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How can I navigate my marriage problems with a child in the midst?

Dear Mama Drama:

My husband and I have recently been struggling with our relationship. We are going to counseling, but I’m concerned about how the situation and our interactions are impacting our three-year-old son.

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I don’t know how much he understands when things get tense between my husband and I or when one of us needs to leave due to intense feelings. We don’t argue in front of him, but there are times when the tension is thick and I know he can feel it.

We are contemplating separating and I am wondering how to talk with him about this if that happens as well as how much to tell him about what is going on.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Mama Drama: Positives for Power Struggles

Dear Mama Drama:

My four-year-old son has become exceptionally defiant and I am at a loss of how to respond.

When I ask him to do something, he tells me no. When I tell him to do it or he will not be able to watch TV or he will lose his toys he isn’t cleaning up, he says he doesn’t care. I have threatened to put his toys in the trash and he tells me that he’ll just buy more when he is a grown up.

I am worried that these struggles are causing angry feeling between me and my son all the time. Any ideas you have are appreciated.

~Struggling Mama

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Dear Struggling:

Constant battles with your children take a toll on all of you emotionally. Power struggles can be so exasperating and we often don’t recognize we’re in them until our heels are dug in and our backs are against the wall. Then, we feel like we’re giving in if we try to change something, so we dig in further. It’s a very human response, but requires a change of perspective if we want to alter the course of our parent-child interactions.

A good rule of thumb is that if you feel like you’ve picked up that rope for a tug-of-war (I often notice my fists clenched in this moment of recognition), let it go and take a breath or three or four. Think about your options. Ask yourself if this is a battle you need to pick or if you can look at the situation differently. Be ready to say, “Let’s start over…”and come up with a different plan of action.

When figuring out what to do about challenging behavior it is important to determine what needs the child is meeting through his or her behavior. Your son sounds like he is working to exert some control in his life and he is testing in out every situation he can find. He is also avoiding tasks he doesn’t want to do and appears to be getting a fair amount of attention from his behavior.

The first step I suggest is to create lots of opportunities for him to have control by giving him as many choices as possible throughout the day. Make sure the choices you offer are reasonable, limited, and that you can live with them if he makes that choices. If we take a moment to look, we can offer choices for what and how our children do things all day long. “Do you want to wear jeans or sweatpants? Blue socks or white socks? Put your shirt on first or your pants? Brush your teeth first or wash your face? With help or by yourself? Cheerios or oatmeal for breakfast? Milk or water to drink?” The possibilities are truly endless if we take that extra moment to think of them.

Next let’s look at attention. Logically we think kids would want positive attention over negative attention. Most of the time that is true, but sometimes any attention will do and kids learn quickly how to get it. Begin focusing on the positive choices your son makes, again down to the miniscule actions that we expect them to do every day. “Thank you for washing your hands with soap. You ate all of your oatmeal! Thank you for putting your book on the shelf. You remembered to hang up your coat. You used your napkin without being asked.” Giving lots of attention for the actions we want our children to engage in encourages them to repeat those actions again.

We all avoid tasks that we don’t want to do at some time, but an incentive can often make completing that task easier to do. Two strategies can help you here: using contingencies, first this/then that, and a positive behavior chart.

When asking your son to clean up, think about what he wants to do next. “First clean up toys, then we can go to the park. First put the blocks away, then we’ll have snack. First put the puzzles away, then we’ll make cookies. First put the trains away, then we’ll read a book.” It is easy to fall into the trap of threatening to take things away, but it is usually more effective and pleasant when we can offer positives options.

You can create a behavior chart for your son focused on following directions right away. It can be as simple as a piece of paper or white board with his name on it or you can make it elaborate and fancy. You can also have him help make it to increase his interest. Explain to him how it works. “Every time you follow directions without fussing we will put a smiley face on your chart. When you earn five smiley faces we will do ___ together.” Then brainstorm a list of things he’d like to earn by following directions. Be creative by thinking about favorite activities and things that will involve positive interactions between the two of you. Playing Candyland, having a ten minute dance party, going for a walk, having a picnic, painting, making cookies, riding bikes, taking a bubble bath, etc. Try to stay away from buying toys or having lots of activities that cost money. You can throw those in sporadically or have those as bigger incentives for several days of meeting his goal.

As he gets better at following directions begin to increase the number of smiley faces he needs to earn, always keeping that positive spin. “You earned five smiley faces five days in a row, yeah! I bet you can earn seven smiley faces today.”

As you begin to look for and recognize the positive choices your son makes, you will both feel happier and more successful. It often feels like a lot of work at first, but think of the pay off of the fun times you will have together versus the battles you could have instead. A great resource for more ideas is Love and Logic Magic for the Early Childhood Years by Jim and Charles Fay.

Sometimes behavior patterns are so difficult for families to change that they need more intensive support from a mental health professional. Please don’t hesitate to seek more assistance if you feel unable to implement these strategies on your own.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.