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By John W. Maag, Ph.D.
There are four rather unusual, but more positive, strategies for increasing compliance in, and avoiding power struggles with, your child. Although these approaches require you to re-think some ways of managing your child's behavior, managing resistance doesn't have to be a complicated, time-consuming, and frustrating endeavor. Children always give us clues on how to deal with them successfully. But you must be looking for these clues and know how to turn them into strategies for managing your child's behavior. Unfortunately, the older we get, the more stuck we can become in habitual ways of looking at and responding to our child's misbehavior. Consequently, we fail to pick up on these important clues that are a key to compliance.
The key to changing a child's resistant behavior is changing the context - either the setting or circumstances - that surrounds her behavior. If you think about it, any behavior gets its meaning from the context in which it happens: A lifeguard's skills have more meaning in the context of a public swimming pool than they do on a ski slope; reading has more meaning in the context of a library than it does in a game of soccer. All behavior is defined by its context. Therefore, if you can change the context surrounding your child's behavior, you can also change the meaning, purpose, and her motivation to engage in the behavior. I'll describe four strategies based on this idea.
The idea behind this approach is that everyone has a tolerance level for how much of a behavior they want to perform. When we make a child's tolerance level intolerable, she will change the behavior on her own. Recall the example of the father whose daughter wanted to be "in style" by having short fingernails. He created rapport with her, then he scheduled time for her to perform the undesirable behavior. "You have a lot of catching up to do," he told her. "Every day when you come home from school, why don't you grab the kitchen timer, go in your room, set it for 15 minutes, and practice biting your nails." The father was not angry, nor did he deliver the standard lecture about the drawbacks of nail biting. Instead, he expressed pleasure that his daughter had a chance to "catch up" and "be in style" with her classmates.
His daughter followed his direction to the letter because (1) it was what she wanted to do and (2) the direction was not presented as punishment. Over several days, his daughter spent less and less time until one day she said to her father, "Daddy, I think I'm going to start a new style at school — long nails." The behavior was no longer any fun to perform.
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