Why Don’t Your Kids Change Overnight?

Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Posted Aug 21, 2019

iStock/Ilbusca
Source: iStock/Ilbusca

Do you have a child that continually procrastinates about doing their homework, sasses you all the time, or refuses to do their assigned chores? You’ve tried and tried again to change your child’s behavior for the better, but nothing seems to work – sound familiar? Then you feel guilty for continually nagging and “getting after them” to change. However, it helps to understand that noticeable improvements seldom happen just because you want them to happen. It takes time and patience. Maybe, as I hear from some of my clients, you’ve tried to be creative and then become frustrated because your innovative ideas just don’t seem to be working. Here are a couple of examples.

Your 15-year-old son spends too much time playing computer games instead of doing his homework. Instead of criticizing him, you try praising him for trying even when he only receives mediocre marks on his tests. You hoped that this tactic would inspire him to work harder on his schoolwork, but so far, it’s not happening.

Your 10-year-old daughter isn’t serious about doing her homework and her marks are suffering as a result.  Instead of getting into heated arguments about this, you resolve to “lighten up” and let her enjoy her afternoons after school even though you are seriously concerned about her schoolwork. However, she’s still acting mad at you instead of appreciating your flexibility and level-headedness despite her irresponsible behavior.

Change May Be Incremental

Have you ever tried to influence your child to change by explaining, convincing, proving the facts and sometimes even threatening? Have you experienced the frustration of feeling "stuck in traffic" despite all your determination and efforts? Or, have you ever felt that something has to change with your child’s behavior, yet you don’t know where to start? And most times, when you are uncertain about what to do, it’s easy to become “paralyzed” so that you do nothing except feel guilty that you’re doing nothing! You end up resenting your child because the behavior is not changing or even getting worse. So, what can you do?

My research suggests that a combative relationship with your child probably developed gradually over a fairly long stretch of time. So, is it practical to believe that you can turn things around just by snapping your fingers? And, more importantly, have you ever realized you may be overlooking the fact that change is actually happening in small ways. For instance, although your daughter is still ignoring her homework most days, is she now more likely to study for her tests and bring home her school books? If so, despite your frustration that she still isn’t showing signs of investing much more in her academics, this proves that you are making her think a bit more about her schoolwork.

Concentrate on One Behavior at a Time

If you are dedicated to creating change, focus is paramount. Let’s say your daughter’s room is horribly messy – you’ve even found old pizza slices under the bed! This sloppiness is irritating you, and you’re both getting into arguments about the state of her room. However, you are also having disputes over the fact that she misses homework assignments and over what time she needs to go to bed in order to get enough sleep to cope with school. Don’t drive yourself crazy and burden both yourself and her with trying to change all these behaviors in one go. Pick one issue and make it a goal to see some improvement. You might decide to let up a bit on the bedroom issue because you realize that doing her homework is more important.

Once you have decided where to focus your efforts, talk to your child about it. In the example of homework, it isn’t very effective to simply say: How do you think you’re going to succeed in life if you don’t do your homework? It will be more helpful to say something like: I know you love animals and want to be a vet when you grow up. But getting to be a vet means a lot of studying and homework is the first step. Pointing this out may help your child to view homework in a different light – as a step toward a life goal rather than as a nuisance to be avoided.

The next step is to plan a goal - the changes you would like to see happen over a certain time frame. It is important to keep in mind that a goal is a commitment not an expression of vague optimism such as let’s try to do better, let’s try harder, let’s try to work on it, make me a promise to do it. Rather, a goal is something that can be measured – getting your homework done on time for one whole week.

Change Together as a Family

Every family has issues, but they do not have to cause your family to be unhappy. Although your disappointment in your children’s behaviors may be justified, it’s important not to just throw your hands up in the air in despair and give up when you feel that change isn’t happening quickly enough.

Continue trying to come up with creative ways that will lead to better relationships with your children. And, try involving them in coming up with solutions. You might be pleasantly surprised at how much can be accomplished by working together.

Part of the discussion with your child can also include short-term and long-term rewards for staying on track to work on the targeted issue. Reward charts can work really well with younger children. Many determined moms have successfully experimented with this idea with their younger children. 

Above All Keep Motivated

As you surely know, you must be determined and consistent to achieve success in any endeavor. If you are motivated enough, you can improve your interactions with your children, even if it takes more time than you think to overcome their resistance.

Changing behavior patterns rarely comes easily, and some setbacks are to be expected. Let's be honest; how easy is it for us to make changes in our diets, spending habits or time spent on social media despite realizing how detrimental these behaviors are to our wellbeing?  

So, on the parenting highway, remember that you are in the driver’s seat with your hands firmly on the wheel. Your parenting GPS will show you the route you want to take and how to get there. Just don’t turn it off.

Trust yourself as a dedicated, devoted mom investing everything in your child’s success. And, remember to keep looking for those small victories that can add up to big changes.