Q: Our young son is defiant and talks back. He won’t do his homework and refuses to clean his room. When we try to discuss these issues with him in a calm, mature way, we usually end up getting angry and yelling at him. What are we doing wrong?
A: You’re not alone. You need to determine if this is a skill deficit (e.g., poor organization) or a true case of defiance. Either way, you want to work on developing connection, respect, understanding, and communication. If it’s a skill deficit, help him learn what he needs to accomplish tasks. If it really is a defiance issue, then it’s best to have consequences that are age-appropriate, consistent, and well understood.
Consequences can be both positive and negative. Your child may have learned that you eventually get angry, yell, and then give up – so you need to follow through. You can use positive consequences to increase a positive behaviour, and negative consequences to decrease a negative behaviour. Set goals with celebrations, and set consequences with meaningful losses.
For example, you might tell your son, “If you finish your homework by 5.00 pm, you get an extra half hour of screen time tonight.” That’s a simple positive consequence that doesn’t cost you anything. But if 6.00 pm rolls around and he hasn’t even looked at homework, as a negative consequence he loses the privilege of any screen time that night altogether. Again, spell this out clearly in advance.
You’ll need to come up with appropriate consequences (both positive and negative) that really matters to him. It could be gaming privileges, or a weekend outing with dad. The motivating power of specific consequences will change as a child grows older.
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