Q:My seven-year-old son, an only child, is giving me fits. He’s overly active and won’t cooperate with any instruction I give him. In addition, if I tell him not to do something, it’s a guarantee he’s going to do it as soon as my back is turned. I’m a single mom, and I’m embarrassed to admit that he runs the house. I spoke to his pediatrician about this, and she recommended ADHD medication, but I don’t want to go in that direction. Besides, he has no problems in school and never has. His teachers love him and are constantly telling me how smart and mature he is for his age. It’s like I’m dealing with a person with a split personality. If he isn’t crazy, I’m slowly getting there. Can you give me some tips?
A:The completely unscientific nature of the ADHD diagnosis aside, your son is not a candidate for medications that have never reliably outperformed placebos in clinical trials. It never fails to infuriate me when I hear of pediatricians whose knee-jerk response to discipline problems is a prescription. Having said that, I understand completely the pressure they are under to do something “helpful” during a 10- to 15-minute office visit. There ought to be a parenting specialist in every pediatric office, someone who can take the time that the physician probably doesn’t have.
Your son does not have a split personality. He’s simply figured out that some adults have claimed their natural authority over children, and others, including you, have not. The proper adult authority has a profound calming and focusing effect on children. It’s an effect that no medication can match.
In your description of the problem, you used the word cooperate. My consistent finding is that parents who use that word want their children to obey, but instead of giving clear, authoritative instructions, they make requests and suggestions, such as, “Would you please come to the table so we can have dinner?” or, “It would really help me if you’d stop what you’re doing and feed the dog, OK?”
When it comes to the discipline of a child, consequences will be necessary at times, but the key element is a proper presentation of oneself as an authority figure, and that’s primarily a matter of how you speak. Using the above examples, the proper words are, “It’s time for you to come to the table for dinner,” and, “You need to feed the dog now.” The fewer words contained in an instruction, the more authoritative it sounds.
The reader would probably be amazed at the number of parents who’ve told me that simply learning the proper way to give instructions and communicate decisions, using the fewest words possible, and answering “Why?” or “Why not?” with “Because I said so,” has completely turned their kids’ behavior around. I call it “leadership speech” because it communicates to the child that the adult is in charge, and a child’s natural reaction to the proper delivery of authority is obedience.
Now, you obviously have some lost ground to make up for, but you can do this. Keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with your son. If there were a major problem, his teachers would be begging you to medicate him.
You need to get your son’s attention and convince him that life as he has known it with Mommy is over.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at tracy firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.