When Your Child “Quits” the Program
We were doing pretty well with our program for a few weeks but then our twelve-year-old daughter got very upset. When she left time-out and came to the kitchen, she dropped a pile of tiny scraps of paper on the counter. She announced angrily, “there’s your stupid program.” The pieces were her chart. Since she destroyed the program, what do we do now?
Your daughter surely let you know how she feels, or at least how she felt when she tore up the chart. Somehow she managed to construe the program into something punitive. It may be scary for her now that you are operating differently. Perhaps before she felt confident about how to meet her needs, and now she isn’t so sure. Or maybe now it looks to her as though she has to exert more effort to get what she got before with less effort.
When your daughter gave you the torn up chart and told you it was “your stupid program,” you accepted that she had “destroyed the program.” But only if you agree that the chart is the program would that be true. My view is that the chart is a tool for keeping track of the program, but it is not the program itself. You can best think of the program as consisting of your expectations for your child and your manner of assuring your daughter meets them. If loss of the chart makes you change your expectations or makes you give up your commitment to dealing with her by reinforcing what you expect from her, then she will have, in fact, destroyed the program.
That choice, however, is not hers but yours.
How, then, might you best react to this turn of events? The first step, I would suggest, is sitting down with your daughter when she is calm and telling her that you realize that she was upset when she tore up the chart and asking her to help you understand what was bothering her. Then try to listen only, without defending yourself or explaining away whatever she says. You may learn that the chart and program had nothing to do with the reaction, and if so, you can discuss the concern separately and determine a suitable response.
Some concerns may even lend themselves to inclusion within the program. Suppose, for example, that her complaint was that her younger brother was getting all your attention because he was earning so many credits on his own program. After acknowledging that it must be frustrating to watch, you could offer to review her program and determine whether some of the items might be modified to allow her more successes herself.
But suppose all you learn is that your daughter finds the program unduly demanding since she had things her own way prior to its start. Your task at that point would be to make it clear that the program is still in effect and that neither your expectations nor your manner of dealing with them has changed.
Since the chart was torn up, you will have to make a new one, and that presents a problem since you are unlikely to remember each of the child’s successes from the beginning of the chart. I suggest that you do the best you can to reconstruct the credits earned, discussing it with your daughter if you can do so calmly. I would not suggest that you let her tell you which points she earned, since that would tempt her to fudge, but rather that you have her tell you things that can jog your own memory. For example, she might say:
Remember, Mom, that I vacuumed the living room right after I got home from Mary’s that day, and you told me how good it was that I did it before you set up for your book club.
If your child is too angry to participate, do the best you can and tell her that you are sorry that there may be some errors that you can’t fix because of the circumstances. I urge you not to turn this into a lecture since doing so is unlikely to convey anything she doesn’t already realize, but it could end up giving undue attention to negatives. If she complains about credits she thinks she should have but you aren’t sure about, explain why you can’t include them, and to further complaining, say:
I’m sorry if you don’t’ understand. I’ve reconstructed as much of the chart as I can and I’ve explained it the best I can, and that’s just the way it is.
From then on, do not participate further in discussion since doing so would only continue a fruitless process.
If your daughter is really upset about the program, she may still tell you angrily, “I’m just not going to do the program again, and I don’t care what you say!” It will be good to anticipate such a reaction so that you are ready with your own response. At that moment explain, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but the program is the way we are doing things in our home now.” Whatever retorts or protests you hear, just disengage.
– – – – – – – – –
The trouble with having a stubbornness contest with your kids is that they have your stubbornness gene.
– – – – – – – – –
From then on continue to operate as I have discussed. Even a child who is determined not to cooperate is likely to complete some expectation on your target behavior list, and when she does, be sure to offer appropriate praise, neither overly effusive, nor sarcastic, nor blah. This may be difficult for you if your daughter has been sulky and unpleasant for some time, but it will pay big dividends for you to demonstrate that the program continues to work exactly as you said it would.
In some measure, your child is testing whether you really mean to reward the behaviors in the program while withholding response to inappropriate ones. Passing the test will require you to maintain your own discipline and thereby model the very things you mean to teach: responsibility for one’s own behavior. In the process you will demonstrate to your daughter that she will continue to benefit whenever she meets your expectations. At some point, she is likely to become interested in the rewards on your list. When that happens, reward yourself as well since you will have faced about as tough a challenge to the program as anyone is likely to.
One more note: since you started by saying that you were doing rather well with the program for a couple of weeks, I am assuming your target behaviors are realistically reachable, positive, and clearly stated. Still, it could be useful to review each item to be sure since poorly written items could contribute to your daughter’s upset. Making adjustments according to your review could be part of your response to her if you find things that bear improvement.