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Can changing my behavior toward my child improve our relationship?

Are you stuck in a cycle of negative interactions with your child? An expert tells you how to give up those negative scripts and forge a more positive relationship.

By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.

Dr. Robert Brooks often emphasizes that if children are to change their behavior and ineffective ways of coping, the adults in their lives often must first change their own behavior. In this article, Dr. Brooks addresses these key questions: Why is it so important for adults to change? Also, if children are misbehaving or not meeting their responsibilities, shouldn't they be the ones to change?

Many children with learning problems are burdened with feelings of low self-esteem and resort to the use of ineffective coping strategies to mask their sense of inadequacy. Unfortunately, these youngsters become fixed in the way they respond to a variety of situations, repeating the same self-defeating behaviors over and over again. It is as if they are following a prescribed script with little, if any, room for improvisation.

Adding to the problem is a phenomenon that parents and teachers, attempting to change the "negative script" of the child, often unintentionally develop their own "negative scripts." It is as if we are watching a play, where the words and behavior of all the "cast members" are set in stone. One can predict that if the child says or does something, the parent will respond in an equally predictable way. In effect, there is no room for change; rather the scripts become increasingly familiar and entrenched. This would not be a problem if the scripts had a more positive tone, but often the scripts perpetuate a negative situation.

It Takes Two to Tango

When such a situation exists, what can we, as parents, teachers, and other professionals who work with children with learning and attention problems, do to make positive changes? I have discovered that if strategies for fostering self-esteem, motivation, hope, and resilience in children are to be effective, adults typically must make the first changes in order to create the appropriate climate for youngsters to abandon their negative behaviors.

Unfortunately, many well-meaning adults expect children to take the initial step and alter their behavior. One father said to me, "If I change my expectations, my son will think I'm giving in and take advantage of the situation." I believe that if adults have the courage to modify the ways in which they have been relating to children, these children will become more cooperative, rather than more manipulative and resistant. For this reason, I use the metaphor "It takes two to tango." By this I mean, whether or not youngsters with learning and attention problems modify their behavior may have as much to do with our reactions as with the child's mindset.

As an example, I consulted with teachers about a high school freshman with learning problems who was hyperactive and required time at the beginning of each day to acclimate himself to school. The teachers referred to him as a "roamer" since he never seemed to get to his homeroom on time, preferring instead to roam the halls. They reported that rewards and punishments seemed to have little, if any, impact on his behavior. They also interpreted his behavior as "willful" and "manipulative."

I empathized with the teachers, but given their continued lack of success in changing his behavior I wondered what they might do differently. I also questioned whether he was being willful, as they assumed, or if in fact, given his hyperactivity, he had a "need" to roam. I asked how we might use his need to roam constructively.

Although at first the teachers felt it was this student's responsibility to change, I was impressed by their willingness to modify their script. This led to some creative problem solving in which the student was appointed "attendance monitor," a position that entailed his walking down the hall with a clipboard each morning, a clipboard containing the name of each teacher. The principal informed this boy that it would help the school if he would take attendance of teachers to ensure there was a teacher present in each classroom. This responsibility provided an avenue through which this adolescent could comfortably transition to the school environment each day, enabling him to adjust to the demands of the school. In essence, these adults were willing to change their script first, having the courage to ask what they could do differently. None felt they were "giving in" by taking the first step, a feeling reinforced by this boy's demonstrating greater success and responsibility in school.

Robert Brooks, Ph.D. is on the Faculty at Harvard Medical School and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Comments from readers

"I learn of my daughters LD,I read a lot on how best I can make myself and my Daughters daily life easy. My daughter has grown in many ways,by being positive and understanding on how she feels I can work on easing and using her energy in a positive manner.she has grown,she is more open in expressing her self,but the must part is reinforce her and my self that reaching her to do right with out blaming her for something that she can't control. If u now ur child as I do, then u can work threw her difficult times and so she can use her energy in a positive way. The outcome for u and ur child is great. "
"This article has been so refreshing! I feel this article has described my frustrations and subsequent responses to such. The article has highlighted the things I need to implement in order for a successful relationship to continue and develop. "
"Thank you for these articles. They are a breath of fresh air and help renew and encourage me. "
"Thank you for the article , it was like a light in the darkness for me. I felt so helpless until i read it and realized that a made a BIG deal about "not giving in " that it became a bigger deal in my girls mind. How i am asking her to change while i am so resistant to do it myself. thank you again and wish me luck "