Dear Ms. Vicki,
I need your help. My kids are bad as hell! The three of them have taken over my house and my life since my husband deployed two months ago.
I don't know what to do, but I can't take them anywhere and my friends don't want to come to our house, and they especially don't want me bringing my children to their houses.
I'm afraid that when my husband returns in August, he may not want to live here anymore because of the chaos. My 8-year-old refuses to obey me, my 6-year-old follows him and my 4-year-old daughter wants to act up just to be like her big brothers. She is sassy, refuses to sleep in her room and even sticks our her tongue at me.
Do you think they need to see a psychiatrist? Ms. Vicki, I need your help because my house is out of control!
-- Losing It
Dear Losing It,
Slow down. I think a lot of things have happened since your husband left.
You had to get used to different roles and responsibilities. What can happen in the early stages of a deployment is that the parent left at home will be more relaxed with their usual routines. This parent could also be more emotional because of their spouse's deployment.
Research shows that children pick up on the emotional cues of the parent who is caring for them. As a result, if you're sad, the children are sad. If you're more hyped up with anxiety, your children may behave the same way.
The truth is, you must regain control of your house. Children need modeling, and they need discipline. This will be easier than you think because you have two children in school. When they return home after school, they will discover a "new sheriff in town."
I believe in quick rewards for changing behavior. You need to spend more time catching your children being good and rewarding them for it. For now, they should earn all of their privileges, including watching television, playing computer games and playing outside, etc.
Start by doing the following: First, get some poster board and write in the days of the week and the hours of the day from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. Of course, 8 p.m. is bedtime and 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., give or take, are the school hours for your sons. 2:30 p.m. can be snack time, 3 to 4 p.m. is homework or reading time, and you can read with your daughter during this time. 4 p.m. is preparing dinner time. You should have your children help prepare dinner and help decide on the menu.
Now, here's the caveat: Every 15 to 20 minutes, give your children a popsicle stick (you can get them from the craft store) if they are cooperating. Never take one back for misbehaving. They will be able to "spend" their popsicle sticks on things they want. Basically, you will run a general store with different goodies. You can give coupons for more computer or television time, snacks, treats, movie and pizza nights, shopping for toys, and other things.
Your children are old enough to understand yes and no, and what is acceptable and unacceptable. It may take a week or two for them to catch on, but they will probably get it sooner rather than later because children crave structure and guidance.
When your husband left, things went awry. They are probably reacting to the lack of structure. If their behavior continues despite this new approach and if you notice things like increased irritability, changes in their sleeping and eating patterns, or any signs of regression in their functioning, you should talk to your primary-care manager for more guidance.
In the meantime, build yourself a support network. You will need the support of family and friends, and even spiritual support. Take time for yourself during the day and take walks or go to the gym for exercise.
Military communities usually offer hourly day care. It would be good for your daughter to have that time to socialize with other children her age. I know this has been a big adjustment. If you have more questions, feel free to send me another email, and I will provide additional resources or further clarification for a behavior management plan.
-- Ms. Vicki