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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Structuring Children for Success

In my last blog post, I talked about Filial Therapy and how it benefits families. In my next few posts, we’ll take a closer look at the components used in this approach and how parents can apply the skills even without formally participating in therapy.

The first component we’ll talk about is structuring. Structuring involves planning to set a person up for success before even beginning the activity or task. It is important because it can solve problems before they occur - consider this the prevention side of parenting. Here are things to consider when structuring:

1. In order to do this well, you’ll need to consider the age and developmental appropriateness of what you want to accomplish as it relates to your child. No matter how brilliant your structuring plans, the task will go poorly if you’re asking for something your child isn’t ready to do. For example, most 3 year olds are unable to hear multi-step directions and follow them on the first try, and if you ask a child this young to get dressed, brush their teeth, and wash their face, the expectation is unrealistic and you both will end up frustrated. In summary, step one: know what is appropriate for your child.

2. Once you’ve determined that your expectation is appropriate, think about a specific situation that you’d like to structure. For example, imagine a situation in which a child protests going to the dentist. Ask yourself what is it about that situation that is upsetting? The child might feel scared, angry, or maybe just bored in the waiting room. Step two: tease apart what is happening that causes the problem to best determine how structuring will help.

3. Now that you know the situation you’d like to structure and you have a guess about why it’s not going well, plan ahead for success. For instance, thinking about the dentist, let’s imagine that your child is scared of the dentist because he has not been there before. Structuring might involve going online to look at pictures of the office, explaining in kid-friendly language what will happen, and being realistic (but not alarming) with the language. For example, “We will go into a room and we’ll tell a receptionist our names, then wait in that room until our names are called. Next, we’ll meet the person who cleans your teeth. That person will probably brush and floss your teeth, which can sometimes feel funny or nice because they’ll be clean. The dentist might want to take pictures of your teeth as well, but we won’t know until we get there. At the end, you’ll get a bag of goodies, like a new toothbrush and maybe a sticker.” Not, “They brush your teeth and sometimes have a drill, which really hurts, so make sure you brush every day so you won’t have to do that.” Step three: prepare your child with appropriate language.

4. Structuring might also involve the use of specific items. Let’s imagine that the child is not afraid of the dentist, but instead acts wild in the waiting room. Structuring for this child might instead involve packing a favorite book, a new game to play, or a tablet with a cartoon and headphones to encourage quiet behavior. Step four: pack for success!

Have you recently used the structuring skill? Leave a comment to share how you’ve applied this to your life. 

Emily Herber McLean, LPC is a child and family therapist at The Center for Psychological Services. To learn more about her practice, visit www.centerpsych.com.

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