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Wellness Matters: If parent/child conflicts persist, behavior modification can help

By Jan Carden
KyForward columnist

(Editor’s note: All names used in this column have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

Julie and her 13-year-old daughter, Amy, came for an appointment the other day to discuss concerns for the upcoming school year.  

Julie described her daughter as always having a sweet disposition and as very precocious.  Throughout elementary school, Amy earned mostly A’s and was regarded by her teachers as exceptionally bright.  Of concern was Amy’s excessive phone use and how this negatively impacted her school work the previous year.  Her grades were beginning to decline and, not surprisingly, this incited a tremendous amount of conflict at home between Amy and her parents.

Adam who is 11 and his mother, Tracy, came in recently to discuss their recent conflict regarding Adam’s tendency to “forget” his chores.  Tracy described him as mostly very pleasant and cooperative although of concern was the increasing amount of time he was spending on computer games.  This was also beginning to interfere with the amount of time he spent outdoors playing basketball and football.

Tracy noted that she’d unsuccessfully tried lecturing, revoking privileges, bribing and most recently ignoring the problem.  Both Tracy and Adam agree that the conflict at home is creating a lot of stress and tension.

Frequently, when the issue with a child or adolescent is related to behavior (and not to an underlying issue such as a mood disorder or substance use), I have helped parents and caregivers develop and implement a behavior modification plan.  (Parents typically are quick to inform me that they’ve already tried such a plan and that the plan never works.)

What I know is that when these plans, when developed and implemented effectively, almost always promote more compliance in the child or teen, more satisfied parents and a more harmonious environment.  Behavior modification works if carried out in correctly.  Once I convince parents to try the plan for at least six weeks, I then try to convince the child or adolescent that the plan will ultimately benefit them – no more lectures and eventually an increase in privileges.

There’s a wealth of information about behavior modification planning. Below is a list of strategies for ensuring that the behavior modification plan is most effective:

1. Develop a plan or behavior contract without your child present. Including the child almost always incites an argument. Present the plan to the child once completed and frame it positively. For instance, some plans are designed to help the adolescent earn more privileges.

2. Focus on only three behaviors at a time when developing a behavior plan. Never switch behaviors in the middle of the plan.

3. Clearly define the behavior. Johnny will empty the garbage and feed the dog every day by 5:30 with only one reminder vs. Johnny will do his chores.

4. Advise the child of the plan when everyone is calm. Intervening during an outburst will likely trigger even more negative behavior. It is rare that a child can be rational when upset.

5. Ensure that the child has the ability to follow through on the targeted behavior. Goals that are set too high typically will set the child up for failure. Ensure that the child or adolescent has the skills to be successful.

6. Reward them for what they did well rather than focus on what they didn’t do or what they did poorly.

7. Expect behavior to get worse before it gets better. Kids (most people for that matter) hate change and will increase negative behavior in order to keep things the same. Know that the increase in negativity is temporary.

8. Let your child know that you believe in him/her. Frequently children start to believe that they’re just bad kids and give up trying out of frustration.

9. You can’t tell children to “be good.” They need specific behaviors, specifically defined.

10. Be consistent! It takes 21 days to develop a new habit.

11. A reward and consequence plan should be simple. If it’s too complicated or expensive then you’re likely not going to be able to follow through.

12. Never restrict family time, church or extracurricular activities as a consequence.

Jan C. Carden is a licensed clinical social worker at Access Wellness Group in Lexington where she provides individual and family counseling. Jan works with adolescents, families and women. She uses a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness in her work and specializes in issues related to addiction, trauma, depression and anxiety. Carden lives in Lexington with her husband. She has three grown children and one granddaughter.

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