Kids out of Control? Inconsistency may be the Problem.


Jodie, a single mom of two boys, felt like her days were an endless uphill battle. After getting the boys off to school, she’d work until five p.m. and then pick them up from her parents. The boys started in on each other even before they got to the car; reporting how each other misbehaved at grandma’s, the latest complaint about an unfair dividing of a candy bar. On really bad days, there would also be a note from a teacher describing one of the kids spending most of the day “red-carded” in class. Every Wednesday and alternate weekends, the boys went to their father’s house which gave her a little time to recouperate, but she’d hear complaints from her ex-husband as well about the kids’ behavior. For months, Jodie chalked these problems up to her own exhaustion, her growing depression, and the difficulties of single-parenting. When she met with a psychologist through a work-stress program, she heard something that seemed to make a lot more sense; “She told me the problem might be inconsistency. She asked me to find out how similar or different we all were in approaching the kids’ behavior in these different settings.”

Jodie’s psychologist suggested that she take a survey of how everyone would handle a particular problem with one of the boys. What Jodie found out from her survey of the three other caretakers in her kids’ lives, her parents, her ex-husband, and their teachers, was that each were handling misbehavior totally differently. The end result was that the boys weren’t behaving well for anybody. Parenting research such as Francis Gardner’s study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology or David Smith’s Edinburgh study on teen delinquency, have repeatedly found that consistency in discipline plays a role in the degree of misbehavior in kids. In extreme cases, inconsistency can contribute to an extremely serious problem known as Conduct Disorder. Researchers suggest that there are two kinds of inconsistency, one having to do with different caretakers in a child’s life, and the other related to how consistent one caretaker is during the course of the day. A parent may start out the day approaching behavior with one strategy, but finds him or herself falling back on yelling instead of disciplining by the end of the day.

Reducing inconsistency may be easier than it seems at first, after all, half of the solution is recognizing what the real problem is. Jodie’s psychologist had a few suggestions for her to start with:

  • Approach it as a “team” problem – In meeting or talking to each caretaker in a child’s life, start by asking about special situations in that particular environment that make discipline difficult, and then ask what is working for that caretaker and what isn’t. After getting the information, think about starting an email group among the different caretakers where ideas or thoughts could be shared. Meeting together all at once is sometimes difficult, but passing around a “can we agree on these basic items” sheet might work.
  • Expect the “blame game – Some people will likely take a defensive position even if the information is delivered positively, and everyone will have some advice for some other caretaker. If you expect this reaction going in, and can follow it by sticking with simple requests for modest changes in approach, it may help manage people’s difficult attitudes.
  • Walk kids through the transition – Many of us have heard ourselves arguing back, “Well, that’s how they do it at so-and-so’s house, but that isn’t how we do it here.” Rather than fighting a control battle you didn’t start in the first place, talk your kids through the change in discipline approach even before you get in the car.  Don’t threaten by pointing out how strict you are going to be compared to their grandparents, but instead remind them about the important rules you have in your own household that make things work out better for everybody.
  • Set realistic goals about your own  consistency – Nobody can perform at 100 percent all the time, but we can move closer to actually following through with what we say to our kids.  Begin replacing empty threats with less severe-but real consequences that you can actually, reasonably use.  Also, if you are trying a new discipline approach, make it a goal to try it consistently for at least a couple of weeks rather than switching approaches midstream.

Even if parents can’t reduce all of the inconsistent parenting in their kids’ lives, most parents can do at least a little bit to shore up this hidden threat to good behavior.

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