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Help! I feel like a totally ineffective parent

"Today" contributor Dr. Ruth Peters offers advice to help stop the nagging and get your kids to respond beautifully to your parenting techniques.

Q: My kids, 9 and 11 years old, are driving me nuts! I try to be consistent, patient and understanding, but sometimes they're so persistent that I lose it and yell, nag or even threaten to send them to my mother’s house to live! Of course they know I wouldn’t really send them to Grandma’s, but it seems they don’t respect my decisions or believe me when I set a consequence. I hadn't been consistent when they were younger (I had a hectic work schedule and felt so beat by evening that I usually gave in to their demands). But now, I’m home by 3 p.m. and should be able to be more on top of things. What do you suggest?

A: It’s often difficult to change the way you approach your children, but it’s never too late to actually turn things around in your household. Sure, being more consistent with them when they were younger would have set the stage for complying with your guidelines, limits or rules, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t become more consistent and effective in your parenting style now. Let’s take a look at some of the most common disciplinary mistakes that parents seem to make, the effect that these have on your kids, and what you can do about them.

When maybe really means noOne of the most frequent disciplinary mistakes that I see parents make is trying to side-step an issue with their children by saying maybe or perhaps when they absolutely know that they will not or cannot comply with the request. Why do we do this? Well, to buy time, that’s why!  Most folks do not like disappointing their kids, or having to endure a barrage of nagging, whining and pleading. At the moment, they will do just about anything to avoid saying no, and that’s when the fun begins. It really only buys them a few minutes or maybe hours, as children who can’t remember to brush their teeth never forget when you’ve said maybe to a request. It’s just a fact of kid human nature; it’s nothing that you’ve done wrong. Parents want to avoid a fuss and kids want what they want when they want it. Pure and simple. 

The effective way to handle it:
If you want your children to tone down the nagging, muster the guts to say no when you really mean no, take the flack for a minute and then describe the negative consequences that will occur if they don’t knock it off! If they calm down … great. But if they don’t they will lose privileges for their misbehavior.

When no may really mean yesThen there’s the parental mind set that drives kids nuts — when their requests are automatically denied with a definite and resounding no from a parent who really hasn’t even processed it. As soon as Mom or Dad hears “Hey, can we…..?” you say no without really listening to the request. It’s almost as if you’re on auto-pilot and even if the kid asked for something reasonable, you’ve denied it without hearing the child out. Of course, that method doesn’t sit well with the troops, as they feel that you don’t listen nor care about their feelings, wants and desires.

The effective way to handle it:
Listen… Think it over… And then answer the child. If you really can’t give a yes or a no at that moment, then tell your son or daughter, “I need some time to think about that or to ask your father what he wants to do. We’ll let you know right after dinner.” If the child fusses about needing an answer immediately, let him or her know that the answer will be no if they insist on an immediate response. Also state that there’s a decent chance that, given time to think, plan and check your schedule, you really may be able to comply. Then it’s the child’s choice as to whether to get smart and give you the time to think (and maybe go along with the request) or to push you into a knee-jerk no since you haven’t been able to take a breath and consider all possibilities. Most kids feel good about waiting for an answer if you give them a definite time by which you will get back to them.

When yelling is your first reaction
Have you turned into the screamer that you always said you’d never be? Do you reprimand loudly as a knee-jerk reaction to your child’s rudeness or misbehavior? Or, do you say things that, the minute they’re out of your mouth, you regret having said? Well, join the club, as many parents find themselves behaving in ways toward their children that they are embarrassed to admit. Kids have a way of pushing our hot buttons, and some children are pros at it! But that doesn’t negate the negative effects that screaming, reprimanding in a nasty tone of voice, or calling kids names (stupid, irresponsible, lazy) have upon your child’s self-esteem. Hurtful comments can be apologized for, but they are never really forgotten, or forgiven. Children become resentful when they are screamed at, and rarely is this an effective way of getting your child’s attention or changing their behavior.

The effective way to handle it:
Although it may seem easier at the moment to yell at the kid, or to call him lazy or irresponsible (even if his actions are lazy or irresponsible), please don’t give in to the urge. As an adult you do have control over what comes out of your mouth, but it may not always be easy to exert that control. If you see that you are becoming a screamer, work at stopping yourself as you feel your blood beginning to boil. You know the feeling, when you just want to blow your top because once again, grape juice has been spilled on the carpet and you’ve told the kids at least a million times not to take it out of the kitchen. Screaming at them obviously doesn’t work, or the juice rule (“only in the kitchen”) would be followed.

Count to 10, take a trip to the bathroom and wash your face, or have the child go into time-out while you decide what to do.  The consequence may be that your daughter will have to try to clean up the mess, donate money to rent a carpet cleaner, or do extra chores that weekend while you steam clean the rug. Or, if you’re using a behavior management system (which I highly recommend to all families), give the child demerits, and the misbehavior may result in the loss of all privileges that day and the daily allowance.

If you absolutely can’t come up with a consequence that makes sense at the moment, tell your child that there will be a significant negative event happening later that day, but that you’ll get back to her after dinner with the verdict. Buying time gives you the space to cool off, lets the kid stew about the possible consequences, and you won’t have to resort to ineffective yelling or name-calling. Remember, if yelling really worked with children, we wouldn’t resort to screaming at our kids often, since it would change their behavior. As it usually doesn’t work (children become immune to screamers), you’re wasting your time and your vocal chords, stressing yourself out unnecessarily, and making yourself feel guilty since your behavior is somewhat out of control.

When consequences don’t matter
It’s all too common when we are given a 10-day prescription for, say, an upper respiratory infection, to stop taking the meds after seven days as the symptoms appear to be waning and we’re feeling better. But, all too often we find ourselves back at the doctor’s office the next week because the watered down medication regimen didn’t work and another round of antibiotics is in order. Analogous to that situation is using watered down, ineffective consequences with our children. So many parents employ too-short time-out periods, or time-out in the bedroom with the kid’s CD player, TV or toys available. Or, they take away electronics privileges (anything that plugs into the wall or uses batteries) for only an hour or two, during which the child is easily distracted by playing with siblings or enjoying a board game.

On the reward side of consequences, many folks use privileges as dangling carrots that are just not that big of a deal to their kids (a trip to the library, 50 cents daily allowance for a 14-year-old). Of course these consequences won’t get the kid’s attention because they don’t really matter! Recently I was speaking with a fourth grader who told me that the only consequence that occurred in school for not turning in homework was that “his card was flipped” (from the green to the yellow and then to the red). When I asked what happened if the day ended with the card on the red he noted that “nothing happens … that’s why I don’t bother to do my homework.” Wrong answer, but honest from the kid’s point of view!

The effective way to handle it:
Make consequences count. If they don’t get the child’s attention you’re wasting your time. Time-out may have to be in a quiet hall for an extended period of time. Know your child — if five minutes in the thinking chair does the trick (better behavior follows) then that’s great to use. But some kids of the more ornery ilk, may need 15, 20 or even 30 minutes of time-out in the hall, the bathroom or another safe, but boring place. If your child lives for TV, video games and music, then take away all electronics for the next 24 hours. Put up a sticky note on your refrigerator to remind you the next day that electronics are forbidden … don’t count on Junior to remind you!

Make the rewards interesting too — crank up the daily allowance for chores completed and good behavior to a level that gets your son’s or daughter’s attention but is still within your financial means. And, let them spend the money the way they want to (though the purchase has to be legal, safe, and allowed in your home). Too many rules and restrictions on using their money waters down the effectiveness of an allowance. If you’re using privileges, make them interesting to your individual child’s desires — some kids love a trip to Chuck E. Cheese, while others would rather go to the zoo, rent a video, or have a friend spend the night.

When there’s too much talk and not enough action
I can’t tell you the number of my kid clients who complain that their parents yak, yak, yak … lecture, lecture, lecture but really do nothing about the kid’s behavior or action. A whole lot of threatening without much follow-through is a recipe for family disaster, but that’s how many parents discipline their children. Talk is cheap, and trust me folks, it’s not really listened to.  The kid can write a dissertation on the dangers of jumping on the couch or running out in the street without looking both ways — he’s heard the lecture many, many times. But that doesn’t mean that the yakking will change his behavior. 

The effective way to handle it:
When you make a rule — stick to it. Clearly state (in 25 words or less ... yes, count them!) what the child did to break the rule (stuffing dirty clothes behind the bed) and what will definitely occur the next time it happens (he’ll have to fold the entire family’s clothing by 7 p.m. that night). Keep it short, make eye contact with the child while describing the sequence of events, and move on. Don’t belabor the point. The kid heard you and now has to decide whether you’ll follow-through with the consequence, and if he believes that you will, whether the consequence is noxious enough to motivate him to stop doing it. If it works, great — move on to the next part of the day.

If it doesn’t work, and those nasty socks and shirt are creating a distinct odor, make him clean them up and fold all the clothes that are in the dryer that day. End of story. No ifs, ands, or buts … and, no further lectures or yakking about it!

When you’re questioning rather than requesting
Asking a nine-year-old “Would you like to turn off your favorite TV show and take your bath now?” will most likely be met with either a resounding no! or simply with silence. You’ve been ignored again. Get used to it; you’re a parent! By asking rather than by requesting a behavior from your child you are literally giving him or her the choice  to comply or not. If that’s the case and you really don’t care if the child takes the bath at that time, then your statement is fine. But, if what you really meant was “Sarah, I want you to turn off the TV and hop in the bath, it’s almost bedtime,” then you need to state it as a request or a demand, making it clear to the child that putting it off to later is not an option.

The effective way to handle it:
Stop and think before talking. That should take care of the problem. Use the correct language. If you want something done at or by a certain time, then state it definitively — exactly what it is that you want, and started or completed by a certain time. I’ve found that most kids when asked to do something usually want to put it off until a more convenient time, which could also be never. So, take away that option — stating “Please be in the tub before 8:30 p.m. (or “beat the 10-minute buzzer” if you are using that system). You can read in bed after that for a few minutes, and then I’ll come in to tuck you in.” Clear and simple. If the child does not comply with your request (and remember, it was not a question, it was non-negotiable), give a consequence (no TV the next day or loss of outside playtime). And, be sure to follow-through with the consequence by leaving yourself a reminder note for the next day.

When now means wheneverA similar ineffective disciplinary habit occurs when parents are fuzzy in terms of when things are to occur or to be accomplished. As adults, we pretty much know that when we ask someone to do something now, it’s mutually agreed upon that that means “at this time,” or “within a few minutes.” But kids just don’t get it, mainly because they don’t want to be interrupted when doing something that’s interesting to them, where they'll have to turn their attention and efforts to accomplishing something that may not be fun (such as completing homework). Children will diligently argue, and sometimes quite convincingly so, that they were “about to do it, on their way, just getting ready to get up and” wash their hands, turn off the TV, complete their homework, whatever. The truth is that most of the time they are putting off the inevitable until the last minute, or till Mom’s nagging gets louder or it’s absolutely time to get in the car and go to school.

The effective way to handle it:
Get a portable, digital countdown timer and use it! Kids respond beautifully to “beat the buzzer,” and will almost always comply and get moving when you’ve made your request. Use the timer to get them into the shower, out of the bathroom, dressed on time, out to the car to help you carry in the groceries or to begin their homework. Children thrive on structure, and timing is one of life’s most tangible ways to organize the day. It also is the fairest way to discipline your children. State what needs to be accomplished, give the time limit, mention the consequence that will occur if not completed on time … and set the buzzer. Life is good with a timer — the kids can’t complain that you didn’t warn them, and best of all … it works!

Try implementing these suggestions, and my bet is that your children will respond beautifully. And, there will be less nagging, yelling, and threats to drop them at Grandma’s!

Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to the “Today” show. Her most recent book, “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” is published by Rodale. (See excerpts .) For more information you can visit her Web site at .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.