A mom of an 8-year-old daughter recently posted in a private Facebook group I’m a member of. She stated that her daughter was going through a really rough phase. The girl had recently started acting out. When the parents punished her, she said she didn’t care. The mom was at a loss because the outbursts were around things such as getting dressed and taking a shower. The mom wanted to punish the girl so she would realize she could not act that way. She was looking for support, advice and ideas from the group on the types of punishment she should use.
This post struck a chord with me. I’ve been talking a lot lately about preteens, which I define as between the ages of 8-12, and this scenario is a classic struggle that occurs at this age. I replied to the mom that it sounded like the girl was trying to establish some independence by pushing against her rules. I suggested sitting down with her daughter, asking her why she was having such a hard time lately and if she had any ideas on how to fix it. I also suggested that she might want to loosen the rules around shower time, maybe it didn’t have to be done at a certain time, maybe the daughter could choose when she could take it. As long as it was done, that was the most important thing. Two other moms replied that they used screen time as both an incentive and a punishment. When their children completed tasks, they received extra time, when they acted out they had time taken away from them.
The mom who posted replied that her daughter was not all that into screen time and even is she was, her response to that as punishment would be “I don’t care”. She said that she did like about having friends over, but even when using that as punishment the 8-year-old accepted the punishment with shrug. Her second post ended by saying “Which is why I don’t know how or what to punish her with?” She missed my point completely.
First I found it fascinating that she was so locked in that there had to be a punishment to “fix” this problem. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, sometimes when we are in the middle of a tense situation it is hard for us to be objective, so I can see how something that seems obvious on the outside may not be so obvious on the inside. However, what is it about our culture and beliefs about parenting that lead us to think that every behavior can and should be fixed by having a consequence?
Second, what I think is interesting, is that she had an expectation of how the daughter should react to her punishment. The fact that the daughter accepted it and shrugged it off, was not the reaction the mom was looking for. Would she rather the daughter tantrum and cry and act out even more in response to the punishment? In many instances, we would prefer that our children unemotionally accept what we ask them to do without a lot of drama. In this case, there was no drama and that made the mother concerned.
Third, if the punishment isn’t working then you need to stop and look at things differently. What is the point of punishment if it doesn’t do what you want it to do? Many of us stumble and bumble through the first few years of parenthood trying to figure it all out. By the time our 5-year-olds reach school, we feel like maybe we have a handle on this after all. We hum along for a couple of years and then all of a sudden, our kids start pushing back on us. Our instinct is to batten down the hatches and double down on the rules that have been working - this is where I think parents go astray. When kids reach the age of 7, 8 or 9, they have been in school a couple years. They spend hours at a time away from you, learning on their own what life outside the house is like. Their world is growing and your rules, boundaries and expectations must grow and change along with them. If the rule is not working, then you must talk to your child (calmly) and figure out why they are having such a hard time. It’s easy for us to both underestimate and overestimate kids. We underestimate them because we think that 8-years-old is too young to have an in-depth conversation about why they are feeling the way they are feeling. At the same time, it’s easy to overestimate that they are capable of finding the exact words to describe these big feelings that they most likely to not fully understand. Either way, we need to give them the chance to talk it through with us so that together we can figure it all out. As the parent, you don’t have to have all the answers, but you do have to be willing to keep looking for them.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m pretty passionate about this topic. It breaks my heart to read posts like this one, where the parents and the kids are struggling, but they’re using old methods to solve new problems. For this reason, I compiled the work I’ve done with clients and friends, and turned it into an online course. I wanted to make short (no more than 15 minutes a class) and accessible (any time, day or night) for parents to learn key strategies that are easy to incorporate into your everyday interactions with your preteens. Because here’s the thing, we will have a longer relationship with our child as an adult than as a child, so our relationship with them now is setting the stage for years and years to come.
If have questions about the class, feel free reach out to me on Facebook or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. And now through the end of May 2017, I’m offering $50 off when you sign up for the class. Just use coupon code PRET50 at checkout.
I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.