When I answered a parent’s question about low frustration tolerance, I realized I had a lot to say on the subject. First, I want to define the problem and then I want to share six tips for teaching your child.
What is Low Frustration Tolerance?
When we are discussing low frustration tolerance, we aren’t talking about a child who easily gets quiet when challenged, are we? If a child withdraws to his room to read because he’s frustrated with the first few math problems he’s presented with, his mother is unlikely to complain. Low frustration tolerance means that a child gets frustrated easily. What most parents struggle with isn’t low tolerance, but poor frustration management. They generally aren’t concerned about when a child gets frustrated as much as they are with how they deal with it. I will be discussing how to help a child who yells, cries, or acts out when frustrated.
#1 Observe the situations that lead to frustration
Be an investigator rather than a mommy. We tend to feel helpless when our child tantrums. Our helplessness can lead to our own poor frustration management. We’re anxious about our child’s behavior and our inability to manage it. This is a problem. Children who have poor self-control have to know that you aren’t freaked out by their behavior. If they don’t have control, they want to know that you do. If you have to fake a sense of control, do it. Your anxiety is fuel on the fire of your child’s fit. Stay calm and rather than fretting, take note of what is happening.
By take note, I’m less interested in you observing her screaming, kicking, or crying. I’m more interested in your observation of what led to this behavior. Observe:
Sleep: did your child get enough sleep? My 3-year-old had a tantrum when we were in Disney World. That was not his typical behavior and was directly related to his not getting a nap. Take note of how your child responds to sleep deprivation.
Nutrition: How long has it been since your child ate? Could this be low blood sugar? I often see my husband being irritable when he’s hungry. Conversely, has your child had a lot of sugar? You may want to take note of any unusual foods eaten as well.
Change of routine: Did you do anything out of the ordinary in your schedule? For example, did you say no to something your child typically gets to enjoy? Have you just returned from vacation?
Interruption of fun: Did you demand that your child stop a fun activity or leave somewhere without giving adequate warning?
Too much input: Was your child around too many people, too much noise, or too many options?
Did someone or something keep your child from getting what he wants? Perhaps a younger sibling destroyed a Lego creation. Does your child have a physical or learning disability that makes achieving difficult? Did other children keep your child from playing?
This kind of observation can’t be done in a day. Keep good notes and you’ll likely discover a pattern to your child’s frustration. This is valuable information.
#2 Use your observations to avoid provoking frustration
We all get frustrated at times. We can’t avoid it completely, but we can certainly avoid provoking it unnecessarily. Let’s talk about being proactive in each of these areas.
Sleep: If your child is reactive to sleep deprivation, make regular bed and naptimes a priority. The fun of staying out late one night probably isn’t worth a hysterical child in your co-op the next day.
Nutrition: If your child reacts to low blood sugar, carry snacks with you and make sure your child has eaten before high-stress situations. If your child can’t handle a certain food or drink, look for an alternative that your child will enjoy.
Change of routine: Allow plenty of ease-in time when you are coming off a break. Don’t return to a full schedule immediately when your child doesn’t manage it well. Avoid unnecessary changes in routine and talk to your child about the necessary ones. Explain the change and give your child some choice in the change if at all possible. For example, if your preschooler is used to watching educational TV at a certain time and you know you won’t be home, explain that you will record the show and that she will be able to watch when you get home or after dinner — her choice.
Interruption of fun: Give your child more than one warning before ending the fun. Saying that you’ll be leaving a friend’s in 30 minutes and then 10 will help your child adjust.
Too much input: Avoid these situations for now. If they’re unavoidable, try to minimize them. For example, if you’re at a fun center, suggest that you spend time with your child in one area. Definitely avoid these situations if your child is already at risk for frustration. You don’t want to take a sleep-deprived, low-blood sugar child to an arcade.
Not getting what he wants: Make sure you address any physical concerns with your pediatrician. Difficulty seeing or hearing is frustrating. If frustration seems limited to certain subjects or skills, consider testing for learning disabilities. Many older children are relieved to know why certain work is so hard for them. If another child is interfering with your child’s fun, ask the parent to intervene or nicely intervene if the parent isn’t available. It’s very frustrating for a child not to have an advocate. If a specific social circle isn’t friendly, find a new one or join in the play with the kids to help your child fit in. You can imagine that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the kinds of things that can keep your child from getting what she wants.
#3 Prepare your child to encounter frustration
Once you’ve observed the situations that cause frustration and you’ve taken steps to avoid them, you’re ready to prepare a child to deal with the frustrations that are part of life. If you know your child is likely to be frustrated, tell him so. For example, “We are going to be playing at Joey’s house today and you know his little brother likes to play, too. One thing that might keep him from bothering you is to play with him first. He just wants to be included. After that, maybe you and Joey can play in Joey’s room and we’ll play with his brother. If he is bothering you, though, tell us right away, okay?”
Everyone copes better with challenging situations when they know what to expect. Be honest about the difficulties; don’t say things like, “It will be fine.” Rather, specifically state the kinds of things that may lead to frustration. Then affirm your belief in your child’s ability to cope. That leads me to step #4.
#4 Teach your child the signs of frustration
We expect our children to just know some things when they must be specifically taught. Most children who struggle with frustration management didn’t see the signs before their behavior was already out of control. The best way to do this is to talk about the physical signs you experience. These are some of my signs that may or may not apply to you. My shoulders get tense. I may hold them up closer to my ears and they feel tight and even sore. I may be frowning so much that I have a headache. My stomach may feel tight, too. As I get more frustrated, I start handling things roughly. I may pound the mouse on my desk or press hard with my pen.
Talk about the thinking signs of frustration that you experience. See if your child has these. I may think, “I can’t do it!”; “It’s not working”; “This is taking forever!”; “They’re driving me crazy!”.
Talk about the verbal signs of frustration and see if your child relates. I might raise my voice. I might ask people to leave me alone. I might tell people to be quiet. I may say, “Never mind!” or “You don’t understand.”
It’s a good idea to write down the specific signs of frustration your child has.
#5 Teach your child how to manage frustration
The best time to teach your child these skills is when he is not frustrated. He should be well rested and ready to learn.
Have your child imagine that she is starting to get frustrated. Use one of the situations you know is a trigger. She should close her eyes and picture it. She should notice the physical signs of frustration she would be likely to feel. Then have your child take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Have your child raise her shoulders to her ears and make the muscles as tight as possible, holding them there for several seconds. Then have her quickly drop her shoulders and let her arms hang like noodles at her side. Take another slow, deep breath in. Do the same thing with her forehead muscles. Have her lift her eyebrows toward her scalp and hold them there, making the forehead muscles tight. Then quickly drop the eyebrows. Take another slow, deep breath in.
Then ask your child for smart ways to manage frustration. Ask what she thinks of the following ideas if she doesn’t suggest them: taking a break; asking for help; praying; going outside.
Suggest new ways of thinking about the frustrating situation: “I can get help”; “I can do it with practice”; “It will be easier to do if I take a break”; “I can calm down if I walk away.”
Suggest new ways of verbalizing the frustration: “I can’t get this to work”; “I’m feeling frustrated”; “Can you help me?”; “Will you pray for me?”; “I need to be by myself for a while”; “I need a break.”
It may be frustrating for you to know that this training is going to require a lot of time. That leads me to step #6.
#6 Continue coaching your child in frustration management
When you notice the signs of frustration in your child (and you should be getting better at noticing them), you can intervene by noting your observations. Consider creating a stoplight sign. You would just put red, yellow, and green paper circles on a black piece of construction paper. Explain what you’re seeing and that it looks like your child is at a yellow level of frustration. Ask what your child needs to do to return to the green level. If your child is struggling, make a suggestion. You could suggest taking a deep breath, for example.
Another way to help your child notice the signs is to say what you’re seeing. “It looks like you’re having trouble getting this toy to work.” This is more helpful than saying, “You’re getting frustrated.” If you want to help, always get permission. Your child may be frustrated specifically because he wants to do it himself. If you fix it for him without permission, you’re likely to provoke a tantrum. Instead, ask, “Do you want me to help by holding this piece for you?” If the answer is no, you can continue to suggest options. “Do you think taking a break and coming back to it might help?” Do not take something away from the child in this situation. That will provoke him for sure. Always give your child the choice, unless there is danger involved.
I had a mother ask if she should allow her child to do what she wants or to set limits even if she knows it will provoke a tantrum. First, I recommend you listen to the episode on the #1 question homeschoolers ask me. Then your choice to do something that you know will frustrate your child depends on you. I’m not suggesting that we avoid ever making our children unhappy. That would be very poor parenting. But if you are highly stressed, haven’t had enough sleep, etc. and pulling your child off her favorite game means she will pitch a fit, I am all for avoiding a confrontation. However, this choice of giving in to your child cannot become a pattern. Children have to learn to manage frustration in order to survive and thrive.
You can succeed in teaching your child to manage frustration. Start by observing what provokes frustration. What have you noticed? Let’s chat about it on Facebook.
What is the number one question I am asked by homeschoolers? You may think that it has something to do with socialization because that’s what non-homeschoolers love to ask us about. You may think it has something to do with mental health because I’m a psychologist. But you would be wrong.
To tell you the #1 question, I want to tell you a story about one of my dear homeschooling friends. She had just begun homeschooling when I met her and she was very discouraged. She told me she had spent hours preparing a lesson plan for her kids. Her daughter was doing just fine. Her son, the eldest, however, was not. I’m paraphrasing, but she said,
“I have a plan. but my son isn’t going along with my plan.”
I laughed really hard, but not because I didn’t feel for her. In fact, I had been there myself. So many homeschool moms get discouraged when their child isn’t cooperative, enthusiastic, or diligent when it comes to homeschooling. In fact, many moms tell me they are considering putting their kids in school because one or more of their kids isn’t loving school.
What did I tell my friend? What do I tell homeschool moms who have a similar question about reluctant students? There are two issues I address: One is personality and the other is parenting.
The Strong-Willed Personality
Let’s start with personality. What many homeschoolers don’t consider is the strong will that is required to homeschool. Even in today’s mainstream homeschooling culture, the choice to homeschool often requires a strong will. Preferences of extended family members may have to be rejected in order to homeschool. You are probably making an education choice that differs from your friends. The choice to stand alone and take your own path requires a strong will. Thus, we should not be surprised when one or more strong-willed parents has a son or daughter who is also strong willed. But what do I mean by the term ‘strong will’? These are individuals who are confident, ambitious, and determined to go their own way. They are often passionate about what they believe in. A wonderful example of a strong-willed person from the Bible is the apostle Paul. Strong-willed individuals usually believe they are right. Paul confronted Peter, certain that he was right about a doctrinal issue and Peter was wrong. Your strong-willed students will be happy to tell you why they are right about a homeschool or family issue. If we are strong willed ourselves, we may have high hopes (like my friend) that all our children will gleefully follow our plan. After all, we know we are right too, don’t we? Working with strong-willed children can be challenging and exhausting. But the truth is, our strong-willed children are leaders of the future. Once they have grasped the gospel and made a commitment to Jesus Christ, very little will dissuade them.
If you are dealing with a strong-willed child, you may be irritated by seeing traits that you yourself possess or that your spouse possesses. Work on seeing your child’s strong will as a blessing from God that He can use for His purposes. The Bible says that our children will make us proud when they face their enemies. Then, recognize how to work with a strong-willed personality. The temptation is to try to out will the strong-willed child. This is a recipe for disaster. A strong-willed child often needs to be reasoned with. “Because I said so” may gain your child’s obedience, but it will not gain your child’s heart. Explain your reasons for choosing a particular curriculum, a particular activity, or having a particular rule. If, as you are explaining, you realize that your argument is weak, say so and your strong-willed child’s respect for you will grow greatly.
The second approach to use with a strong-willed child is to give him or her control. This does not mean that we allow our child to dictate and it certainly doesn’t mean that we allow our child to be disrespectful. But we must give a strong-willed child as much latitude in decision-making for their lives as possible. For example, you may prefer that your child does math at precisely 10 AM. A better approach with a strong-willed child is to give him or her a list of chores and subjects to complete for the day. This allows your child to determine the best time to complete the work. Some of your children would much prefer to get up early and finish math ahead of time. Others will choose to complete it at the very last minute. The common thread is that your strong-willed child is in control. The older the child, you might give them a weekly to-do list, a monthly to do list, or even a quarterly to-do list.
When it comes to family rules, a strong-willed child wants to know that you respect him. Part of that respect means that you do not assume the worst choices on their part. Give your child responsibility and independence until such time as this child disappoints you. Even when mistakes are made, be careful to give your strong-willed child another opportunity.
Parenting the Strong-Willed Child
This leads me to the second part of my answer to parents who have a child who isn’t rubber-stamping their homeschool plans. That is parenting. More and more often I speak with parents who choose a passive parenting style or child-led home. I see kids telling their parents no, whining with good results, and even kicking them! You might think that my argument against passive parenting is at odds with what I just said about strong-willed children. But it does not. Imagine if you were a brand-new medical resident. You walked into the operating room for the first time and stood next to the surgeon who was supervising you. You asked the surgeon quite a number of times if you could participate in the surgery. You just wanted to hold the scalpel. You just wanted to make a cut or two. Imagine the surgeon growing weary of your requests and handing you the scalpel. Imagine he leaves the room, telling you that you would be doing the surgery alone. This is much like what happens in many homes today. Children ask for things that they simply aren’t prepared for or things that aren’t good for them. After much nagging, parents give in and abdicate their parental role. Like a new medical resident holding a scalpel, our children are terrified when this happens. These children will act out in more and more outrageous ways in an effort to get the parents to behave like parents. It’s as though they’re asking, “What do I have to do to get you to give me some boundaries?”
Children need boundaries and they require discipline in order to feel loved. The Bible says that he who loves his child is careful to discipline him. Children are very sensitive to the fact that if their parent does not discipline, they do not love him. I have talked with teens personally and professionally who have said this word-for-word. Does discipline have to be physical? Absolutely not. Does discipline have to be harsh? Absolutely not. But there must be consequences for misbehavior.
Let’s talk about what this means with respect to homeschool. Let’s say you have a strong-willed child who consistently says she doesn’t want to do school. Perhaps you have gotten worn down by this behavior. You imagined that your children would love homeschooling. You just knew that that fun curriculum you bought, the new class, or the computer program you bought would do the trick. Your children would stop complaining about school and they would bounce out of bed every morning, ready to take on learning. When that doesn’t happen you begin to get discouraged and also to question yourself. You wonder what is wrong with you and consider that you just aren’t cut out for homeschooling. The real issue is this. It is normal for children to push boundaries. This is what children do.
I have an adorable dog. She is a Coton de Tulare and she is so much fun to have around. She has a great life. However, given an open gate or front door, our sweet dog will escape every single time. This behavior does not mean that she does not love our family. It does not mean that we are doing something wrong in caring for her. It means she’s a dog and she is going to always seek more freedom. I can stretch this analogy even further by telling you that she is constantly challenging the rules that we have for her as well. If your children are challenging you, complaining, or otherwise resisting your homeschooling and parenting efforts, congratulations! You have normal kids. The question then becomes not what’s wrong with your children but what is your response?
There are two foolish choices to make when kids are challenging us. The first is to be passive. I could just surrender and allow my dog to run loose every time she gets out. The result will certainly be her death as she is not wise to the ways of cars. In a very real way, when we stop enforcing rules with our kids, the consequence will be death. I know examples of people who did not have any discipline and become either actively or passively suicidal. Passive parenting is dangerous. Your children can complain and they can question you, but they cannot be allowed to take over the surgery. Children must complete chores. Children must get an education. If your child doesn’t like a curriculum or a class, this does not mean that you cannot require them to complete it. You are well within your rights to do so. If you send your children to school, do you believe that your children can opt out of assignments or classes they don’t like? There will be consequences for those decisions in school. Good, healthy parenting simply means that we provide consequences for choices. Consequences are not only negative. Consequences are also positive. If your child finishes work early, she can have more free time. That’s a positive consequence. A negative consequence is not having free time if work is completed late.
A lie many passive parents believe is that there is simply nothing they can do to enforce their rules. Young children who are living in your home, eating your food, and requiring your transportation have no power to run your home unless you give it to them. I am absolutely not suggesting that passive parents switch gears and move to the opposite end of the parenting spectrum.
Let’s talk about that opposite end of the spectrum now. That is the authoritarian parenting approach. Many strong-willed parents use an authoritarian approach with strong-willed children. This approach is unlikely to go well. The authoritarian parent will often point to a passive child who complies with all of her demands as evidence that the strong-willed child ought to be doing likewise. The real danger is the parent can begin to think of the strong-willed child as evil or unlovable. They wonder if there is something characterologically wrong with the child. The child knows that this is the parent’s perspective and it’s devastating.
Authoritarian parenting is rules first, relationship last. Authoritarian parenting is like passive parenting in that both approaches are focused on the parent. The passive parent is focused on her own time, energy, and self-esteem and just gives up so as not to have to feel tired and discouraged anymore. The authoritarian parent is also focused on self. Compliance of the child makes the authoritarian parent feel good about herself and more powerful, something which is very important to her. But self-focused parenting, parenting that is not focused on love for the child first, is likely to breed anger, depression, and more conflict. The authoritarian parent is often overly concerned about what other parents think of their child. Fear that their child will not make them look good drives authoritarian parents to use ever greater punishments for what is perceived lack of compliance. Oftentimes what would have been dealt with using a reasonable consequence becomes a child acting out even more because of anger over the unjust consequence that was given.
How Would I Answer Your Question?
Do you wonder if I really say all this when parents ask me about their child’s behavior in homeschooling? No, I don’t. Instead, I ask questions about what is happening. I say things like, “I wonder if you…” and then suggest an alternate approach. I do believe there is hope for parents whose children refuse to rubberstamp their homeschooling plan. I believe that it begins with prayer. Even with people I know personally, I’m not in their home every day observing their behavior. I don’t know exactly what’s happening. That’s certainly true with you. I don’t know what the root of your problem is. Your child may have a physical, emotional, or educational challenge that complicates matters. Because I don’t know all of the details and the day to day, I have to send you to the best counselor I know. His name is Jesus. He doesn’t charge any fees but He does insist on complete honesty. He wants to lay bare your heart and show you where there has been fear and anger. But he doesn’t want to know this to shame you or to discourage you. Instead, he wants to show you a new way of relating to your child. Jesus modeled for us how to teach. And if you think your student is bad, read about His students! Ask God to show you how to relate to your child differently. Ask Him to show you if you have a strong will or if you’re relating to your child’s strong will as though it is a parent’s or spouse’s.
Ask Him to show you if you’re a passive parent. If you handed your child the scalpel and walked out of the operating room, confess it. Commit to being an authoritative parent–one who is firm but loving and flexible. Never allow your child to tell you that they will not do something. Never allow your child to disrespect you. You may wonder how your child can express themselves without being disrespectful. One of the best techniques I read about early on in my parenting is something called the wise appeal. If I tell my child that I want them to clean the bathroom and they are playing a game at the time, my child can say, “Mom, I know you want me to clean the bathroom, but would it be okay if I finished my game first?” The wise appeal acknowledges and respects the request that the parent has made but allows the child to make a respectful argument about when to comply with that request. If your children are not used to the wise appeal, you will have to remind them many times. This is child training. If your child says, “I don’t want to do math” or otherwise whines and complains, remind them to use the wise appeal. You may have to give them an example of what to say.
In the same way, ask the Lord if you have been an authoritarian parent. Consider how you have viewed God. So often authoritarian parents believe that we have an authoritarian God. In this view, God is much more concerned about performance than He is about our relationship with Him. This just isn’t the case. You may need time to heal your own hurts from childhood or your experience with your church in order to feel that you can be more grace-based as a parent. If you have been an authoritarian parent you may want to ask for your children’s forgiveness. Admit that you have been too concerned about appearances. That you wanted to look like the amazing homeschooler whose children jumped at their every command. This will be especially powerful for your strong-willed child to hear. Take time to listen to your child without interrupting if you have been guilty of authoritarian parenting. You may want to detox your home by doing some child-led learning for a time. You will get to know the heart of your child and isn’t that the greatest blessing of homeschooling?
There is so much more that I could say on this topic but I will end by saying that I believe there is hope for you, your child, and your homeschool. Sending your child to school will not change these issues. Humbly and prayerfully parenting your strong-willed child can.
Are you homeschooling a strong-willed child? Let’s talk about it on Facebook
It’s very important to me that my children be grateful. My family didn’t have a lot of money. It seemed easier to be grateful for what we had. My children have a lot more than I did and I was concerned that they could be selfish and spoiled as a result. I have been intentional about encouraging gratitude in my children over the years and I have developed some strategies that I think have been effective. I want to share them with you.
The first strategy is to pray daily with your children.
We begin our homeschool day with prayer. The first thing we each pray is what we are thankful for. When I first began this practice, there were often times when my children seemed confused about what to be grateful for. They needed time and wanted their siblings to go first. But the more we did it, the more exposure they had to all the things that their older brothers and I mentioned. My youngest has developed the funny habit of going on and on about what he’s thankful for. If your child is going to keep talking about something, I can’t think of a better topic.
The second strategy for encouraging gratitude is to make children pay for things.
Because I was so concerned that having more money would lead my children to be ungrateful, I required them to pay for any extras that they wanted. In our home that can be anything from candy to an iPod. While I was planning this podcast, my daughter asked if she could buy a new earring tree. I said she could with her own money. This led her to ask if there were any odd jobs she could do for me to make extra cash. When children learn how expensive things are by comparing prices to how much money they have in their accounts, they are more likely to respect what we purchase for them. I know every parent has a different viewpoint on allowance and chores, but I have always given my younger children an allowance. My older children are paid to do bigger chores like mowing the lawn and shipping books. The kids have also worked with their neighborhood friends to shovel driveways, sell lemonade, and wash dogs to add to their income if they aren’t old enough for an outside job. In addition to making children grateful, requiring children to pay for their wants (and not their needs) also encourages them to be frugal.
The next powerful way to encourage your children to be grateful is to have them listen to a missionary presentation.
My family has the advantage of having a missionary in our family. My sister-in-law travels and learns the needs of people in Third World countries. My children have willingly contributed from their own finances to pay for goats for children in need in Africa, for example. Another friend went on a missionary trip and presented her experiences in Bolivia for our co-op. She explained how raising giant guinea pigs provides for families there. Our family chose to support a child through World Vision as a result. If you don’t have a family member or friend who is a missionary, your church or another area church will likely have missionaries speaking.
The next way to cultivate gratitude in our children’s hearts is to read them true stories of people who are less fortunate.
I love the biography of George Mueller by YWAM. The description of orphans who did not have enough to eat or an education but by the grace of God and the ministry of George Muller, speaks powerfully to how blessed my children are. They have both parents living. They have enough food to eat. Other missionary stories by YWAM have helped my children see how fortunate they are that all their siblings are still living. The high school American literature book we are reading now– A Tree Grows in Brooklyn — also portrays hunger in a way my teens can empathize with.
The next way we can encourage our children to be grateful is to have them participate in servant events.
My children and I have participated in food packing events for Feed My Starving Children. I don’t think that simply packing meals and working hard for an hour and a half would convince my children to be grateful. But the videos that are shown after we are done have touched their hearts. This last event we participated in included a video of a young boy who was left in the hot sun on his knees all day, every day. He was extremely emaciated, unable to walk or speak. A woman with the organization asked his mother if she could take him and nurse him back to health and the mother agreed. Video footage of this young boy thriving in response to being fed was so powerful for me and I know it had to be for my children. See if there is a Feed My Starving Children food packing event in your area. I’ll share the link in the show notes. If not, contact charitable organizations in your area. See if they are willing to talk with your family or co-op about the needs in their own community. Another excellent servant event for your kids to participate in Samaritan’s Purse Shoebox ministry. Our homeschool support group serves as a collection point for boxes. During a Thanksgiving activity, videos of children joyfully receiving their shoeboxes helps kids understand that not every child receives the kinds of gifts they do.
Finally, we can encourage our children to be grateful by keeping a prayer journal.
There is so much to be grateful for. We are not only grateful for having enough food to eat and having a family member still with us, but we are grateful for every answered prayer that demonstrates God’s continued love for us. This is something I want to begin in the coming year. I want to record our prayers in a journal and their answers, so my children and I can review God’s faithfulness to us. Thanksgiving would be a wonderful time to read every answered prayer that you have had in the past year. Encourage your children to think small. We aren’t always able to see the results of prayers for salvation, but we can see answered prayer for colds being healed quickly or a child being able to play a sport well. We can use our prayer journals to record God’s supernatural comfort and peace even in the face of prayers that aren’t answered exactly the way we had hoped. You can use any notebook for this, but I created prayer journal templates for you to print and use.
When we use these steps to cultivate gratitude in our children’s hearts, the bonus is that they will also experience joy. Psychological research supports the idea that being grateful and serving others are powerful approaches to instilling happiness. Of course, as we teach our children gratitude, we can find our own joy growing as well.
How do you teach your children gratitude? Join the conversation on Facebook.
The fighting and bickering gets on your nerves at best and scares you at worst. What are you supposed to do?
I’m a psychologist and I’m supposed to KNOW what to do. I’ve tried just about every recommended technique:
- Ignoring the fighting as a plea for my attention
- Putting the argued-over object into time out
- Putting the fighting kids in a room together until they can work things out
Of course, I have used Scripture to admonish and have disciplined cruel behavior.
But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that I was always trying to battle the blaze, instead of trying to prevent these heated arguments in the first place.
While disagreements over toys and turns with kids are inevitable, there was a source of the conflict that I had neglected to “nip in the bud” as my mom liked to say: unkind words.
Oh sure, I chastised them whenever I heard something unkind being said. But I tolerated it like it wasn’t a big deal. It is.
Why We Have to Nip Unkind Words in the Bud
The Bible says that unkind words are:
- like sword thrusts (Proverbs 12:18)
- likely to stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1)
- likely to cause trouble (Proverbs 21:23)
Before Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery (and later regretted it), they were unable to say a kind word to him (Genesis 37:4).
Though we frequently hear about the effect of parents’ unkind words on their children, siblings’ cutting words can be just as devastating.
As parents, I believe we have to take unkind words seriously. We wouldn’t allow our children to jab at their siblings with a sword. Neither should we tolerate unkind words.
The Solution to Sibling Rivalry
While we can’t avoid conflict in our families, we can take steps to stop the verbal abuse that is so destructive.
#1 Have a family discussion.
I can’t stress the importance of this enough. You may be astonished as I was at the level of hurt your children are experiencing because of the words that have been said. Depending on your children’s ages, this could be an emotional conversation. Don’t begin unless you have plenty of time and have removed as many distractions as possible.
Start with Scripture. Share the Scriptures above and retell the story of Joseph and his brothers in your own words. Explain that our family members can hurt us more deeply than anyone, because they know us so well.
Use the butterfly metaphor. Ask your children what would happen if you pressed down fairly lightly on a butterfly’s wings. Explain that in the same way that the butterfly could be wounded by something we take lightly, our siblings can be greatly wounded by our words.
Ask them for examples of words that have wounded them. Make sure they know that they are allowed to share words that Mom or Dad have used that have wounded them as well. Clarify that the discussion is not for the purpose of disciplining anyone. Do not allow anyone to question what your children say hurts them (No “I was kidding!” “You’re so sensitive.” “That didn’t hurt you; you laughed!”). You may hear some really upsetting things. Try not to discourage your kids from getting everything out on the table.
Write everything down. I created a form for this purpose which you can get by scrolling to the end of the post. Please feel free to add your own examples of unkind words. Include words that label the person rather than deal with the behavior and words that suggest mind reading. For example, “You’re so selfish!”; “You always…”; “You did that on purpose!”.
Ask them for behaviors that have been hurtful. You may hear the obvious like hitting or taking toys away, but also the less obvious like not being included. Write these down, too. Again, if you have examples of unkind behavior that your children haven’t mentioned, list them.
Ask them for positive words they would like to hear. As with most problems, the solution isn’t exclusive to eliminating bad behavior, but requires the addition of new behaviors. They may have trouble with this one, so make suggestions like:
- “Great job!”
- “I like playing with you.”
- “You’re getting better at that.”
Ask them for positive behaviors they would like to see. In the same way, it’s important to ask them for positive behaviors they need from their siblings, such as:
- Helping with clean up
- Being included in play
#2 Sign the Kind Words Covenant
Explain the purpose of a covenant. A covenant is a serious agreement between two or more parties. God’s covenant with us as believers is based on grace. Whereas before Christ fulfilled the law and died for our sins, we were unable to overcome our sinful nature and treat our siblings lovingly, now we can. The covenant is the beginning of changing our beliefs about the importance of kind words. Although we know we will make mistakes, we agree to pray regularly for Jesus’ ability to abide by the covenant.
Explain what will happen if the covenant is broken. If unkind words are used, the person who hears them (or is the victim of them) will ask, “What?” or “What did you say?” When your children (or even the adults in your home) are still getting used to the covenant, you may have to repeat the questions, remind them they have broken the covenant, or prompt them further to give an appropriate response to these questions which includes: “What I meant to say was…”; “I take it back.”; and “I’m sorry.” If the response is insincere, say so. The point is not to literally repeat the unkind words, but to realize you have violated the covenant and respond appropriately.
If unkind behavior is the problem, anyone who sees it will ask, “What are you doing?” The appropriate responses are to stop the behavior and apologize.
Ask everyone to sign the covenant. Emphasize the seriousness of the signing. A signature means you are committed to using kind words in your family and are willing to respond as described above if you violate the agreement.
#3 Put the Covenant into Practice
Model what to do when the covenant is broken. At the beginning, everyone will look to you as the parent to see if you take the covenant seriously. Be prepared to say “What?” and encourage appropriate responses a lot. If one child says something unkind and is answered in turn, ask both children what they said–with the intent of getting them to respond correctly and not by repeating the unkind words. You may have to add at first that they have broken the covenant. Remind them to respond this way when you are not there to witness the unkind words. Encourage them to walk away or get help if their sibling doesn’t rephrase their words, take it back, or apologize.
Involve your children’s friends. Explain to children who are in your home that you don’t want to hear unkind words and that when they use them, you will be asking, “What?” or “What did you say?” That is their cue to say, “What I meant to say was…” or “I’m sorry.” You may wish to share this post with your friends so all your children can be on the same page. I found that a significant amount of hurt was related to words shared among friends.
Add to the contract as needed. You will keep finding examples of unkind words and behaviors. Add them to the covenant and review it frequently at first.
Talk with unrepentant children. In the beginning, when hurts are still fresh, you may have one child who is so angry that he refuses to abide by the agreement. At these times, you may want to let your child calm down, give consequences, and/or have a private discussion. Perhaps there is more going on in the relationships than has previously been discussed. Sometimes children feel parents aren’t enforcing the rules equally and you need to be open to hearing your child’s perspective.
If your child still refuses to abide by the covenant, ask him what will happen if you give up on it. Does he really want to go back to relationships that have no limits on unkind words and behavior? Pray with your child and ask God to give him His heart for his brothers and sisters.
Every situation is different and you may need professional help in resolving sibling rivalry in your home. Seek your pastor’s counsel or a referral to a Christian counselor.
I am thankful for the practical tips taken from books on verbal abuse by Patricia Evans. You may wish to read her materials for further understanding of the destructiveness of verbal abuse.
This covenant has been an answer to prayer for my family. I hope it is for yours as well.
If you are already a subscriber to Psychowith6, you will find the covenant in the Subscriber Freebies folder (you received the link when you subscribed). Otherwise, you can get your free copy by clicking the button below:
Get the Kind Word Covenant
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I made dinner for the family and after we ate, my son said, “Thanks, Mom! That was really good!” His siblings chimed in with their thanks and I marveled. While my children have a variety of habits that leave something to be desired, they have had this habit of expressing gratitude to my husband and me for quite some time.
I am delighted by my children’s thankfulness, but I didn’t know where it came from until recently when I decided to ask them, “Why do you say ‘thank you’?” I was surprised by what they had to say. Maybe you will be too.
#1 We’re homeschooled.
“We spend so much time with you,” my son said. “And we aren’t around kids who aren’t thankful.”
I have made it clear to the kids that I homeschool as a sacrifice of my time and money because I love them. I know I had a selfish motivation in telling them this: I didn’t want them to complain about school when it is true that I sacrifice for them everyday. My husband has affirmed this truth to them.
Before jumping to the conclusion that homeschooling means grateful kids, I wonder if the connection is the sincere belief that my husband and I are deserving of gratitude? There are so many hard-working, self-sacrificing parents who don’t homeschool who also feel like they still aren’t giving their kids enough.
What if, regardless of how your children are educated, you communicated your firm belief that you’re deserving of gratitude from them?
#2 You discipline us.
At first I thought my son meant that I punished them for lack of gratitude, but then I remembered watching one episode of Nanny 911 with him. A four-year-old on the show called his mother a witch with a ‘B’ and my son was aghast. I told him at the time that this is what our family would be like without discipline.
When the kids were younger, I do remember promising a consequence for lack of gratitude. We had gone on an expensive, time-consuming outing and the kids were whining about snacks, rather than thanking us. I said that if they weren’t going to be grateful, that we wouldn’t be doing this again.
But that discipline can’t explain the attitude my children have today. Thinking back to Nanny 911, I see gratitude requiring respect. If our children’t didn’t respect us, why would they be thankful to us? And if we didn’t discipline them, why would they respect us?
I’ve gone through all kinds of phases in my beliefs about child discipline, but one thing remains: I believe discipline is the product of love and time.
If you love your child enough to take the time to discipline him, he is more likely to respect you and be grateful to you.
#3 You say ‘thank you.’
If I were asked why I have the habit of expressing gratitude, I would say I learned it from my mom. In this sense, my kids are just carrying on a family tradition.
In another sense, I have tried to be mindful of thanking my children for doing their chores, expressing delight when they do special things for me (and rewarding them with the Caught Being Good app), and thanking their father in front of them.
However, this explanation of why they’re grateful has reminded me to be careful of complaining–something I do too often.
To raise grateful children, say ‘thank you’ often.
#4 We’re Christians.
This explanation of my children’s gratefulness brought tears to my eyes. The attitude was, “Of course we’re grateful!” They didn’t give me a theological exegesis on their gratitude; it was just an obvious connection for them.
While I have taught the Bible, trained character, and taken my children to church, I have no responsibility for this source of gratitude. Honestly, that’s a relief. God has changed my children’s hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit in ways that go beyond expressing gratitude. That truth gives me peace as I deal with other behavior problems.
Regularly pray and ask God to give your children grateful hearts.
Has anything else encouraged gratitude in your children?
Here are more ideas for promoting thankfulness.
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Most of the interpersonal problems I have seen professionally and personally could have been avoided with good communication. This week we will focus on improving our parenting communication skills. Here’s how:
#1 Have the kids evaluate you
We are going to start with a task that most parents never do: ask their children to tell them how they’re doing. We may imagine that having our children evaluate us encourages them to be disrespectful. On the contrary, this kind of open communication promotes respect. Children who feel they have no voice in their relationship with you are most likely to rebel.
We may also fear hearing about our flaws. Yet, it’s better to be told now than to hear when our children are adults that they were unhappy with our parenting or teaching. With our humility comes the opportunity for God to change us and our families for the better.
I have created a form that your children can use to evaluate both parents. It may not be appropriate for younger students. Make sure your children know that you want their honest opinions and that you won’t be angry or sad if they give them.
Click to download or print the student evaluation form for homeschool parents/teachers.
#2 Have a parent-teacher conference
It seems like an oxymoron, but parent-teacher conferences are very important for married homeschooling families. We can be so busy that we don’t make time to discuss each of our children’s academic and personal progress as a couple. A child may continue to struggle unnecessarily because one parent isn’t aware of the need. When we don’t know what to do, our spouse may.
Schedule a time with your spouse for conferences (you may have to schedule one child at a time) and then complete these Homeschool Conference Evaluation Forms from FiveJs.com. The forms provide an opportunity for the primary teacher to evaluate students and for the students to evaluate themselves.
Using these forms and the parent evaluation forms, prayerfully discuss each child. Agree on when to meet with your child, what you want to praise each child for, and what you’d like the child to work on. Use this time to pray together about a personal goal in your parenting for the rest of the school year as well. Ask your spouse to help hold you accountable with regular progress updates.
#3 Have a conference with each child
When both parents meet with a child, he learns that he is valued. You could meet with him at home or take him somewhere special where you will have the opportunity to talk. Keep your conversation positive. Affirm your love for him and your confidence that he can keep growing. You may wish to present your child with a Scripture that you believe will help him understand your heart for him.
#4 Plan special time for each child
You don’t want to a conference to be the only special time you have with each child. Parents of many children will find daily time with individual kids a challenge. Doorposts sells a Family Time Circle that will help you remember who’s supposed to spend time with whom. Some families like to be less structured with individual time and choose to take the opportunities that present themselves (i.e., take one child to the grocery store, another on a different errand, and so on).
Come Together Kids shares a very clever idea for planning monthly special time. Although the idea is used as a valentine’s gift, these scratch-off cards would be well-received any time.
Which of these tasks do you think will give you more confidence as a parent?
Next week’s challenge is the Extended Family Challenge.
These are the previous weeks’ challenges:
Organized Homeschool Challenge
Week 1: Daily Devotions Challenge
Week 2: Daily Routine Challenge
Week 3: To-Do List Challenge
Week 4: Memory Keeping Challenge
Week 5: The Decluttering Challenge
Week 6: The Organized Computer Challenge
Week 7: The Marriage of Your Dreams Challenge