Commands and Setting Limits
With clinical psychologist Dr Daniel Weisberg, managing director of CAYP Psychology.
This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, families will be spending more time together. Your children will test you, especially when they’re asked to do something they would rather avoid. Temper tantrums are normal, healthy behaviour. Your children are just testing your rules. If you are not consistent, they will probably test you even harder next time. And remember, typically developing children will fail to comply with their parents’ requests about one third of the time.
Parents, on average, give their children 17 commands every half an hour. In families where children have more behaviour problems, the number rises to an average of 40 commands every half an hour. Children of parents who give an excessive number of commands actually develop more behaviour problems.
One command at a time
Have you ever strung together multiple commands? ‘I want you to put your things away, get your pyjamas on, and brush your teeth.’ Most children can only hold a couple of things in mind at any one time – so long strings will get you nowhere. Another type of chain involves parents saying the same thing again and again. Children will quickly learn there is no real need to comply until the fifth time.
Make it relevant
Some parents repeat a command when their children are already doing as requested, for example: ‘put your toys away’, when this has already started. Other parents give commands about trivial issues from ‘colour that frog green’ to ‘eat all your dessert’. These orders are unnecessary, and they will probably result in a battle of wills. Spoiler alert: you’ll lose.
Make commands clear
Vague commands are confusing. ‘Be careful’ or ‘be good’ do not specify what behaviour is expected. Another unclear command is a descriptive, yet critical comment: ‘Watch it, you’re spilling your drink’. Being unclear will not improve compliance. Be specific about what you want, start the command with a verb, for instance ‘walk slowly’ or ‘speak softly’.
Being authoritarian will lead to critical, negative or sarcastic commands, like ‘why don’t you sit still for once in your life?’ These commands cause children to feel incompetent, defensive and less inclined to comply. Children’s feelings about themselves as worthwhile people should be considered just as important as obedience. Please be polite and show respect to your children.
If your children don’t comply, ensure the consequences outlined are put into place. Never threaten something you can’t follow through. But please praise compliance and let them know that you approve of that behaviour. Praising compliance encourages your children to be more cooperative and value your requests.
We’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a very happy and sweet new year.