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Living with Children: Use ‘alpha speech’ to get child to obey

Question: My 7-year-old son, an only child, is giving me fits. He’s overly active and will not cooperate in any instruction I give him. In addition, if I tell him not to do something, it’s a guarantee he’s going to do it as soon as my back is turned. I’m a single mom and I’m embarrassed to admit that he runs the house. I spoke to his pediatrician about him and she is recommending ADHD medication. I don’t want to go in that direction; besides, he has no problems in school, and never has. His teachers love him and are constantly telling me how smart and mature he is for his age. It’s like I’m dealing with a person with a split personality. If he’s not crazy, I’m slowly getting there. Can you give me some tips?

Answer: The completely unscientific nature of the ADHD diagnosis aside, your son is not a candidate for medications that have never reliably outperformed placebos in clinical trials. It never fails to infuriate me when I hear of pediatricians whose knee-jerk response to discipline problems is a prescription. Having said that, I understand completely the pressure they are under to do something “helpful” during a 10-to-15-minute office visit. There ought to be a parenting specialist in every pediatric office, someone who can take the time that the physician probably doesn’t have.

Your son doesn’t have a split personality either. He’s simply figured out that some adults have claimed their natural authority over children and others, including you, have not. Proper adult authority has a profound calming and focusing effect on children, an effect that no medication can match.

In your description of the problem, you used the word “cooperate.” My consistent finding is that parents who use that word actually want their children to obey, but instead of giving clear, authoritative instructions are instead making requests and suggestions, as in, “Would you please come to the table so we can have dinner?” and “It would really help me out if you’d stop what you’re doing and feed the dog, OK?”

When it comes to the discipline of a child, consequences will be necessary at times, but the key is a proper presentation of oneself as an authority figure, and that is primarily a matter of how you speak. Using the above examples, the proper words are “It’s time for you to come to the table for dinner” and “You need to feed the dog now.” The fewer the number of words contained in an instruction, the more authoritative it sounds.

The reader might be amazed at the number of parents who’ve told me that simply learning how to properly give instructions and communicate decisions (in both cases, use the fewest words possible and answer “Why?” or “Why not?” with “Because I said so”) has completely turned their kids’ behavior around. I call it “leadership speech” or “alpha speech” because it communicates to the child in question that the adult is in charge, and a child’s natural reaction to the proper delivery of authority is obedience.

Now, you’ve obviously got some lost ground to make up for, but you can do this. Keep in mind that there’s nothing “wrong” with your son. If there was a BIG problem, his teachers would be begging you to medicate him.

In my next column, I’ll describe a rehabilitative method I call “Kicking the Child Out of the Garden of Eden.” You’re going to need to do something to get your son’s attention and convince him that life as he has known it with Momma is over. What I have in mind should turn the trick. Stay tuned!

Visit family psychologist John Rosemond’s website; readers may send him email; because of the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.


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