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Ask a Latter-day Saint Therapist: How Can I Keep My Kids from Defying Me?

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Q:  My children are driving me crazy. They range in age from teen to toddler, and for the most part, none of them respect me as a parent. They expect me to take care of their every need but often refuse to do their chores, clean up after themselves, or follow simple instructions. They can be so rude to me, and to each other, and none of my punishments seem to be working. What do I do?

A: Thank you so much for reaching out to me on this. Disobedient children have existed in mortality since Cain killed Abel, and before that when one-third of Heavenly Father’s children followed Lucifer in open rebellion. It’s heartbreaking, frustrating, and maddening for parents who (like you) simply want their children to do what’s right, do their part, and grow up happy. I know your pain and I feel for you.

May I suggest a shift in focus? You mention the word “punishments.” I may be mistaken, working with limited information, but it seems to me that you’re attempting to force an outcome. By that I mean that your goal seems to get your children to behave a certain way, expecting them to yield to your authority as a parent or fall in line out of fear. You’re not alone. Most of us fall into this way of thinking from time to time.

The thing is, our role as parents is not to make our children do what’s right. Our role is to parent the way Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother parent, and force is not Their way. Force is the very opposite of Their way. If we are to parent as They do, our role is to teach our children correct principles, allow them free will, give them choices with clear consequences, and then allow them to choose. Our role is simply to follow through on the consequences.

Remember what Alma taught his son Corianton, who you may remember had gone quite wayward and was more than a little disobedient to his father? Alma taught him about how Heavenly Father parents His children: “O my son, whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come; but in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds” (Alma 42:27, emphasis added).

No one likes to be told what to do. It seems in our nature to bristle and rebel against orders in order to prove our independence. Children and teens are no different. Parents who expect kids to obey out of respect for their authority, or who compel their offspring to do what’s right, are setting themselves up for rebellion and a power struggle. This leads to kids and teens saying “No!” and digging in their heels to make a point and parents either giving up or doubling-down, determined not to lose control. This drives a wedge between mothers and fathers and their children, leading to angry, aggressive, hurtful behavior and words all around.

There is a better way. God doesn’t force. He doesn’t compel. Neither does Heavenly Mother. They show love, respect, and concern, but they also enforce boundaries. They quite simply give choices with consequences, allow us to make whatever choice we’re going to make, then follow through on the consequences.

Consider the following verses: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land, but inasmuch as ye shall not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” (2 Nephi 1:20). Two clear choices with two clear consequences. No coercion. No force. Just a clearly outlined system. “When we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law on which it is predicated” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:121). The Lord doesn’t spoil us. He requires us to obey in order to receive the blessings.

We often don’t like it. We want to do what we want and be free from the consequences. But They hold firm and in time we come to love Them, trust Them, and follow Them of our own free will. And if we don’t? Well, They love us too much to try to make us. That’s not Their job (or ours). Their job is to help us learn how to make good decisions.

In our family, this looks like reminding children and teens that, outside of having clothes to wear, food to eat, and a place to sleep, everything in their life is a privilege. In order to keep the privilege (playing with their friends, having screen time, enjoying their toys, etc.) they must follow the accompanying expectation (clean their room, do their chores, refrain from rudeness and violence, etc.). If they don’t follow the rules and do their part, they lose privileges. Depending on the situation and timeline, they may repent and earn them back.

They don’t have to clean their rooms. They don’t have to be kind to each other. We don’t expect them to obey us then get angry and offended if they don’t. It’s not a rebellion to be extinguished, from our point of view. It’s merely a poor choice. But we consistently follow through on the consequences so they can make a better choice next time.

It’s worth noting that the difference between a consequence and a punishment is that a punishment is given in the moment out of anger and frustration. It’s an attempt to take control back. A consequence, on the other hand, is outlined before the choice is even made so that the child understands by choosing the behavior they choose the consequence.

Our Heavenly Father gave us the perfect outline for parenting. “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood [remember that both fathers and mothers are called to their roles by the priesthood, or the authority of Heavenly Father], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned. Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, then showing afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou has reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy. That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the chords of death . . . and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly, then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God. . . . The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness, and thy dominion an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto you forever and ever” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-46; emphasis added)

Your children will honor you and respect you as you honor their free will and parent how our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother do: by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned. Then they will honor your dominion, or authority, without compulsory means. They will choose to do it. Try to force them, and you can expect continued disrespect and disobedience. I hope this helps. God bless you.

Lead image from Getty Images
Jonwe

Jonathan Decker, LMFT

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily Gospel-based relationship tips. 

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