5 Strategies To Turn Family Chaos Into Calm: Advice for a family makeover I shared on Dr. Phil Show

by | Feb 16, 2014 | Anger Management

Tantrums. Backtalk. Meltdowns. Defiance. Disrespect. Yelling. Refusing to stay in Time Out. Won’t go to bed. Chaos! Those were the behaviors I faced when I went on a house call for the day to a family’s home for Dr. Phil.  Here’s the description and my solutions for the family.

Is your household in turmoil? Do you feel overwhelmed by your child’s  temper tantrums? Dr. Phil and I reveal the best solutions for common parenting  dilemmas and for the chaos affecting you and your marriage.

The parents of four young kids sent a “HELP” call to Dr. Phil asking for guidance. “Chaos!” was their description of day to day family life. Mom was overwhelmed (so overwhelmed she’d left home).  The kids were defiant. The three year old was in constant meltdowns. Family harmony was nonexistent. No one would sit for the kids.

Dr. Phil sent me with a film crew to spend the day with the mom and dad and four kids. My role: watch for the hot button issues causing the friction and meltdowns, analyze how the parents were responding and then teach mom and dad a few new parenting responses that would reduce yelling and restore a little family harmony. I then met Dr. Phil and the parents in the Dr. Phil studio later in the week to offer strategies for the makeover-how to reduce the chaos and create more calmness! 

My Dr. Phil House Call and 5 Strategies To Turn Family Chaos Into Calm

Whenever I work with a family I first talk to the parents about their concerns and then I watch the family dynamics. Since I only had a day to work with the family I was really doing triage and giving the fastest strategies that would restore their harmony and reduce the negativity. I zeroed in on five strategies and taught them to the parents. Within two hours yelling had ceased and the kids were smiling (and behaved). The real secret is for the parents to consistently use those same strategies until they become a habit. Remember, behavior is learned so it can be unlearned. Solid behavior strategies used consistently along with a respectful relationship with the child are key to positive change. Here are the strategies I used to turn family chaos into calm:

1. Target one or two troublesome behaviors at a time

I watched a four hour clip of the family and heard nothing but negativity, reprimands, or threats for time out. The result: the parents had fallen into the Negative Trap of only focusing on the “bad” behaviors. My first suggestion was to convince the parents to tune into just one or two troublesome behaviors instead of focusing on so many.

The parents discussed all their behavior concerns (whining, defiance, shouting, yelling, hitting, not going to bed, etc. etc. etc). and zeroed in on their “Red Flag Issues” – those kid behavior that could not be ignored. We targeted any aggressive behavior  (hitting, biting, kicking) and overt defiance/noncompliance. I explained to the parents that if you zero into the real hot button issues you’ll get faster results. The kids will know you’re serious and won’t tolerate hitting or defiance. All your energy is reinforcing two specific behaviors. Once those behaviors start to get in check you can work on the next more troublesome behaviors. I then worked with the parents on these two points so the children understood the new expectations:

• Create new rules. Those red flag behaviors were made into new Family Rules (“We are respectful and do not hit or bite.” “We are cooperative and do what Mommy and Daddy ask”). The parent explained the rules to the children. (For older kids you might post them).

• Set clear consequences. The parents described the consequence of disobeying the rules. The kids understood that any infraction would mean an immediate Time Out.

2. Use “respectful ignoring”

I watched the family and recognized Mom and Dad had fallen into a Negativity Trap. Almost ninety percent of the time they focused on their kids’ negative behaviors. (Listen to the tape and count the positives! They were next to none!) That trap is easy to get into when you have defiant kids. So a big trick to rebuilding family harmony is reducing the negativity.

I told the parents to  ignore any behaviors that don’t warrant a Code Red Intervention. If their child pouts, whines, screams or yells, the parents were to pretend they were deaf. I also warned that ignoring bad behaviors is tough to do. After all, we know they’re inappropriate. But their kids were using annoying behaviors to get their way and it worked!  The new plan: as soon as the child started the whine, I’d cue the parent to turn and ignore the behavior (“Pretend she’s invisible.”) Then as soon as the child stopped the annoying behavior, the parent was to turn and give her positive attention if she’s not using that behavior and simply say, “Now I can listen. What do you need?” The simple switch produced amazing results.

3. Give a declarative direction stated with a period

A big reason the kids were defiant is that the parents failed to give simple, clear directions or requests. If you watch the tape you’ll hear parental requests stated in a question form (“Do you want time out?”) or evasive. You hear Mom add her own thoughts and judgments to each request. The result: more kid noncompliance. I taught the parents to give requests using a declarative direction: “Say what you want so it describes the action your child to do. Then add a period.” For instance: “Trinity, please pick up your toys and put them in the box.” or “Trinity, please come to the table.” Then say nothing more. It sounds so simple but the result was less arguing  and more compliance.

4. Use Time Out for red flag behaviors

Each and every time the child displays aggressive behavior (hits, kicks, pinches) there is an immediate time out without a warning. I’m not big on giving kids a second chance to hit. If the child is defiant, the parent gives one warning only: “Trinity, if you don’t obey Mom ,you get Time Out.” Then stop and don’t say a thing for five seconds. If she doesn’t comply, it’s Time Out. As I watched the parents and the tape it was clear that they were using Time Out 150% wrong so weren’t getting results. You’ll see on the tape a few pointers on the correct way to use Time Out so it does reduce troublesome behaviors. The four biggest mistakes the parents were making were:

• Not following through once they said “Time Out” – you must be consistent!

• Not setting aside a quiet location for Time Out (they were using the bathroom or her bedroom which were dangerous and distracting with toys or objects. We set up a chair in the hallway.

• Not setting a timer and using too much time. I gave the parents a timer and told them to set it for one minute per year of the child.

• Not ignoring. The parents continued to threatened or scold the child when she was in Time Out which only aggravated her and caused a bigger tantrum.The purpose of Time Out is to remove the child from any and all attention so she recognizes that her behavior was not tolerated. By continuing to talk to the child, the parents only continued to give her attention.

5. Catch the child being good

Research shows that the fastest way to turn bad behavior around is to reinforce the child the moment she is good. Really! Though it’s the fastest, the research-supported, it’s also the technique we use the least!!!  When there is frequent negativity in a home, kids often crave attention and turn to negative attention-getting behaviors. The ideal balance of positive to negative comments for optimum self-esteem is five positive statements to every one negative. The children in this home were receiving almost 50 to 1 — or even higher –or  50 negatives comments to 1 positive. The focus was all on Time Out.

One of the most memorable moments of the Dr. Phil show was when the tape is played of three-year-old child She’s in her bed alone, talking to her sippy cup and repeating all the negative comments she’s heard her mom say all through the day. The clip is heart-breaking. If there’s ever proof that our children internalized what they hear, that two minute clip is it. All of us in that studio – producers, cameramen, audience, Dr. Phil and I were shook. 

My final “triage” strategies to reduce the chaos were these:

• Increase the number of TIME INs: Boost the fun family time opportunities like playing games or just having giggle time together. I suggested a simple first step is just for mom to collect a few books or quiet together activities and put them in a box or basket in the living room to grab. Even five minutes of positive TIME INs each hour would make a difference in restoring harmony.

• Use family rituals. All kids – but particularly strong-willed ones – respond to family rituals. We discussed simple rituals such as bedtime rituals, prayer before meals, a book before a nap – that the kids could look forward to. Rituals also help kids calm down.

• Use positive reinforcement. The parents were encouraged to look for those moments when their kids were acting right. Then point they were told to point out those good moments with short describing statements. “Trinity, you’re sitting so quietly!” “Trinity, thank you for saying, ‘please!'” “Trinity, you’re putting your toys away so quickly!”  

Praise should always be earned, stated almost immediately after the action (so a young child could remember what they did that was right) and said with enthusiasm. I told the parents to use an exclamation point at the end of their praise–but start looking for the positives in this child. Beware – if you only focus on the negatives, your whole family can get in to a negative trap, and the child will act more negatively because that’s what is being reinforced. Kids want our approval, and will do anything to receive it–even if the attention is negative!

There you go. Those were the five key strategies that helped that family reduce the chaos and restore the harmony. During the time I was in the house not one time out was needed and yelling and screaming was greatly reduced. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s easier to get results with an adult trained in psychology and behavior management in the room. I cautioned the parents to use the “baby step” model — one step at a time.

The next step is harder:  the parents must practice those new parenting skills over and over and over until they become part of their day to day parenting. I wouldn’t normally teach so many skills  in one day- usually it’s one skill a week with a lot of time to practice in between. But this was a special case in which the mother had already left the home overwhelmed and our concern was for not only her children, but her own emotional health.

Keep in mind those five strategies will help any family. Change isn’t easy and takes commitment and a lot of work. But change is possible if you use proven techniques applied with love and respect.

 Thanks Dr. Phil for the honor!

Michele Borba