More on Raising Kids with MORE! Parenting the Strong-Willed Child by Rex Forehand
About this time last year I had occasion to look at several books on parenting aimed at the "strong-willed" or "spirited" child, particularly the top-selling Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child : Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries by Robert MacKenzie and Mary Kurcinka's Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic (see these and related reviews here, and if this is a hot-button issue in your household, see also the very thoughtful comments from parents to the August 22, 2007, post.)
Recently I've also looked at the revised edition of Rex Forehand's Parenting the Strong-Willed Child: The Clinically Proven Five-Week Program for Parents of Two- to Six-Year-Olds [Revised and Updated Edition]. If MacKenzie is the tough-love, learn-it-the hard-way voice, and Kurcinka is more the empathetic "let us reason together" advocate, Forehand's and Long's book offers somewhat of a third way in dealing with the sometimes difficult strong-willed child.
Although Forehand covers much of the same territory as the others--a checklist for evaluating your child for strong-willed characteristics, observational techniques for ADHD and more serious behavioral problems, and a graduated program (five-weeks in this case) for shaping the child's behavior--his book offers some strengths and techniques that the other writers do not stress.
Forehand's "step" program has five sections, to be applied chronologically to the process: 1)Attending, 2) Rewarding, 3) Ignoring, 4) Giving Directions, and 5) Using Time-Outs, followed by a sixth section called "Integrating Your Parenting Skills." Dealing with the very young (ages 2-6), Forehand and Long are less hard-nosed than MacKenzie, beginning with an initial week of "attending:"
Attending is really very simple. It allows you to tune in to your child's behavior and lets your child know that you are very interested in the positive things he does. If you think about your strong-willed child's behavior, many of your thoughts may focus on the negative aspects. Attending will give you a chance to reverse this situation by noticing some of his positive behaviors.
Beginning with dedicated play sessions with the child and then extending these to other time spent together, the parent is asked to avoid questions or directions altogether and simply comment frequently on observed behaviors, particularly any that have positive aspects, e.g., "Wow, you are stacking the blocks high," or "You're lining up all the toys." Although the authors point out that this is one of the hardest of techniques to follow, they assert that it can be very illuminating and in itself improves the relationship by building positive interactions with the young child. The authors provide for different periods of attending, advice for evaluating the sessions, and ways to practice during neutral times such as car travel and home chores. When you think about this technique, it really is just what happens in normal, pleasant, day-to-day interactions with preschool children that build normal parent-child rapport--interactions which regrettably are often limited with difficult children.
Likewise, "rewarding" follows the common-sense advice of "catch them being good" and commenting upon it positively. With the very young child, praise can be more lavish than with the older child, who quickly cues in on what the parent is up to with heavy accolades, but the authors advise that it always be cued to specific behaviors ("You really tried to stay right by me when we were shopping," rather than "You were good.") The authors also advocate special activities with the parent or privileges over extrinsic rewards such as food or toys wherever possible.
The authors also offer a very helpful section on "ignoring" non-dangerous behaviors such as whining, tantrums, pouting, and manipulative crying with these three rules:
1) No physical (touching) contact; 2) No verbal contact; and 3) No eye contact.
They counsel that the behavior will increase before it begins to decrease but that the parents must persist in ignoring a behavior once they begin until, without the pay off of attention, it begins to fade.
Particularly strong chapters include "Improving Your Communication Skills" (good for dealing with ANY age) and the very useful "Helping Your Child Solve Problems with Peers," with its four-step strategy:
1. What is the problem?
2. What are my choices? (different ways to handle the problem)
3. What would likely happen for each choice? (if...then, cause and effect)
4. What is my best choice?
Because this book is aimed at children no older than six, the authors provide really useful pre-learning exercises for helping children use the above process, including teaching the meaning and importance of such mental constructs as cause and effect (if, then) and "is versus is not," "and versus or," "some versus all," "before versus after," "now versus later," and "same versus different," which seem obvious to adults but are basic steps of thinking through which toddlers must pass in order to reason out solutions to conflict with others. As an example Forehand and Long offer a scenario in which a youngster reports that his friend snatched his toy. (Problem: the toy can only be used by one child at a time.) What are the choices? the parent asks. "Hit him? "Grab the toy?" Then what might happen next if you did? the parent asks. "He'd hit me back." "He'd try to take it back from me." "He'd go home mad." The parent asks, "Do you think that choice would work out well? "Guess not." What other choice could you make? "I play with something else?" "We put that toy away for now and both play with different things?" "Take turns playing with the toy?" Good choice, says the parent.) That example seems a bit pat until you look at the high-order thinking skills which lie behind a peaceable solution. How to teach and practice a structure for problem solving is a valuable asset of this book--suitable for the very young, but operable for older kids as well.
Since all children and parents are unique individuals, no one plan may fit every situation. Parents faced with a challenging child would do well to read several of these advice manuals and select or combine the most useful strategies for their own particular personalities and situations. A couple of books which provide for quick triage and ER protocols for parents who need help right away include 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child's Difficult Behavior and 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 (123 Magic), which cover the same ground lightly but may buy harried parents time to do some collateral reading, thinking, and planning.