by Rosina Pzena, M.S.
I have been working with some parents recently, and so I have been spending some time thinking about how REBT might be able to help parents. From my experience, it seems that many parents have strong shoulds, or what we call irrational shoulds (demands), about how they should parent, and how their children should act. For example, many parents have difficulty with the idea of positive reinforcement, because they think their child absolutely should already know how to behave appropriately without gaining rewards for doing so. Also, some parents might have difficulty enforcing rules because they believe their child absolutely should listen to the rules because they love their parents, or because they know the right thing to do.
However, when children are still growing, is it reasonable to expect them to know exactly how to behave, and to want to act that way, especially if it is easier to do the wrong or fun thing? Intrinsic motivation, or motivation that comes from internal sources, is not always present, especially for activities that children do not enjoy. Think back to when you were a child: was it more fun to watch television, or do your math homework? Any kid would choose TV unless they have intrinsic motivation– without outside motivation from their parents.
It is a good goal for your child to increase self-motivated behavior as they approach independence and adulthood, but it could lead to failure, frustration, and other unhealthy negative emotions if you demand such behavior from your child and they do not deliver. Parents might have to rely on extrinsic motivators, such as rewards, to get their child to perform consistently, at least for a while. It can help parents to change their demands into preferences, in order to change their unhealthy anger. “I would prefer for my child(ren) to listen to me without using rewards, but if that’s not possible, I can live with that.” By changing unhealthy anger, it can help parents to implement effective behavior management plans. Having a well-behaved child that you have to reward for behavior might be better than having daily struggles that involve demanding your child to listen.