“You need to”…STOP?

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How often do you find yourself saying something like this? When talking with the kids, it begins with the phrase, “You need to” and ends with a variety of behaviors or tasks.
• “You need to pick up your shoes.”
• “You need to leave your sister alone.”
• “You need to get out your homework NOW!”
• “You need to cut that out.”
The list could go on and on of course, as the possibilities are endless. And your children listen to those statements over and over for years. But, have you noticed something? The more you use that language, the less effective it becomes. It’s not uncommon to repeat these over and over, with no observable response, until you get frustrated and perhaps start yelling. Early on, this usually doesn’t look so problematic, but as the years go by, you will see this language fails you.

The language of implied pressure
Many of us walk around all day saying things like, “I really need to get that done right away.” Research suggests that using pressured statements like that to have little correlation with results. Instead, the use of such language is associated with internal pressure and helps create a sense of anxiety. Consider these words carefully, “I need to.” The word “need” communicates necessity. Absolute necessity. We find many anxious minds (young and old) filled with commanding language such as this, that is frequently repeated, and yet not followed. In other words, we will say, ‘Oh, I need to get that report done today.” And this creates internal stress, without a doubt. But what do we do with that stress?

Why the language of pressure fails us (and our children)!
1. We tend to turn away from pressure or stress
When we speak to ourselves in this way and create that internal state of stress, what do we tend to do? Most of us turn away from that stressful thought, to do something more rewarding or distracting. This repeatedly happens throughout the day, and we arrive at work the next day saying to ourselves, “I really do need to get that report done today!” And then we repeat the process.
Thus, using this language in the adult brain usually doesn’t produce great results because the pressure is something we tend to want to avoid. The same is true for a child’s brain, as they learn to ignore these commands more and more as time goes by.
2. We lack integrity when we use this language
Carefully consider how often we use the language ‘you need to’ or ‘I need to’ and then NOTHING happens. Remember: Need implies necessity.
The false necessity we are creating with our language is just that; it’s false.
It’s a lie, and deep down we all know it. It’s as if we try to use this as a cheat, to get action, and all it typically does is create more anxiety and pressure. Our children learn that we use this phrase so much that it becomes obvious that when I say, ‘You need to get ready,’ they realize that they actually don’t need to. Maybe you will yell at them five more times. Maybe they miss the bus. Maybe they are late to the game. All those things are possible, and it is revealed that that, in reality, you don’t need to do that right now.
Over and over, reality gives us feedback. The report doesn’t need to be done today because it wasn’t. The shoes don’t need to go on right now because they didn’t (and your son could walk into school without shoes and the sky would not fall). They don’t need to make it to the big game on time because they didn’t (and thus perhaps didn’t get to play). All those results are possible, and life goes on. Nothing really ‘needed’ to happen.

What might you do Instead?
Let me warn you first: This is often a big change for us. We have become very accommodated to the language of pressure (this “need to” is only one example). The habitual way of thinking then gets ingrained into the way we speak to our children. We can unknowingly be co-creating states of anxiety in our family, that becomes unnecessary in order to get results.
Here’s what I suggest: Rather than trying to command or push children along to the next task or change in behavior, try thinking of your words as a signal…not a command. Don’t push. Just signal that it’s time for a change. And say just that, “It’s time to get ready now.”
You can use that in a wide variety of situations, and it has no false pressure implied. Kids relax, and you can relax. This is particularly true when you have changed your own internal language.
Part two of this formula involves setting up a system to manage behavior. Ensure that you have used good leverage and have clear consequences in place of inaction. While much more is to be said about parenting systems, for now just be clear.
Rely more on your actions to teach limits than using lots of words, or pressure language. It will free you and your children to learn daily routines and simultaneously abandon anxious thoughts about those routines.
Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit TerrificParenting.com.

— Randy Cale, PH.D

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