Q: When my child doesn’t behave, I try to give him consequences. Whenever we’re around other people, especially other children, he is at his worst, behaving really badly and I end up losing control. It’s embarrassing because he doesn’t listen to me. I usually use time out with him, but that doesn’t work very well, because nothing changes. I need help!

A: The consequences clearly aren’t working, with your frustration increasing. If the behavior continues, particularly when you’re around other people, think about what’s driving his need to seek negative attention. Try engaging cooperation by changing both your perspective and your response. Connecting to the root of the problem is key, however that requires practice and patience. To make this work, positively influencing his behavior, you’ll need to disengage from power struggles with him. That may be a tough challenge if you’re already too discouraged and easily triggered by his behavior. Making time to address these ongoing struggles in a neutral way without criticism or judgment, encouraging him to problem-solve with you, often works better during car time. Framing his behavior as he’s telling you he’s having a problem will allow you to be more accepting of who your child is. He may then be better able to share what’s not working, with some good ideas of what would help when you involve him in brainstorming solutions.

When the same pattern continues, does your reaction push him away? Are your power struggles undermining his feelings, removing any opportunities for him to make decisions that impact him? Look for opportunities to compromise, considering ways you can help him be more successful. When children are heard, acknowledged, we learn more of what’s going on. Things won’t always play out this smoothly; underlying emotions aren’t always as accessible. Some children have a harder time letting go of anger or hurt (think temperament). What’s important is listening and connecting to the feelings. Children reveal more when we’re supportive. Consider a time when you experienced strong emotions, with someone genuinely listening to you. What was that like? With such busy lives, connection is often compromised. When your child feels heard and understood, the benefits of connection are well worth it, shifting behavior.

Q: I’d like to know how mediation works and if my husband and I could be successful in working out our divorce this way. We have three children and we don’t want to ruin their childhood with a bad divorce, but we’re having a hard time agreeing on anything. The tension in our house is running pretty high, so any information about mediation, and if it can work for couples who aren’t getting along, would be helpful.

A: The best indicator for success with mediation is whether the parties share a strong commitment to minimize conflict through the process. Mediation provides autonomy for the parties, more so than other methods for making your divorce decisions, requiring mutually respectful communication, and the ability to brainstorm fair agreements on all the necessary issues. Most couples who decide on mediation also have some success in reaching agreement independently on some decisions. As a divorce mediator, I evaluate the parties’ ability to focus on their children’s best interests, weighing the benefits of mediation versus indirect communication through lawyers. Maintaining respectful communication increases successful conflict resolution. For parents choosing a non-adversarial approach, mediation can be less stressful for them, which then reduces stress for their children. Parents must focus on their shared parental responsibilities, requiring them to avoid posturing. Maintaining a responsible, collaborative parenting focus translates to healthier, well-adjusted children.

Mediation helps to reduce the recidivism — the number and frequency of cases returning to court — in ongoing, post-divorce conflict. Contrary to what some believe, consulting with an attorney and using mediation will not double your costs, because the lawyer and mediator assist you with different parts of the divorce. Negotiation or litigation, with the related costs of “discovery,” are the most expensive parts of the legal process. By making divorce decisions in mediation, you can save a great deal of money.

I see one of the most important aspects of mediation as that it provides good preparation for your co-parenting after the divorce. It will be necessary to work together in making important decisions for your children. Your ex-spouse will be your child’s other parent for the rest of your life. There is clear evidence that most children thrive when receiving the emotional and financial support of both parents. Further, conflict adversely impacts children. When caught in the crossfire of divorce, they experience sadness, anger, loss of security, and diminished self-esteem, at a time of heightened vulnerability. Consider that developing a collaborative plan for your children will ultimately lead all of you to a place of increased growth, understanding, and personal empowerment.

Q: My 4-year-old son has been bringing home some things from preschool that don’t belong to him. Nothing expensive or too serious but, still, it’s stealing. I called him a thief the other day when I found a toy car in his jacket pocket, because it wasn’t his. He also had a funny little toy figure — I’m not sure who that belonged to, but it definitely wasn’t his. Next he came home with someone’s mittens and hat in his backpack. His older sister and brother have complained of things missing from their bedrooms at times, but I never thought much of it. I decided to search his room and found several of their missing things! I need help stopping this stealing before this gets really out of hand. Suggestions?

A: Very young children (before their conscience is fully developed) sometimes “pocket” a small possession that belongs to another child from his/her preschool or daycare, just for the sake of having some “part” of a favorite playmate. It’s important to interpret this behavior through the lens of his immaturity rather than morality. Whether money is taken from your wallet or drawer, or an object of no value, it’s all valuable treasure to a young child.

Sometimes children steal to seek revenge with a sibling who appears more loved, more indulged. There are certainly other reasons, although it’s helpful for parents to first consider if their child has stolen something for more attention. Your child’s stealing could be expressing anger or resentment towards his parents, or jealousy with his older siblings. Providing him with more recognition, reinforcing his importance in your family, is a constructive approach. Connecting to the root of the problem, without blame or judgment, might look something like this:

Ex: “I bet you’re having a hard time with your brother or sister getting so much attention. It must seem like all we’ve been talking about lately is his/her activities. That can feel like he/she’s more important to us.”

Or: “I bet you’re feeling pretty mad that I spend so much time talking to your sister/brother. You must wish I spent more time playing with you. It’s OK to tell us whenever you’re feeling that way.”

In most situations, when there’s no shaming, but openness and acceptance, the “bad” behavior, such as stealing, will usually stop. It’s important to let your son know it’s OK for him to talk about any feelings of resentment, jealousy, or anger, reassuring him that you’ll listen and understand. Let him know stealing is wrong, then support him in returning the stolen object. Be sure he doesn’t benefit in any way from this behavior. Don’t lecture, ridicule, or shame him, and in future, avoid labeling him a thief, “catastrophizing” potential future behavior. Let him know that taking something from someone else isn’t acceptable under any circumstances and that it’s against your family values. If stealing persists after following these steps, it indicates there’s something at the root of the behavior that has not yet been uncovered. A child accumulating other people’s possessions he doesn’t really want, while tucking them away in a closet or drawer, may be struggling emotionally. He may feel he’s not getting the love or approval he needs, which instead he’s symbolically taking. Rather than reacting punitively, try giving him more of what he’s missing. It’s also possible there’s a more serious problem in your child’s emotional development, an underlying issue requiring some professional guidance, which would be helpful to uncover before he’s school age. Labeling a child a “thief” will be much harder to shake off later.

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