Parent: “He never listens!” “He knows what’s expected; he just doesn’t ever want to do it.” “We would never have dreamed of speaking to our parents the way she mouths off to us.” Child (or adolescent): “It doesn’t matter what I try; all they do is yell at me.” “They never listen to me at all.” “They’re always criticizing me.” Parent: “If you can’t take the criticism, do as you’re told!”
Words such as these are all too familiar to families in which parents and children are locked in vicious cycles of criticism and defiance. I am frequently amazed at how deeply children who are caught in such cycles actually yearn for their parents’ approval; yet they continue to behave in precisely those ways that are bound to elicit more criticism, yelling, and punishment.
For their part, parents caught in these types of criticism/defiance cycles often feel not only frustrated and angry, but guilty about the frequency and intensity with which they yell at, punish, and criticize their children; yet they feel powerless to do otherwise. Of course, these behaviors by parents, which prompt children to feel angrier with their parents and more justified in resenting them, usually lead to fresh waves of defiance. Thus, both parents and children are stuck in patterns in which they repeat precisely those behaviors that are bound to elicit the very responses that they wish so desperately to change.
One of the many problems confronting parents of defiant children is that the available alternatives often seem polarized into two possibilities: Come down hard on your child, letting the “punishment fit the crime”; or adopt a laissez-faire attitude and essentially surrender to your child’s willfulness. Many parents realize that both of these approaches are not only ineffective in changing undesirable behaviors, but that they do not help instill in their children either the values or the skills that their youngsters will need in order to lead successful lives. Teaching such values and skills to behaviorally difficult children is challenging, and parenting techniques for achieving this are not intuitively obvious. This is why most parents need guidance.
I would like to share a resource to which I frequently refer families with whom I work. It is a book, The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, by Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., a well-known psychologist who directs the Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic at Yale. The book, published in 2008, includes a companion DVD and is available in paperback at under $15.00. In it, Kazdin teaches specific techniques for speaking to our youngsters about the changes we wish them to make and for using praise and temporary reward structures to support their constructive efforts. He also discusses when and how to use punishments in a way that will increase, not interfere with, children’s efforts to change. His presentation is compelling, for he is able to cite decades of his own research that has shown what works, and what doesn’t, in bringing about positive behavioral change in youngsters. The ideas in this book are intended to equip parents to promote positive change, often without the need for further psychological consultation.
(Note: Some of the above ideas about criticism-and-defiance cycles were adapted from another valuable book, Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems, by Kenneth Barish, Ph.D., recently published by Oxford University Press.)
Dr. Stone, a clinical psychologist, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and Director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Program for Self-Injuring Adolescents at the Westchester Division of New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York. He resides in Pawling with his wife, Susan, and their family.