"Big Four" Highlights



A family expert outlines ways to develop good behavior in your children

Maybe it only seems that there’s an epidemic of rude and disrespectful behavior among kids today. After all, the Ancient Greeks wrote about their uncontrollable offspring. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for better behavior from our children – for their own sake and for ours.

To get answers to some age-old questions, Fathers for Good spoke with Thomas Finn, Ph.D., a licensed family therapist in Connecticut, who has been in private practice for 30 years and also works with the Franciscan Life Center in Meriden. He and his wife, Donna, have three grown children.

Thomas Finn

Thomas Finn, Ph.D., discusses how to raise good kids in a difficult world.

Fathers for Good: What are some of the most common parent/child issues you encounter in your clinical practice?

Dr. Finn: The most common issues have always been either children not doing what parents want them to do - chores, schoolwork, etc.; or doing too much of what parents don’t want them to do - arguing, talking back, fighting. Basically, most of these issues fall into two categories:

1. not following directions and 2. acting disrespectfully, i.e. doing something that directly hurts another person physically (hitting) or emotionally (teasing), or ruins important material items (toys, furniture, windows).

Another area that has seen an increase is children experiencing different forms of anxiety.

Now, these are the main reasons that parents bring their children to psychotherapy but another common, often underlying issue is the difficulty parents, themselves, are experiencing. Most often these center on being too stressed, too busy, and too willing to engage in emotional battles and arguing with their children.

FFG: Do you use a method in handling these issues, or a case by case basis?

Dr. Finn: In helping families handle these issues, we have to look at each individually (i.e. case by case), to be sure we can understand why difficulties are occurring, but I approach the problem-solving process from the principles of behavior therapy – basically looking at development of problems from a learning perspective. Handling the more emotional sides of issues like a child’s anxiety or a parent’s frustration and anger involves tools and techniques from cognitive-behavior therapy, or the connection between the way we think and how we feel/react.

The process begins with a clear identification of what’s happening, why it’s happening. For example, is it attention-getting, a source of power and control, an expression of anger, or less often, some biologically rooted cause? Frequently, parents are then given tools they need to help their child become more cooperative, responsible, and emotionally stable. These will often include some combination of behavior management techniques and emotional regulation skills. 

Direct one-on-one therapy visits with a child will usually follow after this work with the parents. Realistically, parents will be the best, most important “therapist” their child will have, so it is vital that they be ready to help their child in the process of behavioral and emotional growth.

FFG: Parents today often complain about not being able to “control” their kids – there are so many social and media influences that form them apart from parental influence.

Dr. Finn: The influences from society and media are huge but parents shouldn’t assume that this means that they are fighting a losing battle in raising their children. We parents can put meaningful limits on the amount of media influence that a child is exposed to at home, especially when they are younger. We can strive to create a home environment that balances warmth and firmness in a way that communicates to their children two central expectations: that they are valued and that they are accountable for their actions.

Value is communicated to our kids via the quality of our relationships with them. The time we spend together, the laughs we share, the snuggle time, shared meals, etc., all send a message to our sons and daughters that they are important, special and worthwhile. Accountability is communicated via the limits we set for our kids, the consistent enforcement of those limits, the respect we show to them when they violate those limits, the use of natural and planned consequences, etc.

Sadly, I sometimes think that the number one reason why kids don’t listen to us parents is that we don’t consistently teach them that they have to. Who among us hasn’t been frustrated with a child who didn’t listen to what we said until the third of fourth time we said it? The problem often is that we parents have taught our kids that we didn’t mean it until the third of fourth time!

FFG: Are parents too lax today?

Dr. Finn: Sure many parents are too lax, but let’s not forget that many parents – probably most parents are not. Rather, they do a good job raising their children. Discipline is a must and involves creating that climate of warmth and firmness I mentioned above. Discipline involves both the use of positive reinforcement for positive behavior and holding negative behavior accountable through predictable consequences.

Discipline needs to be:

Clear:  Clear limits, instructions and expectations. This doesn’t have to mean rigid, but it does mean clear.

Consistent:  We parents have to do what we say and follow through on consequences even if it means we or our family will be inconvenienced.

Calm:  We can’t let our emotions get the best of us in discipline situations and end up in arguments, especially if our kids are strong willed. Debating and arguing with a strong willed child is a classic lose-lose situation. We can speak firmly but we can’t “lose it.”
FFG: Do you have a general message of encouragement for parents?

Dr. Finn: I can think of no other calling more important than that of being a mother or father. Donna and I have learned so much about life and love from raising our children and we have come to understand more deeply God’s unconditional love for us.

My hope is that we mothers and fathers will always see in the eyes of our children the precious souls entrusted to us by God and commit ourselves to the nurturing of those souls as we walk our path of life together. Blessed John Paul II said that the future of humanity passes by way of the family, and it is our dedication as parents that forms this future’s bedrock. So each day, testify to the love you have for your children and, in turn, teach them to love.