We all struggle at times to get our kids to do simple things. Stuff like coming to the table when it’s time for dinner. Or how about brushing teeth at night? Even putting on pajamas for bed or getting dressed in the morning can be a chore. We have left the house on more then one occasion only to find halfway to our destination, that our son was not wearing shoes.
Here is a simple technique that will decrease your frustration while empowering your child. We can call it the illusion of choice. It’s official name is the “double bind”.
I became familiar with this technique out of necessity while working as a therapist in acute psychiatric treatment centers for adolescents. Teenagers, much like toddlers, do not like to be told what to do or how to do something. They need to feel that they are making a choice. In fact that is one of our main jobs as parents, teachers and mentors: to teach our children how to make effective decisions. When we make decisions for them , we do them a disservice, failing to give them the tools they need to be on their own someday. So, I became skilled at using double binds in my workplace, and found it to be a helpful tool in my grown up relationships, both personal and professional. When I became a mother it was natural to apply this powerful yet simple tool to my parenting skill bag.
After all, communication tools are just communication tools, no matter who the audience. You can to adapt the tools to suit toddlers, preschoolers or whatever.
So here is the tool. A “double bind” is a question that you ask to someone else. But it’s a special sort of question. There are two requirements to form a double bind. First, the question has to present two choices. Second, the two choices both have to give you the outcome that you’re after.
I’ll give you an example I use with my own three year old. It is time to get shoes and socks on and she is playing with her toys. I ask her which socks she would like to put on today, the blue or the striped purple ones. Would she like to sit on her bed or on the chair to put them on?
Understand that my objective is to get her ready to go and to avoid resistance. Most of the time, language “tricks” like this work very well.
You can now start to think of natural ways to extend this tool towards your parenting situation and challenges. Say you’re serving dinner and your toddler is busy playing. Try something like this: “Henry – do you want to pick out your own plate for dinner, or should I just bring it to you at the table?”
We can call these friendly double binds because they are presented as hidden choices. If the other person (your spouse, a child, etc) is not particularly resistive to the “choices”, they will pick one without a fuss, and without realizing you did anything.
But you can also use a double bind when you’re facing stronger resistance. Imagine that, despite your best efforts, your daughter simply refuses to go to the car. You have somewhere you need to be. You can use this: “Susan – it’s time to get in the car. Would you like to walk with me or is it better if I carry you?”
You must be calm, congruent and consistent. This means speaking without all kinds of emotions pouring out. It means sounding like you mean what you say. And finally, it means not backing down or negotiating.
In the above example, most children will choose to remain in control by voluntarily walking to the car with you. This illusion of control, to them, is better than being carried kicking and screaming to the car.
Always give kids a choice, even if the choice is simply an illusion!
Once you realize the power of the double bind, you can start to find ways to practice it in your daily life. Sneak this little trick into conversations with people you spend time with. Practice with your kids. You’ll have fun and enjoy the process, while skillfully side-stepping many power struggles and toddler tantrums.
Wishing you a Peaceful home,