This Summer, the Reward is in the Relationship

The long sunny days of summer can offer opportunities for strengthening relationships (or perhaps, mending them) that may be hard to come by during the school year.

If you find yourself feeling frazzled because your child constantly has trouble following rules or seems more hyperactive, defiant or hard to please than other kids, you’re definitely not alone, although it can certainly feel like it.  The pressure to enforce rules and boundaries in public or with our friends when we already feel like the only conversations we have with our child involve the words, “no,” “please,” “because I said so,” or “just do it!” can be maddening.

Pressure, shame and embarrassment about our child’s behavior can leave our most valued relationships strained and in need of some TLC.  This summer, try to avoid using those fun summer activities as incentives and resist the urge to revoke them as punishment.

Your relationship with your child

First and foremost, using a system of rewards and punishments, reminders of consequences and repetitive no’s can drive a wedge between you and your child quickly.  Summer is a time to adventure out of the task-oriented routine of the school year and create memories. Whether your family enjoys relaxing at the pool or taking exciting vacations, dangling that precious memory-making fun in front of your child, hoping he will please, please, please just get it right this time, puts you at risk of losing a great opportunity to make memories and bond with your child.

You see, if your child could just get it right this time, he would.

If we assume our child is choosing to make her own life more difficult and assign rewards or punishments accordingly, not only are we sending her the message that it’s unacceptable to simply lack the skills to meet an expectation, but also that we can’t empathize with them and don’t have the time to work with them to identify and solve the problem standing in their way.  

Choose activities this summer that you know will make use of your child’s most robust skills.  Personally, I am a huge fan of the zoo and make it a priority to power up that membership every year. For me, there is no better place for my child to look and feel good (and frankly, for me to look like the best.mom.ever. If just for a little while.)  The zoo seems to accentuate all of my son’s most developed, as well as accommodate his least developed executive functioning and developmental skills.  Lack of focus? Not a problem! We run from exhibit to exhibit, tram to foot to giraffes to rainforest. He gets frustrated sometimes when others don’t share the same priorities (difficulty appreciating the perspective of others.) That’s ok! My daughter happens to like it all at the zoo! So no compromising really necessary on this trip. If we run into some trouble with frustration tolerance? No worries. If he happens to get angry about something, he’s barely noticeable over the hustle and bustle of the crowd. One time, his chaos even coaxed the lion out of hiding. Total win! He’s quite strong in his gross motor abilities, and can walk or run for miles. The lack of structure of the day doesn’t phase him and when he is interested in something—he loves science, geography, and animals in general—he is pleasant, loving and at his best the majority of the time.  For a mom, seeing our kids at their very best can be a moment we remember forever—especially if our children struggle often. The best part? It’s usually scorching hot, so when I say it’s time to leave, both kids are usually happy to oblige. Short day for mom, kids are happy.  

Bottom line: we don’t always have to be directing, correcting, talking, reminding. Think about where your child is at right now developmentally and where he or she struggles.  Meet your child there! Be creative. Just because other kids can be successful at a water park doesn’t mean yours will thrive there. Maybe next summer. For now, maybe it’s an awesome playground or the science center.  Cultivate self-confidence and solid relationships with awareness that your child may need help in some areas of executive functioning, but leave the house knowing that your child wants to do well and today is about fun—not teaching life lessons.

Your relationship with your spouse or significant other

Life with kids is best measured with one frame of reference: BK and AK—before kids and after kids. What was life with our significant others even like BK? It’s easy to turn against one another because we’ve already been at odds with our challenging child all day.

Summer can be a golden opportunity to reconnect with your significant other and strengthen that partnership.  That monthly date night prescription we hear from well meaning backseat marriage advice-givers are not always possible—especially if your child’s energy level guarantees baby-sitters to be chronic one-time-use commodities. Honey, the baby-sitter’s number is disconnected. Hmmm.  Again?

Family oriented activities like vacations, day trips, and barbecues can help to restore those bonds and introduce fresh opportunities for fun if one-on-one time isn’t so easy to come by.  If you eliminate or reward these activities solely based on your child’s behavior, you’re robbing yourself and your spouse of a chance for fun quality time.

Your relationship with friends and extended family

This one can be tricky.  She’s your best friend, but you’ve always been a little self-conscious that her kids seem like a full-page ad for perfect parenting while in contrast, yours mimic the manual for what not to do.

You love her to death, but you’ve seen her subtle scowls or side-eyes at precisely those times when your child was at her worst.  The casual comments she made about that not being allowed in her house, or her kids don’t have that problem still kind of bother you.  But the thing is, you love her.

Or maybe it’s that well-meaning family member, who lovingly steps up to the plate with an opinion any time you’re struggling with an important decision involving your child. Like last year when the doctor suggested medication for your child, your mother-in-law was so sweet to recite every side effect of child ADHD medication, but you wonder if maybe she thinks you didn’t hear her the first few dozen times when she informed you that kids are under disciplined and overmedicated.

We know that the prefrontal cortex of our brain manages executive functioning, like impulse control, organizing, tolerating frustration, tasking and prioritizing. Research also shows that the prefrontal cortex of aggressive children is usually underdeveloped, hindering their ability to manage their behavior. It feels awful to be annoying and underperforming, and kids often sense when they are perceived as such—especially by people they know, love and trust.

Every child is different. We live and operate in the trenches with our difficult child, but to your friend’s or mother-in-law’s credit, we are all living our own unique experience with our unique child who has unique needs. It’s natural for others to form opinions centered on their own experiences. It feels hurtful at times and as a result, it’s difficult to remember that usually, it’s because they care.

So this summer, get all of those special friends and family members together and be the friendly face in the crowd for your child. And while it’s of utmost importance to show empathy toward your child, it’s important to show our friends and loved ones the same.  They may not understand what you’re dealing with or how your child is struggling, but as you spend time together relaxing by the pool, enjoying extended family get-togethers, laughing and supporting each other in those mom moments, you’ll be able to share with others all wonderful things about your child that may be hard for them to see.  As you’re able to model to others empathy and understanding in the face of challenging behavior, others will better understand both you and your child.

As you consider the upcoming summer months, try to find activities that allow your child to use her strongest skills and abilities so that the focus can remain on relationship strengthening rather than behavior correcting.  Allow for mistakes, don’t expect perfection, and accept that other families may be able to plan summer activities that your child simply may not be ready for.  It’s of course helpful to introduce your child to new activities and environments that you know may gently challenge her (i.e., she may look poorly behaved, frustrate others, etc.) as long as you know that you will be helping and teaching her by performing tasks with her, showing her patience and willingness to be repetitive and practice as she tries to master those skills. Not punishing.

The reward, you’ll find, will be the relationship.

Posted in Articles, Parenting, Social Skills.