Wednesday, March 11, 2009

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.

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  • My Dad used mostly a backhand stroke in raising me; only occasionally did I get the full Forehand treatment.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:30 AM  

  • Ted Tripp's Shepherding a Child's Heart, help us raise our two strong wills.

    Good luck with that reasoning with a child stuff. I can tell you now it doesn't work.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:34 AM  

  • I can see it now. Incorrigible brats running up and down the aisle of the airplane bothering everyone, and Mom says "Well you see, they are strong-willed children."

    Feh. Another excuse for parents to abdicate their responsibility.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:23 AM  

  • Anonymous, I thought just what you think while I was raising my first two "normal" children. Then my third turned out to be what is now called "strong-willed." (This was decades ago.) The hard work and care and thoughtful discipline that had worked like a charm on the first two rolled off him like the proverbial water off a duck's back. He was not an "incorrigible brat" but there were certainly times when we feared he might become one. My husband and I were killing ourselves trying to figure out how to keep that from happening. The methods we knew -- the methods we'd used successfully and were still using with our other kids -- simply did not work. He was very difficult indeed, he did not always behave well in public or in private, and I'll bet there were many times when ignorant people like you passed judgment on us.

    Now all three of my children have grown into responsible, capable, accomplished adults. He, in particular, has turned into an exceptionally fine, intelligent, accomplished, considerate young man. But it was not easy, and we needed a lot of help from other parents, our families, educators, books, counselors, anyone we could think of to get him there. I learned some very important lessons from raising him -- including the dangers of judging others when I don't know the whole story.

    I do not deny that there are irresponsible parents out there who are looking for excuses to avoid the hard work of raising a child. But such parents are not the only ones who can find themselves raising a child who presents unusual disciplinary challenges. Kids are not just made. They are also born, and they are not all born alike. Open your mind and listen to people who have had experiences you have not. It's possible that you might learn something.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:38 AM  

  • For the first two posters...

    You're full of it. I have an extremely "strong-willed" child. Reasoning is the only thing that works--and he is only two.

    When he gets it into his mind that he wants something, pain and isolation mean nothing to him. He's willing to endure it to meet his goal.

    Its actually not a bad personality trait, if I can keep him from getting himself killed.

    He can be reasoned with. He does care about other peoples feelings and I use that a lot. "Dinner is ready. Papa made dinner for you and me. If we don't leave now, Papa will be very sad."

    "We can't walk on the top of edge of THIS sofa. If we slip we'll fall on the dresser. The dresser is sharp, that would be a big, big, big boo-boo. You might not get better. Then Papa and Mama will be sad."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:19 AM  

  • I only wish "Spirited Child" had come out sooner! Now our family laughs about it as we remember some of our spirited moments, but the advice is excellent! Do check out both these books. Changing the labels from "impossible" to "spirited" makes you look at the child in an entirely different light. It will work! Never give up. Spirited children ARE sensitive and need your guidance and love to become strong and determined adults. And that's a good thing, right?

    By Blogger Jean de Venette, at 10:00 AM  

  • I've helped many parents with child problems for several years now, and here are two things I've found to be universally true:

    1) If you wish to teach a child the basics of such abstracts as moral behavior and rational thinking, you must always maintain that you are the parent, and (s)he is the child; thus, you have authority over them. You cannot be the child's "friend" in these situations-to the child's crude thinking, "friends" are not qualified to teach the child what is right and wrong-end of discussion.

    2) A small child (up to age six) is utterly incapable of rational discussions when they concern the child's misbehavior. The child only cares about what (s)he wants, and that's that: if you want to teach a child that (s)he is misbehaving, you must form an instinctive connection between "misbehavior = pain" (physical or emotional, take your pick). Only when that instinctive connection has been made are you capable of having a rational discussion.

    By Anonymous Thomas B, at 10:45 AM  

  • Thank you, Anonymous 7:38 a.m., for reminding us that no matter how well you parented any given child, the next one may be quite different! Parents who have had success with one or more children can be too smug about their powers! Be glad, be proud, but be humble! There are children out there with which YOUR methods would have bombed! Be thankful you got the kids you got so far.

    And don't think reasoning does not work with children under six. It does work with some children. And don't think there is no child whose will you can't break. There are! In parenting it's good to remember that you can often win the battle and lose the war!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:25 PM  

  • I think I'd have to agree with Jean de Venette (imagine that!) about wishing "Spirited Child" had come out sooner as I myself was a spirited child and this wasn't realized until I was an adolescent. Much harder at that time to change behavior. As to being "sensitive" and needing "guidance and love" well, that just sounds awfully mushy. One last bit of advice to parents of spirited children, if you are chasing your son up the stairs with a wooden spoon, and he turns and hollers "Away put your weapon I mean you no harm" in a most excellent Yoda voice, then DO NOT commence busting up laughing. If you do then he will only become more powerful then you could possibly imagine. Heh, indeed.

    By Blogger Thomas Paine, at 1:44 PM  

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