By Ron Huxley
The energy which makes a child hard to manage is the energy which afterward makes him a manager of life. - Henry Ward Beecher
There is a Zen saying, that goes: "In weakness there is strength." Words of relief to parents who feel that they are weak when dealing with argumentative children. Words of frustration for parents who don't know how to use this strength in a practical manner.
Argumentative children make a home feel like a courtroom. Parents get cornered by the child's reasoning and questioning their every request. The goal of the child, on the surface, is to get their way. And pressured negotiation and debate are the means to achieve it. Below the surface may lay a different goal. This goal may not be conscious to the child or the parent. It may involve a much more basic and primitive motivation, namely, the need for attention.
There is another saying: "Children often seek attention by their negative behavior." When parents confront the surface goal may actually reinforce the very problem they are trying to stop. Their engagement with the child, in arguments, discussions, negotiations, or debates, actually give negative attention to the child. They falsely believe that they can confront or educate their child to correct his negative behavior and thereby, perpetuate more of the same.
Take, for example, the child who argues for the sake of arguing. Many parents find that the situation really has no bearing on the child's lawyer-like behavior. The child will argue over anything, sometimes even after they have gotten their way. If this is the case, then the deeper motivation, underneath the child's behavior needs to be addressed.
The best tool for negative, attention-getting behaviors is to not give it attention. Easy to say but hard to do. Children are masters at picking arguments that can upset parents easily, trapping them back into the courtroom drama. If parents cannot ignore the behavior then they must act in as non-emotional manner as possible when dealing with the child. Self-control is important for parents here. Parents must control what they say and do as well as how they say or do it. Children will see the white knuckles of frustration and anger even when parents say they are not angry. In fact, don't lie. Tell children you are angry but don't act out that anger. In a businesslike manner, direct the child to take a time-out or reiterate the original request. This demonstrates anger management skills as well as staying in charge.
Feigning a headache is one way for parents to use weakness as a strength. Simply tell the little lawyer that you have a headache and will have to get a continuance on the courtroom battle as you aren't up to arguing right now. At this point, parents should walk out of the room and find an activity to occupy themselves to resist their child's urging to get back into the debate. When the arguing is in recess, find something positive to reinforce instead of the negative behavior. If parents don't find something positive quickly, the child will find a new tactic to get the negative attention.
Although a real-world courtroom might have a winner and a loser, at home there are no winners, only losers. If parents force their way, they have lost because the child will come back for revenge to get even with the parent, not to mention the ugly feeling parents have after manhandling the situation. If the child forces his way, he loses because he has not learned how to be a productive member of society and resolve conflicts in a healthy manner. The only win/win option is for the parent to uses their weaknesses (i.e., unwillingness to engage in arguments) as a strength (i.e., by giving attention only to positive behaviors). Another way of saying it is, if your child acts like a lawyer and your home feels like a courtroom, SETTLE IT OUT OF COURT by changing how and when you give attention to your child.
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