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October 6, 2020

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 9

What to Do When Kids Don’t Listen: Advice for Threenagers to Teenagers

Episode 9

What really works when kids just won’t listen? Dr. Lisa explains there are two different mental states that parents should toggle between — warm parent and robot parent. She explains how cultivating a joyful relationship with kids puts money in the account from which parents write their disciplinary checks. If you’re clashing with your teen, it’s never too late to turn things around. And those raising younger kids find out why it’s often harder to parent age three than age two (hint: threes enjoy mean fun). For Children Everywhere: https://www.childrenshopeindia.org/

October 6, 2020 | 31 min

Transcript | What to Do When Kids Don’t Listen: Advice for Threenagers to Teenagers

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 9: What to Do When Kids Don’t Listen: Advice for Threenagers to Teenagers


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: What can I tell you? So much uncertainty in the air?


LISA: Man. It is unsettling. It is hard to feel like you can find your feet.


REENA: You know, it got me thinking, what can I control when everything feels out of my control? Right? And it’s like, my home base, what can I control in my home base, Lisa?


LISA: I call it my two-foot world. I’m like, let me see if I can manage my two foot world. That’s often where I’m going when the headlines have me just dizzy, dizzy feeling.


REENA: Yeah but I feel like the kids are so perceptive, they pick up on it, and sometimes I’m hearing from a lot of parents that kids are just acting out. It’s hard to kind of reign and there’s a lot of frustration with school, whether they’re remote or back in, masks, it’s the whole thing, and we got this letter from this mom talking about kids in chaos and this mom says here, ‘Hi, Lisa. We’re really struggling with our young children, four and six, listening to us. It sounds silly because they’re so young, but my husband and I are both at a breaking point. Luckily our marriage is doing well, but we feel like we’re at war with our daughters. We try not to yell at them but even when we yell it has no impact. They seem to feel no remorse and there’s no difference in their behavior. We try taking things away from them, no playdates, no screen time, but that also has no impact. Over the summer we were together all the time and my husband and I work full time while they played together. We were hoping things would get better once they were back in school four days a week in person, but there hasn’t been much improvement. We try to reward them when they listen, use positive reinforcement, but to no avail. We try separating them because they get wild and when they’re together they completely ignore us, but that’s difficult to do, and doesn’t help much. We try talking to them about how sad, upset and frustrated we are. They don’t seem to care. In a future podcast episode, can you please discuss strategies to use to get through to them. They’re having issues with listening to their teachers at school as well, and we know we need to do something. We just are out of ideas and are suffering. Thank you.’


LISA: Oof. This does not sound fun at all.


REENA: This doesn’t sound fun at all, but I feel like this is so reflective of put so many parents are going through right now in this moment.


LISA: It’s really hard it’s hard, and the girls go to school four days a week, which is a departure from the summer when they were home all the time, but the other thing is we’re together all the time, and that is kind of a plus minus, that there may be aspects of that that are really nice for family togetherness, but there also may be, and I do wonder about this sense of, we don’t have to be sort of an on going out of our way to to enjoy this time together because it’s constant and unrelenting and in some ways boring. You know it’s funny as I as I think about one of the explanations we have for why kids bully in middle school is that they’re bored. That they’re stirring it up for the sake of stirring it up, and and there’s a little part of me that wonders if that’s a little bit of what’s at play here with this long stretch of time where we have had such a narrowed experience, is if these little girls are like, uh we do? I don’t know let’s just start stuff as a way to manage some of the monotony, that’s the word I’ve been hearing from families a lot this week is the sense of the monotony of the pandemic.


REENA: The monotony. That’s such a great word. Where do you start with something? It just feels like the train has completely gone off the track for so many parents, right? How do you get that big train to come back on the tracks and and just go in one direction just not off the tracks?


LISA: So my advice on this, I stand by it, I know it’s the right advice, it’s gonna feel hard to implement right now and I know that, so I’m gonna lay it out and then let’s think about what that might mean in real time under pandemic conditions. So especially with younger kids this sort of six and under age, the most powerful lever a parent has is their attention. By and large what four to six year olds, or six and unders want is our focus. They want us they want us to be turned towards them and sending energy their way, and what we have to remember is yelling at them is attention. Having long conversations about how upset you are with them is attention, that it is not for kids as aversive as we think when were angry with them if what they are seeking his attention because they were looking for attention. They like attention. Do they generally prefer positive attention to negative attention? Yes. But a lot of kids under six, six and under, they’ll take what they can get, and so we have to start with that framing, that our attention is the most powerful lever and we want to use that lever really carefully.


REENA: So if they’re doing this negative behavior, how do you not pay attention but you still want to address the problem right?


LISA: Right, right. Okay so here’s how I want parents of six and under, to think about there how they themselves operate and this could even apply to older kids to, what I want parents to think of themselves as having are two distinct states. One is the warm, friendly, showering kind attention on your kid’s state, enjoying them, finding them funny, coming up with fun things to do, having a good time with them state. And the other state that I want parents to have is what I call robo parent, which is basically think of yourself as a robot and the only thing that robot does in a very neutral tone is issue instructions for the return of the warm glowing human. And it works with little kids for parents to think of themselves toggling between, hey we’re having a great time, you’re right on track, you’re doing all the right things and, oh you’ve fallen off track, here you know the the bright light of the warm going human clicks off, here comes a robot saying when you settle down we can have fun again. And the child you know escalates or keeps messing around or keeps being out of line and you say, when you settle down we can have fun again. And that robot has a very steady repeated but disengaged, no warmth, no heat, no light in it, instruction-issuing capacity that then helps kids. They start to figure this robot out and there’s things we can do to help them along with that where they realize,  oh until I do what the robot says I don’t get any real energy from my parents. I don’t get the warm glowing attention, or any attention really.


REENA: Okay, what you’re saying is really hard. For some reason I am picturing Rosie the Robot from Johnson’s, that’s what comes to mind, and repeating the phrase over and over again. Wo you’re saying you’ve got to be robotic, don’t show anger, don’t show warmth, but tell them, when you get together we can have a better relationship?


LISA: I would be really concrete. I would say something like, when you knock it off, which knock if off is already not that neutral, when you when you settle down we can get the crayons out. when you settle down we can get the crayons out, I mean you keep it really simple. Come up with one very concrete thing and say it. Part of what really helps, and what I would advise this family to do, is to let kids know that there’s going to be a change in the weather, right, so this is a family that understandably when their kids are misbehaving they’re really engaged with them and having conversations and getting mad. So the first thing I would say that this family is to alert their daughter, say look we’re going to do it differently. When you guys are misbehaving, we are not going to engage. We’re just going to tell you what you need to do in order for us to engage. So part of how you help kids start to figure out the robot is letting them know that you’re moving into that way of doing things, and then of course what they’ll do is they’ll test, right they’ll start to misbehave and then the parent has to stick to their guns and say, when you settle down we can go back to making banana bread. When you settle down, we can go outside and play. But doing that repeatedly.


REENA: What’s interesting, I’m hearing you say almost that having a good relationship with your kids where there are fun things that you’re doing and it’s exciting and great to be around mom and dad. That can also be used as a tool to fight back, right? We’re not going to be doing this.


LISA: That’s right. And it’s actually the positive stuff, the good stuff. It’s fun when mom’s not mad at you, I mean that is actually where the real heart if this sits, which is when I am on track, when I as a kid I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, we have a really good time, and the way the way I want parents to think about this is the fun they are having with their kid, the joyful relationship, the pleasure of being together that is money in the bank, and you write your disciplinary checks against that account, so what I want this family to get to is a place where their girls are thinking, okay mom and dad are super fun when we’re doing we’re supposed to be doing. Are we willing to risk that and get to the really boring robot that just says stuff over and over until we get back on track?


REENA: You know it’s so interesting because I’m thinking of the parents who I really admire whose kids are are in high school and they still kind of want to hang out, they enjoy doing family things and I’m thinking because the parents have gone out of their way to find things that are engaging and fun and i’m looking at the age of this mom, her kids are four and six, which is such a fun age where they actually want to be around you and do crafts and movie nights and that building that, the parents doing the work of finding those moments that the kids want to have more of, that that can also be used as a tool for discipline.


LISA: It’s huge, and even thinking about my older daughter, who’s a really well-behaved kiddo and not somebody who I generally am worried is going to do things I don’t want her to do, but I remember when she was in the ninth grade she got out of finals early I’m on a Friday and she texted me and she said I’m done, any chance you’re free? And of course I had all the stuff I wanted to do on Friday afternoon, but I was like, she just finished finals, she just finished her first semester of ninth grade and I said, yeah I am a come get you let’s go out and celebrate. And we went to a little coffee shop and I remember when I was driving over to pick up I was thinking, this is me putting money in the bank, like this is my ninth grader wanting to hang out with me. I can make it happen we can go to you know get treats at a coffee shop, and I really don’t worry about my kid throwing parties when we’re out of town like it’s not that kind of thing, but that’s part of how you prevent it is to have that sense of, I really like being with my family. I like times we spend together. I don’t want to jeopardize that by making them mad.


REENA: I always believe, and you’ve helped me see this is, is that it’s never too late to sort of turn things around with parenting. But if you have a teenager, Lisa, and let’s say you haven’t been building these fun time, you’re working your rear end off, you know there’s a lot of other things that factor in, can you at the age of teenagers turn things around? How do you get buy-in? Does this sort of extend to them?


LISA: It does. It actually does in that when I have dealt with some of the most, by teenagers we call it delinquency you know when the kid is a really out of line, strangely what I was trained to do and what I found works really well clinically, is that when you’re dealing with a really delinquent, a teenager who is rude, awful out of line all the time, usually they’ve usually been punished with a lot and it hasn’t made it better. Usually the pivot we make is to say to the parent, is there any shard of a positive relationship here? Can you, you know if it’s a girl, does she like going and getting her nails done with you? Can you guys could do that? And it seems so counterintuitive that you would do what feels like functionally rewarding to a kid who’s been pretty awful, but it’s that idea of like, you’ve got no money in the bank. It does not hurt the kid at all to make you mad. There’s no cost because you’re having no fun at all. So to try to find and build this joyful things, which of course right now is a lot harder, there’s so much less available by way of fun.


REENA: So I mean in the midst of COVID given that there really is so little fun things that you can take kids out to do, what can you do in that place?


LISA: Right, okay, so we’re trying to put money in the bank in the context of a pandemic, you know I think I’m watching families come up with some pretty sweet things, you know, whether it’s like a movie night or making a picnic in the living room to watch a movie together while eating, you know, the special food that they ordered or made or finding ways to bake with kids. Younger kids often really enjoy getting to cook in the kitchen with their parents, or making things that they think are fun. We’ve got Halloween coming up and a lot of kids, you know, I hope kids can do Halloween this year I hope communities figure that out. You know whether you say, hey let’s go let’s let’s just like go bananas this year on decorating the house for Halloween, you know like those kinds of things. But what it requires is for the parents to creatively meet the kids where they are, to figure out really what is exciting for the kid, which as a parent, one of the things. I was very grateful when I had very young children, one of my friends said to me, here’s the thing about really little kids, parenting them can be very boring. What they want to do is not what you want to do, and I was like thank you for just saying it. Wo it may be a lot of Go Fish. It may be stuff that, you’re like, really like in the monotony of the pandemic I need to play go fish twenty times? But if it puts money in the bank, do it.


REENA: That’s that’s important. It might be hard to do but it’ll make a difference in the end. What if some of that robot mode doesn’t work? You’re in the middle of being robot and it’s not working? What do you do at that point?


LISA: So it it sounds great in theory but it may be that you’re saying, when you settle down we can go back to making banana bread, when you settle down we can go back to making banana bread, and they’re just continuing to ratchet up, ratchet up. So I believe that it’s okay for parents to get mad at their kids. Obviously you can’t do anything that’s out of line or frightening or physical, but mad, angry mad is okay by me, as a psychologist.


REENA: Really?


LISA: Yeah and the reason for that is at the end of the day, we use our homes to show kids how the world works, and if you’re being a complete turkey, people will get mad at you, and and I don’t think it’s good to give kids the impression otherwise. So what I would say is in that robots state, if it’s not working, then I think the parent and say, I sound calm, I’m actually getting mad. And if you can’t pull it together, I probably will get mad at you, and to give a little warning because something I noticed in my parenting between my first and second kid is it was my first kid I’d be like, okay I need you to stop, I need you to stop and finally just lose my mind. And it felt unfair because there had been no warning. And the modifications you make as you get to sort of take a second pass at it. I figured out with my younger daughter when she was a toddler, I would say look, I sound calm. I’m not feeling that way anymore. If this keeps up I’m going to be really mad.


REENA: And you find that works? Like giving them a heads up, it’s coming. It’s coming.


LISA: Yeah. It usually worked. I don’t know that once I learn to start giving warnings, I don’t know that I ever had to get there, and so that was good. And you know by the time I got there, if I did I’d just be like alright you’re done. In your room. I’m not dealing with this, but I don’t like getting there and nobody likes getting there, and what’s cool about the robot, I mean I don’t want to oversell it, but it does really work, is if you’re consistent with it, kids will first test it to see if you really are gonna not interact interact with them, but if you’re consistent they start to learn, here’s the robot, okay this is going nowhere until I do what the robot says, so it’s worth trying to  really stick with it, and you know the the great example for when you need your robot is when it’s bedtime and kids are putzing around and delay, delay, delay, this is like the classic move of the four and five year old, like one more story, and not brushing their teeth. If you can slip into that space and say, when you brush your teeth, we can read stories. When you brush your teeth, we can read stories. And then of course they continue to dawdle, dawdle, dawdle, and then the robot can say, if you brush your teeth now we have time for two stories. Dawdle, dawdle, dawdle, if you brush your teeth now, we have time for one story, right so we can stay very disengaged while giving instructions as a kid continues to dawdle, and then when of course they dawdled their way to zero stories, you say there’s no time for stories it’s time for bed. The kid loses their mind and as a robot you say, I’m really sorry, this is a choice you made. We’ll try again tomorrow night. But to just try to not feed their behavior with energy, like the robot is the opposite of energy, the robot is just issuing instructions. No energy.


REENA: That is really hard.


LISA: Yeah.


REENA: I mean what you’re telling me right now is pretty much the opposite of what I’ve been doing with my children. It’s just so hard to not feed into it.


LISA: You don’t have to do it all the time. It’s hard. The other part that’s hard, and I remember having toddlers, is when they’re behaving is on we tend to disengage. You know so when they finally settle down you’re like, oh thank goodness I can go check my email, and that’s okay you don’t have to be you know on point with us all of the time, but it’s good to use this model when things aren’t going well because what it makes you realize is we’ve got this lever, we’ve got our attention. When kids are doing the right thing we need to shower some positive glowing warm human joy on that so that they want to do more of that, and when they are off track we want to issue instructions for getting back on track.


REENA: You know, a while bac,  a few episodes back, we we talked about threenagers and the behavior is you’re talking about so much reminds me of threenagers.


LISA: Oh my lord, okay so three three year olds, I remember what I said, cutest things, cutest things, absolutely adorable. Really hard, really hard to raise. And I promise to get back to it so I’m glad you brought it up. Okay so here’s the deal. So let’s actually talk with two year olds. Two year olds are exhausting, everybody talks about it. They’re exhausting because they’re trying to figure out how the whole world works. To them it’s a giant machine with a whole bunch of levers and buttons and things you can turn, and they’re trying to figure out, what happens when I pull this lever? Okay so if I run the water in the bath and start to splash splash all around, okay I’m pulling that leve,  okay you clearly don’t like that okay good to know. When I’m adorable and cute and sweet you like that, okay good to know. So they’re always measuring the world. They’re always reaching to pull the dog’s tail and they can see that that’s not okay all right, they didn’t know that. They’re dumping out the rice, they can see that’s not okay, now they know that. But that’s what’s so tiring is that you’re having to constantly help them understand the machine of the world. Three year olds have started to understand the machine and, to three year olds, their idea of a good time is making the grownups mad.


REENA: So true.


LISA: And nobody tells you this. Everybody’s like, oh terrible twos, terrible twos. And then you have your three year old who is dumping out the rice with a twinkle in his eye, and what parents experience is, is that their two year old is tiring. Their three year old is, I’m going to use a heavy duty word, enraging. There is something about knowing like the kid is actually jerking my chain with this behavior and parents feel so angry with their three year olds, and then they think, I thought it was supposed to be easier, like why is this year harder? And then they think, what’s wrong with us? And so I am on this mission to help people understand that three year olds are really hard because they add a twist to the misbehavior.


REENA: Gosh I wish I knew this when I had threenagers.


LISA: I know,, I know it’s so funny I’ll tell you how I learned it actually this story cracks me up. It was before I had kids. I was doing some training, I had my PhD but I was doing some additional training with some older women, and they were older just because of where they stood generationally who’d been trained by Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, so they’d been psychoanalysts for years, they’re brilliant. But they were all in their mid to late seventies, and  British. And I remember in class, one of them was like, and then there is the sadism in the three year old. I was like, what? Did you just call three year olds sadistic? That seems really a little bit over the top. And then, I think it was the next night, and I was not a mom yet. I went out to dinner with my husband and we were in a in a restaurant and there was a girl who I’m sure was three and these cute little pigtails, and she was running around the restaurant, and she was running at the precise speed where her father who was trying to get her under control following around the restaurant, in order to catcher he was going to have to break into a run to catch her, and he did not want to break into a run in this restaurant. So he’s doing this super mad angry walk, I can see steam coming out of his ears trying to get this kid under control in the restaurant. And this three year old girl is looking over her shoulder cackling, and I was like, oh my lord there it is. There’s the sadism in the three year old like right there. It was amazing.


REENA: That’s a great story. So Lisa, what do you do? Like what’s your overall advice in dealing with three year olds?


LISA: So the thing that really works is to call them on the carpet, and the way we do that is we say you’re having mean fun. You’re having fun making me angry. I don’t do mean fun. And then you basically go back to the robot model and you say, when you’re ready to have fun fun, I will be in the kitchen with crayons. I will be ready to play Go Fish. I will be in a ready to make banana bread. But I want to mean fun. And really call it what it is and tell them when you’re going to be ready to engage, and and this often works quite well with three year olds. They’re often a little bit like, oh you get it. You can see on their faces that they know they’ve been busted. But it’s it’s a great way again to get a at that idea of what we will and won’t engage. So I want to get you in mean fun. I will engage you in fun fun. And of course I mean sometimes it means you have to actually break into a run, scoop the kid up in the restaurant, you know, have them sit on your lap when you get things under control. They may be very angry, but to the degree that the parents can keep their cool, not respond with a whole lot of energy even while keeping a kid under control, and then save the energy for when the kid’s on track, kids start to figure this out.


REENA: Wow I just don’t think of three year olds as rational. That was always my thought, like one to three, they don’t get it. You can’t really talk to them, but you’re saying you can actually talk to them they’ll get it?


LISA: Three year olds get it. They know what they’re doing or certainly they recognize what you’re saying when you say you’re having mean fun and I don’t have fun like that. You making me mad is not my idea of fun, but here is my idea of fun, and then give them some options.


REENA: I have to say I love the piece that you had a New York Times. It’s you’re open letter to teens talking about this period. I enjoy reading them every month. Tell us a bit more about it and how did you come to this idea to do this?


LISA: So I’ve never written directly to teens before and now I want to do that all the time, but  what happened is that my August column in The Times, I wrote it as a back to school checklist for parents for teens’ emotional well being for 2020, and in the comments on that column a whole bunch of teens were like, uh what you just write to us? Of course they’re right, this is why I love teens, they’re always kind of on the mark I think. And so for September I wrote a column called, ‘Dear, teenagers, here’s how to protect your emotional well being’ and it was really fun to write, I hope they find it useful.


REENA: It is. It’s really a great read for everybody even if you don’t have a teen I think it’s just helpful to know and understand. You know, we talk about particularly in these uncertain times every week we want to plug a charity that might give us a chance to give back and you always talk about the importance of that and how that helps people in processing, and this week we’re going to feature a charity called Children’s Hope India. It’s a charity that was started by a group of Indian moms in their kitchen years and years ago, and it’s to help underprivileged kids in India get educated kids who are ignored by society don’t have parents in many cases, really really poor kids, and they are doing incredible work. I actually work with them, I’ve worked with them for several years, it’s an organization I really believe in personally, and I love how it started organically. I think in these times, if you’ve got an idea or a way to help people, you should go for it. And I love that these moms did that.


LISA: Were they moms living in the U.S.?


REENA: They were moms living in the U.S. in New York. Some are doctors, some are writers. They just all banded together, and wanted to help because they felt that these children in India are being ignored, and they’re helping to feed kids during COVID, the COVID rates in India are just skyrocketing, they provide emergency relief, and they also focus on education. I feel a lot of people feel as their standing in the world have changed, especially with our high rates of COVID here in America, but this is sort of a way to reach out, help another country, and I can’t say enough good things about this organization. So it’s called childrenshopeindia.org and take a look. Chef Anan who’s a great chef in in New York City and also helping with restaurants in New York is also involved. We just had the charity gala this weekend, but check it out. Childrenhopeindia.org. I know they would love your support, but it’s also a great way to get educated about other charities out there as well, Lisa.


LISA: Wonderful. Wonderful.


REENA: I love that idea, that giving back. So tell us before we close it out. What’s your parenting to go? I’m going to keep my parenting to go very much in the theme of what we’ve talked about, which is that we have kids for lots of reasons, but one of them is to enjoy them, and we should definitely, even under COVID, go out of our way to come up with creative forms of fun together, and to get their input on what would be fun. And we should do it really for two reasons, one because we all need fun right now and kids are fun, and the other is that we just always want to be building that account, and always going to be putting money in that bank of our relationship with our kid because it will make things easier going forward.


REENA: You know, I think of my inner tiger mom and that how important it is, you’ve got to get discipline, you got have school, you’ve got to do these sports, but to hear you say that creating that environment of fun could be a great way just in general to build currency in the bank I just think that’s so important. I’ve never thought of it that way, how important that is, especially right now.


LISA: We’ve talked in the past about warmth and structure, and I hadn’t thought about this til just now, but the warmth actually is part of how you keep the structure. That it feels good, it’s nice to be together, also that helps kids follow rules because they wanted to feel good, and be nice to be together.


REENA: We’re a big fan of Friday night movie nights at home.


LISA: Awesome.


REENA: The kids love that at that age.


LISA: You’re putting money in the bank.


REENA: Money in the bank. I never thought of it that way. Now I do. Thank you so much.


LISA: You bet.


REENA: See you next week?


LISA: See you next week.


The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.