As a parent, it is often hard to know what to do when our kids are having a problem. And the books, opinions, lectures and advice all seem to all say something different! The good news is that when all of the details and specifics of the parenting manuals and "expert" opinions are put aside, certain general principles emerge that help us to understand which parenting strategies are likely to work best with kids. In this article, three of the most important general principles are presented and discussed.
Rule #1: It is important to praise children for the behaviors we want to see repeated.
People might be thinking--this is obvious!--of course parents would want to praise the behaviors they want to see repeated! But parents might be surprised to learn that even the most patient, calm, and engaged parents may not actually be praising their children for the behaviors they want to see repeated. While most parents quite naturally praise their children, they are often praising them for behaviors or attributes that they are not concerned about. In the meantime, they are ignoring the behaviors that they would most like to see repeated.
For example, parents may praise a child for running fast and say, "Look how fast you are!" but then fail to praise a child for sitting still. Or parents may be exceedingly complimentary of a child who learns the alphabet and say, "You are so smart!", but then neglect to praise the child for working carefully on their schoolwork. And parents, grandparents and even total strangers may remark on how cute a child is or say, "What a nice smile!". Imagine how powerful the impact would be if suddenly everyone was praising the child for being quiet in the grocery store instead of praising them for their cuteness? As you can see, this rule is exceedingly simple, and yet, it is fundamental and critically important.
Rule #1 is such a basic principle that nearly every parenting manual and expert would likely agree on it. So why don't more parents do this? Our experience is that parents today are overwhelmed by the huge amount of advice and information they receive. They are inundated with "expert" opinions. The messages and opinions about parenting come at us as on social media, they are sent home as newsletters, and they are advertised on the radio, tv and internet. We see pictures of happy children captioned with little tidbits of information that generally make us feel just terrible about ourselves as parents--like we aren't doing a very good job. But as we try to read the parenting books and apply different strategies, it is easy to get bogged down. We become overwhelmed with sticker charts, we struggle to keep consistent consequences, we wrestle with children's compliance with doing chores, and we end up barking orders at our kids and then feel guilty because everyone says that we should be giving our children choices. It is no wonder that the most basic principles often slip right by us! So ask yourself, are you praising your kids for the behaviors that you want to see repeated?
Rule #2: Parents are the most powerful behavior models for children.
Again, this seems so obvious! And it is likely that if we asked 100 experts, they'd probably all agree with this concept. Since we know that children model the behavior of their parents, we must all be stellar role models, right? Well, unfortunately, it is often just not that easy. In fact, it is often exceedingly difficult. The reasons for why it is so hard are far too numerous to list, but most parents will have some ideas about why it is hard for them. One frequent issue that derails our efforts at being role models is the conflicts that may exist between the parents. Couples who are engaged in frequent emotionally charged arguments are likely to have a difficult time with modeling good behavior for their kids. Parents in conflict might yell, name call, interrupt each other, slam doors and not listen (or even worse).
In these situations, parents may find that it is nearly impossible to get their kids to follow directions, talk quietly, disagree appropriately, or cope with frustration. As such, it may not be that the child needs treatment or even that the parents need help with parenting. It may be that the best way to help the child with their behavior is for the parents to learn how to manage their conflicts differently. Parents in conflict might consider whether couple's therapy might be an important step in improving their child's behavior. A well trained couple's therapist can help the couple to identify stressors and issues that may be preventing parents from acting as the role models they would like to be.
This is but one example of the many reasons why it might be hard for us to model appropriate behavior for our children. Parents who are reading this article might ask themselves if any of their own behaviors might be sending their kids the wrong message. While it is sometimes not easy for us to examine our own flaws and weaknesses, it is often a critical step in helping our children to behave better. So, ask yourself, are you modeling good behavior for your children? If the answer is no, or if you are concerned that your behavior might be negatively influencing your child, you may consider seeking out the help of a therapist.
Two places to locate a well trained therapist near you are listed below:
-Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies (ACBT)
-American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP)
Both of the organizations listed above offer certification programs that ensure competency in specialized clinical areas.
Rule #3: Understanding children's developmental level helps parents set their expectations appropriately.
There is a wide range of what is considered "normal" development at any given age. Parents often get frustrated with kids when they see other children of the same age behaving differently. But the truth of the matter is that, irrespective of parenting style, children are born with their own temperaments and their own unique strengths and weaknesses. The timing at which a child reaches a particular developmental milestone is frequently not within the parent's control. While there are some things that parents can do to encourage a child's development, many children will have areas of development that come at a slower pace, irrespective of parental involvement. Parents often have the mistaken belief that if their child is intelligent then he or she will reach developmental milestones more quickly. But in fact, it is not at all uncommon for extremely bright children to have areas of their development that seem immature! Helping parents to understand their child's developmental level sometimes makes all of the difference in improving the parent-child interaction.
As an example, parents are often concerned that there is something wrong with their child if their child does not stay seated and still during a performance. Parents of a squirmy and rambunctious 4-year-old may find their child nearly impossible to manage when they take the child to a play. They see other 4-year-olds sitting quietly and they become frustrated and worry that something is wrong with their child. But this sort of squirmy behavior is not at all uncommon for a 4 year old! While we as adults may be able to pay attention to what is happening on the stage, a 4-year-old is often curious and attentive to other things. They may be interested in the people around them, curious about the way the theater seat folds, excited about sitting in the dark, or thinking about the snacks that Mom has in her purse. And while the parents may feel frustrated to have to wrangle their child during the play, if they understand that the behavior is completely normal, it helps to reduce some of the angst and allows them to consider different strategies for handling the situation.
So how can parents learn what are reasonable expectations to have for children of all ages? Where can parents turn to educate themselves on their child's developmental level? Well, thankfully, most parents have access to the best resource in the world for this! Their child's pediatrician! If your child's pediatrician is board certified in pediatrics, you can be sure that you will get accurate information about what to expect from your child at any given age. So whether you are wondering if your 3 year old should know the alphabet or if you don't know if its normal that your 12 year old wants to start dating, your child's pediatrician can be a wonderful source of information. To find out if your pediatrician is board certified you can search the American Board of Pediatrics verification page (link: https://wwwww.abp.org/content/verification-certification).
Being a good parent is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. But at the end of the day, it does not have to be as complicated as many make it out to be. When we strip away all of the details, good parenting really does come down to some very basic and common sense principles. But just because the principles are simple, that does not mean that the putting them into action is simple. It is most certainly not. Being a parent is the most difficult, frustrating, demanding, heartbreaking ... but yet the most rewarding job in the world.
Just as obsessive thoughts can be about anything that comes into the human mind, compulsions can be any possible action or activity that can be performed by a human being. Most people have heard about compulsions that involve excessive cleaning or hand washing. In fact, this stereotypical representation of an OCD compulsion has become so widely known that it is now common for people who are very clean or organized to say, "I'm so OCD." But as any individual who suffers from OCD will tell you, this colloquial usage minimizes the experience of those whose lives are consumed by the disorder. Far from typical fastidiousness with hand-washing, the individual with OCD may feel compelled to wash their hands until their skin becomes raw. Compulsions can be extreme and all consuming. Many individuals with OCD spend much of their day engaging in a repetitive cycle of obsession and compulsion.
Compulsions can include checking, washing, repeating, collecting, ordering, confessing, asking, researching, counting, praying, and avoiding (just to name a few!). These behaviors can look quite different from person to person, which is one of the factors that makes it difficult for untrained clinicians to spot the disorder. For example, checking compulsions can focus on the more common checking of the locks and the stove, but they can also focus on checking almost anything else. Individuals may repeatedly check that they didn't lose something, check for mistakes, they may turn their car around to check that they didn't hit someone, ask numerous questions to check to see if they are perceiving things correctly, check to see if they may have a disease, check on their loved ones, and on and on.
Most individuals with OCD have compulsions that cluster into one or two categories, while others have compulsions that run the gamut. It is not a single behavior or a series of behaviors that defines an OCD compulsion. The best way to identify a compulsion is to understand the purpose that they serve. Individuals with OCD engage in compulsions in order to reduce the uncertainty and doubt that is triggered by their obsession. An individual who fears illness may engage in compulsive hand washing to try to feel "certain" that they will not catch a disease. A person who fears that they might engage in sinful behavior might compulsively confess each small infraction to feel sure they will go to heaven. Someone who fears that they might have unwittingly run someone over with their car may turn their car around and retrace their route, compulsively checking the road for victims, so that they can be 100% sure that they haven’t hurt someone. Someone who fears that they may be “going crazy” may compulsively research mental health on the internet to be sure that they are sane. Someone who fears that they might choke may avoid foods that are sticky and may cut their food into tiny pieces in an effort to attain certainty that they will not choke. An individual who fears that they will make a mistake may read the same part of a book over and over again to feel "sure" that they are understanding it or remembering it properly. Someone who repeatedly asks a loved one how they feel might be trying to be "absolutely positive" that their loved one won't die.
Often times, individuals engage in compulsions to make themselves feel more comfortable or to reduce their distress. At other times, people with OCD won't even report distress or anxiety, they will simply engage in compulsions because something doesn't "feel right." Compulsions may be done until it feels "right" or "clean" or "certain" or "finished" or until the individual's anxiety or distress decreases. But at the very core of all compulsions is the desire to eliminate uncertainty. And for a time, compulsions will make people believe that they can be certain of things, that the doubt has been removed. But invariably, uncertainty creeps back in and the individual finds themselves having to go to greater and greater lengths to feel sure of things. And in this never-ending cycle of compulsions to reduce uncertainty, individuals chase the feeling that things are “right” or “finished”. But this sense of confidence and completeness becomes ever and ever more elusive and the individual experiences greater distress as they go to greater lengths to feel better. And sometimes nothing works. At those times, OCD sufferers may believe they are having a “break down” or they may completely exhaust themselves.
Compulsions May Appear Illogical
While some of the compulsions appear to make logical sense to the observer, others seem to have no logical connection to the obsessive thought and may even look bizarre. But despite the fact that the connection may not be obvious to others, there is generally some explanation for how the compulsion came to be what it is. For example, certain types of repetitive behaviors may start in response to some internal sense that the first try at an action "didn't feel right" and the individual may wonder if they actually completed the activity. This is a common enough experience. Which of us hasn’t locked our car or turned off the stove, only to second guess ourselves and feel compelled to do it again? The action is repeated, and then we confirm that it is done—we feel "certain" and we move on. But the individual with OCD has a different experience. While a single repetition may work well one day, it might not work on another day. They may check a lock once but then continue to have a nagging feeling that it’s not done. So they might check again, or they might do something a little differently—like pull on the door handles just to be certain they are locked. But what if they walk away and it still doesn’t feel quite right? As time goes on, the individual tries different combinations of behaviors that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. They become stuck in a maddening cycle in which the feeling of confidence that “its done” is always just slightly out of reach. They may desperately try to get back the sense of certainty that they could originally achieve with just checking once or twice.
Over the course of months and years, the routine of checking the door locks may bear little resemblance to where it started. In this manner, compulsions may come to look somewhat bizarre to the observer. OCD sufferers may feel compelled to say a certain word or phrase or engage in a particular movement a certain number of times or they may demand that others say or do certain things. They may pray in a very specific and repetitive manner, they may arrange and rearrange their items, they may repeat what others say, repeat various activities over and over, repeating actions a specific number of times and count out loud or to themselves as they are doing things. They may spend considerable portions of their day compulsively trying to "figure out" why they are having certain thoughts, researching the internet or quizzing their friends or family to try to find answers about why they are having certain thoughts or whether or not their thoughts and feelings are normal.
Is the oven off?
Are you sure?
Now, look away for a moment and then look at it again...
..Are you 100% certain that the oven is off?
What if you made a mistake?
Some may have heard of OCD referred to as “the doubting disease”. This label is actually not an inaccurate one. OCD, at its very core, is a disorder that emerges from a fear of doubt and uncertainty. The graphic above reflects one of the many objects that can trigger feelings of uncertainty. All human beings are hard-wired to try to reduce doubt and uncertainty when they feel unsafe. As such, each of us has likely had the experience of walking away from the stove only to be struck by a sensation of doubt--Hmmm...Did I really turn off the stove? And it's likely that each of us, from time to time, has gone back and glanced at the stove again--just to be sure that it's off.
As mundane as this experience may seem, there is a principal here that is fundamental to understanding the "O" of OCD. And that is the question of whether or not we can ever truly be certain that the stove is off. We can definitely think that the stove is off...we can be fairly certain...but can we ever achieve 100% certainty?
Throughout life, we are faced with situations in which there can be no certainty. And indeed, if we think hard enough about it, it may be difficult to identify anything that we can be 100% certain of, of which there is 0% doubt. But most of us are comfortable to go through life accepting a certain degree of uncertainty as we live our lives. But what if a situation arises in which you believe you can't accept any uncertainty? That, for whatever reason, you believe that you must remove all doubt? Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a fear of uncertainty coupled with an unwillingness to tolerate it.
Obsessions are nothing more than thoughts--repetitive, intrusive and sometimes maddening thoughts. Obsessions can relate to literally any topic that can possibly occur to a human being. In popular media, individuals with OCD are often portrayed as having obsessions about contamination and germs. And while some individuals with OCD do have obsessions about germs, this is but one of the infinite number of topics that can become an obsession.
Obsessive thoughts can be about whether we may inadvertently cause harm to ourselves or our loved ones, about whether we might carelessly make an error in our work that would damage our future prospects, about whether our thoughts about sex suggest that we may become a sexual deviant, about why a particular part of our body feels strange, about whether or not we are hearing, reading or seeing things correctly, about whether we will go to heaven, about whether we might be misunderstanding things, about why a particular physical movement or daily activity feels "off" or "wrong", or about whether we might impulsively do something harmful or embarrassing. And while many individuals with OCD have obsessions about topics that are either scary or taboo, obsessions can also be about the most mundane of topics that appear to have no relevance or import to our lives. The rule is, if you can doubt it, it can be an obsession. And what can human beings doubt? What topics or assumptions can we feel uncertain about? The answer is ANYTHING. Humans can come to doubt or feel uncertain about literally anything. Even the most irrelevant thought can become maddening if it's put on a never-ending loop that repeats itself over and over in our mind.
Whether scary or mundane, obsessions invariably result in us asking ourselves the same questions...why am I having this thought? Why can't I stop myself from thinking about this? What does this thought mean? This process of questioning and attempting to figure out the cause of our obsessional thoughts often becomes its own monster, it's own obsession. Family members of individuals with OCD may find themselves saying things like, "Just don't worry about it!" "Just stop thinking about it!" and "Don't let it bother you!" They may feel frustrated that their loved one continues to focus on things that cause them distress. They might be confused about why the individual doesn't just "move on" or let go of the thoughts. And while to outsiders it seems as though it should be easy to just stop thinking about it, to the individual with obsessions, it is just not that simple. They are living with a broken record, an unending and repetitive soundtrack that plays in their mind and that feels impossible to stop.