who feel strongly that their behavior shouldn't have been changed by their (well meaning or not) parents. For every kid who thanks a parent for pushing them to stay in softball is a kid who wishes he had been allowed to sit in his room and fiddle around on his guitar all afternoon.

I write this because I myself struggle with thinking that I know what is "best" for my children. It is very hard to take a step back and go through the questions I mentioned previously to determine what's worth pushing and what's not. Again, these points are:

- If a behavior hurts someone, change it

- If a behavior is so irritating that it stops the family or other people from functioning, try to change it

- If it is DEFINITE (e.g., it was told to you by your child outright) that a certain behavior/activity is stopping your child from attaining his individual goals, then change it. An example is a kid who desperately wants to be great at the piano but finds himself avoiding practice. This is a kid who you can "push" by helping him stick to a practice schedule. (But then when he says he doesn't want to do piano, drop it.)

Acceptance with kids is key, for their mental and emotional health, and for your own. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says Parenting Is A Challenge, So Don't Make It Even Harder On You Or Your Kid.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family.