“I think my son is a psychopath. There’s something totally wrong.”
I will never forget when a stressed out Mom contacted me and led off with that statement. I could hear her worry oozing from the phone. She was worried about her son and his out of control outbursts that would rock the entire house. Moments that dominated so much that she and her husband found themselves tip-toeing around the house on eggshells just trying to survive in between outbursts.
Having gotten my number from a friend, she reached out for help, desperate to uncover what was going on and help her son live a happier life. What we uncovered was a big trigger point that is something nearly all of my clients come to me to work through. Something that seems benign at first, but with some children can become totally overwhelming.
What is that trigger point? What had we uncovered? Her words didn’t quite match up to the actions. In moments of exasperation, promises were made and then forgotten about, or taken away due to behavior, or just not followed through with. This became overwhelming to her son. He wasn’t sure what to trust or listen to, and when he got his feelings hurt he made sure the entire house knew.
The solution? A simple agreement. A slow down process that holds everyone accountable to the agreement’s limits and with a signature, commands follow through.
After introducing signed agreements, we saw anxiety lowered, tantrums diminished, and trust almost instantly healed. Everyone was on the same page with what the limit was, what the terms were, and how it would all be carried out if the terms were broken. Slowing down to stay grounded and mindful of the small agreements they were entering into provided a major pivot point for this family. Moments as simple as radio station selection to walking into a store to run an errand - power struggles ceased after getting everyone on the same page.
In this blog, I will share some pretty simple steps to forming your own agreements and how to stay accountable to them!
Become aware of agreement ENTER points.
Agreements can be entered into quickly and slyly. Here are the words to be on the lookout for when entering into an agreement: “Can I…?”, “Will you…?”, “When can I?”, “Are we…?”, “Will I get….?” Basically any request that your children make of you, be on alert that the next thing is a binding agreement! Whatever comes next will become the law, and children will base their whole existence in the follow through.
Examples: Can I have dessert? When are we going to the park? Can we go to Disney for my birthday? Can I play on my iPad?
Most parents tend to respond to these questions quickly and without much weight in the answers, saying things in part as a way to buy time. But whenever the adult reality doesn’t match up with the child’s expectation, hurt can follow. And hurt, can hurt. So stay alert when you hear any request - it’s the perfect time to practice setting an agreement.
Take a moment to decide!
When first getting started in making agreements I find it important to practice saying “Oh good question, can I have a moment to think about that?” This buys you the time you need to make sure you can say something you can truly follow through on.
If the word “moment” is too grey, set a specific time (maybe set a timer) to give the space required to make an informed decision. Be mindful that whatever the place card is, they will want an answer as SOON as the waiting time is over!
Children tend to find the most inconvenient time to make high value demands. When you’re finishing up the last email, on the phone, carrying in groceries. They can sense when you’re overwhelmed and can get away with making a request that will grant them a “YES!” Humans are so clever!
Set the terms.
Be very specific here. What is the limit you want to set? Is it a quality or quantity limit? The more specific you can be, the better.
Say the limit clearly, and WRITE IT DOWN! (You won’t always need to write it down, but when just starting it helps keep everyone on the same page so the agreement is not warped.)
Allow for negotiation here. The goal is to get everyone on the same page. So, is it a day of the week for dessert, is it a time limit for screen time, is it a homework agreement?
Set the consequence clearly.
What will happen next if the terms are not followed? What is the logical consequence to follow? How will it be carried out? How long will the consequence last? Is there a trap door safety feature to deploy if the agreement goes sour?
What I’ve found is that when we clearly set the consequence before the action is taken, the follow through is much higher. And there will be far less anxiety and projected anger. There might still be disappointment, but less out of control outbursts. I’ve also found it easier to stay calm myself, and keeps me from joining in the chaos of disappointment.
Sign the agreement.
Even if your children can not read or write, have them sign in some way and fashion. (This is always great find motor practice!) This creates the accountability and responsibility in the agreement. A moment to really agree to everything written.
After getting all points spelled out and signed, follow through becomes a lot easier. There is a third party (the agreement) that binds everyone to the terms and clearly states what will happen when the terms are broken. No more “You’re a mean mom,” because the element of punishment has been removed. It’s now just following through on the choices that were made!
I have used many intentionally written out agreements. The most recent was between two brothers. The problem was that whenever a neighbor would come over to play with the older brother, they would gang up on the younger brother and say hurtful things. After baring witness to this treatment, I immediately drew up an agreement the next time the request was made.
At the top I wrote “Neighbor Coming Over Agreement”. To the terms, I requested respectful behavior towards everyone in the house. If the words “kill”, “hurt”, “baby” or “die” were used the play date would immediately end and the neighbor would need to go home. If space and privacy was needed help from me could be requested and I would help best I could. Also, if the terms of the agreement were broken then the next time a neighbor play date was requested, the answer would be “no”. Then everyone signed the agreement. I also required the older brother to present this agreement to the neighbor and request their signature on the paper as well.
That day the line was toed a couple of times, a test of me and my resolve to the agreement, but respect for everyone in the house was achieved. The agreement stayed hung on the fridge, and after about two more play dates the habit was set and everyone respected the terms together!
Creating this agreement was not a tool of torture, it was a tool of inspiration!