by Erika O'Brien
Compliance. We all want it from our children – and quickly! This is the case, whether or not our kids have special needs. This may be bound up in our desire to see our children respect us, and to learn to respect authority, a skill which they will need throughout their lives as they work and live in community. Sadly, when lack of compliance is not handled in a mindful manner (as opposed to reactively), it can lead to a lot of frustration and unhappiness in families. In fact, according to Sydney relationship and family therapist, Jenny Brown,
“The worst forms of neglect and rejection of children grow out of an idealised parent-child bond where the first signs of lack of compliance by the child are experienced by the parent as an intolerable threat to the perfect harmony they imagined.” (Brown, 2012, p. 115)
Think about what kind of emotional reactions lack of compliance lead to in your own family...
Often in my own household, I find myself calmly making requests over and over again for instrument practice to be done, baths to be had, rooms to be tidied... “I’ll do it later, Mum,” comes the reply. After a while, I run out of ‘nice’ and start feeling very wound up inside as I repeat my requests. My voice gets a little more agitated. Inevitably, bedtime comes, and another day goes by with many things left undone. Even if my children do eventually comply, they are mostly doing it to please me, and not out of their own inner-desire to take on the responsibility. I am destined to begin the whole frustrating cycle again the next day.
Nagging is clearly ineffective in our household. In a recent seminar in the UK, Andrew Powell, an expert in helping teenagers with ASD manage their anger, reminded me that constantly being “at” our children is not only ineffective, but not good for the mental health of the child or the parents. Quieting down the household can be a great thing. In fact, another mental health professional, Bill Nason suggests, where children on the spectrum are concerned, it is best to pick your battles and reduce as much as 80 percent of all prompts, requests, demands, and directions (Nason, 2012, p. 97-98).
Since my nagging is out, and I cannot physically force my children to do the things I want them to, I have recently been forced to look at a better way of approaching things.
Here is what I have learnt to do:
Surprisingly, my first step in this journey to help my children towards compliance has been to “know myself” better. This idea has come from “Bowen family systems theory” which has a focus on each family member working on his/her own self and permitting the others in the family the space to work on themselves (without giving them constant input). I’ve learnt that I have to know, myself, what my policies on various issues and behaviours are. I have read a mountain of parenting books written by others, but in doing so, my own personal beliefs and values have been lost somewhere. My uncertainty shines through, and my children push and push the fuzzy boundaries. The chances of compliance increase if my children sense my firm inner conviction on things:
“When the parent takes a stand about inappropriate behaviour, the child senses the difference of the parent’s inner conviction and, after a time of testing, begins to manage themselves better” (Brown, 2012, p. 123).
So, recently, my husband and I have been encouraged to look at our values, and decide on the non-negotiable behaviours and activities in our family, and resolve to calmly and firmly stand our ground on these. In this process, we have discovered, for instance, that while we have strong inner convictions about our children contributing to household chores, we feel less strongly about something like our children working towards instrument exams every year. Not surprisingly, our son has sensed this, and we have had a struggle to get him to regularly practice for his upcoming trombone exam! Since he was the one who initiated the idea of sitting for music exams, we have decided to stop hounding him about it, and leave it up to natural consequences to play out. We have also pointed out that these exams are expensive, and that if he fails to make the effort, we will have to seriously consider if we are willing to continue to make that financial contribution. But we are not willing to keep asking him to do it. This is an example of knowing ourselves and managing ourselves as parents.
KNOW MY CHILD
Secondly, I have learnt to look beyond my child’s lack of immediate compliance to what the deeper causes may be for the reluctance to carry out my requests. Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child” urges parents to assume that children are already motivated to do well, and asks parents/carers to consider whether his/her child’s protests and lack of compliance reflect a developmental delay in the skills of flexibility, frustration tolerance and problem solving (2010, p.15).
I have found this to be the case with one of my sons who has autism. I have had to respect the fact that he needs time to transition to new tasks, and I have had to be more sensitive to his build up of stress from day to day life in a world where all his senses are being constantly bombarded. I have learnt that he actually does like to do the right thing but that there are limitations when he is very tired or hungry, or when the task is genuinely challenging for him.
I have also learnt that, the more oppositional my child is to a task, the more incompetent he may be feeling. According to Bill Nason,
Kids with special needs often have a " history of constantly being placed in situations where the demands are stronger than their skills to handle them" and they "have learned that it is simply safer to escape and avoid any activity that is not initiated and led by them (2014, p.95)."
He also points out that “Many on the spectrum have task performance anxiety – so when you ask them to perform, they will resist unless they know they will be perfect at doing it….” (2014, p 97).
So, for me, I have made it a priority to know my child, and modify my requests, while still sticking by my values and working more mindfully towards helping my child to manage tasks in daily life. For the sake of maintaining family life and everyone’s sanity, I have had to accept that there is a difference in the way my child’s brain works, and look towards getting the best result for everyone, as much as possible.
KNOW THE BACKGROUND
Of course, developmental reasons are not the only reasons for lack of compliance. Siegel & Payne Bryson’s “The Whole-Brained Child” asks parents to consider whether some “hidden” memory is causing our child to be reacting unreasonably. The challenge for parents is to help them dig deep and find the fragmented and unresolved memory that is still intruding on their life - to make the memories explicit so they can become aware of them and deal with them intentionally (2011, p.77). Helping them put their feelings into words can allow the left brain to calm the big feelings in the right brain which can be impacting their behaviour without them even realising it (2011, p.34) .
Take the previously mentioned example of my older son (neurotypical) and his reluctance to adequately practice for his upcoming trombone exam. Digging deeper in his memory bank, I discovered that his memory of a previous music exam experience was intruding on his current efforts. Despite working hard, his grade had been very average. I was able to help him unpack this memory and put his feelings into words, using the left side of his brain, which helped calm that anxious side of the brain which was taking over. I was also able to remind him that his tutor hadn’t actually guided him well in terms of what to expect on the exam, and that he had a more suitable tutor this time round.
Evidently, knowing the background can give us much more empathy and help keep us keep calm as we deal with lack of compliance.
KNOW HOW TO CONNECT WITH MY CHILD
I find that when my children are feeling connected with me, they are more likely to follow my lead. So, when we have spent some quality time together, the whole mood can improve and compliance can more easily follow.
There may also be a need for me to connect with my child in terms of talking and brainstorming about a new plan together about how he/she is going to get something done that I have decided needs doing. This approach, taught in detail in Greene’s book (2010), can help give them more ownership of a task.
KNOW HOW TO STEP BACK & GIVE MY CHILD SPACE
There is nothing better than when you unexpectedly hear music from your child on their instrument, or even when your child says thank you to their host without any prompting from you. Yet, so often, we rob ourselves of these experiences by jumping in to prompt our children before they’ve had a chance to self-initiate their actions. A child who is constantly prompted can never learn to think for themselves or anticipate what is required. He/she may also miss out on experiencing the natural consequences which motivate change. I've learnt to step back.
I have also found, through using the RDI therapy, that giving my children space involves using declarative language to invite engagement in a task, rather than directing and prompting. For example, I say, “Wow...I could really use your help with this” instead of “Bob, come and help me do this now.”
KNOW HOW TO KEEP CALM
Through my research I have come to realise that nothing is more essential (or more difficult! ) than keeping calm in the face of non-compliance - responding with little emotion and minimal talking. In particular, children on the spectrum feed off negative emotion and the scolding and coaxing we resort to. It all makes them feel powerful (Nason, 2014, p. 98).
Bowen Theory has taught me that if my child continues to avoid a task, I should focus on managing myself in the situation and let the child know how I am going to do that. The idea is that:
The child functions in reaction to the parents instead of being responsible for him/herself. If parents shift their focus off the child and become more responsible for their own actions, the child will automatically (perhaps after testing whether the parents really mean it) assume more responsibility for him/herself (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p.202).
So a concrete example of this would be when my child is playing his audio books too loudly:
"Turn that down or I will turn the CD player off” could be replaced with: “ I am going to have to go to my bedroom for a while because I can’t concentrate on getting tonight’s dinner together when there is so much noise.”
And back to the trombone with my neurotypical child , "Go and practice your trombone" said ten times could be replaced with a one off statement: “I see it as your responsibility to satisfy the requirements for your trombone exam. If I don’t see reasonable effort put in, I will not continue to pay for the costs of the exam next year.”
The ‘I’ statements seem to be the way to go.
But, in a more general way, managing myself has meant doing some things which help keep me more cheerful and less reactive as a mother - like allowing myself to go out walking, enjoying a hobby again, addressing my spiritual life, and doing some work other than “home duties”. This is especially important for parents with children on the spectrum, who often live for long periods of time with their nervous systems on edge, and end up developing a kind of anticipatory panic related to even the hint of uncertainty in their child’s behaviour, which then triggers stress in the child, resulting deteriorating behaviour, and the cycle goes on….(Gustein, S.,2009, p.165). As parents in this situation, we need to soothe our nervous system and help break the cycle.
My journey into achieving compliance in my family without nagging is a work in progress, but these things have helped me enormously: knowing myself, knowing my child, knowing the background, knowing how to connect with my child, knowing how to step back and give my child space, and knowing how to keep calm. Breaking old patterns is not easy, but I am on the road to doing so, and I hope this will inspire you to think about the road you are on too.
Brown, J (2012). Growing Yourself Up: How to Bring Your Best to all of Life’s Relationships. Wollombi: Exisle Publishing Pty Ltd.
Greene, R. (2010). The Explosive Child. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Gustein, S. (2009). The RDI Book. United States: Steven E. Gustein.
Kerr, M. and Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation: An approach based on Bowen theory. New York :Norton.
Nason, B. (2014). The Autism Discussion Page on Anxiety, Behavior, School, and Parenting Strategies. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Siegel, D., & Payne Bryson, T. (2011) The Whole-Brain Child. United States: Bantam Books.