Choice Theory Parenting

Growing up with very little parental guidance has led me to question many of the parenting techniques that I use with my own kids. Although my five year old girl is still very well behaved, my eight year old boy seems to be on the wrong path. He continuously acts out while at school and it no matter how we punish him he still gets in trouble for doing the same thing.

My search for much needed parental advice led me to William Glasser’s “Choice Theory”. Choice Theory Parenting is based on the simple premise that every individual only has the power to control themselves and has limited power to control others. Applying Choice Theory Parenting allows one to take responsibility for one's own life and at the same time, withdraw from attempting to direct other people's decisions and lives.

Based on Glasser, when we behave, it is a mix of action, thinking, feeling, and physiology. He called it “total behavior,” as they appear in different degrees and in combination.

He very much focused on taking responsibility in order to gain control and it is quite relevant to parenting.

In parenting, it is important we take control over our thoughts, feelings, and actions and even on the physical reaction we have to stress. Kids do not make us angry and stressed. It is our choice to think and react in that way. We can always choose to be different parents.

The Axiom of Choice Theory

1. All we do is behave.

2. All behavior is total behavior and is made up of four components: acting, thinking, feeling, and physiology.

3. The only person whose behavior we can control is our own (Yes, I know it is a big ouch for parents. Trust me, if you adopt this understanding, you’ll have a much easier and happier parenting journey).

4. All we can give another person is information (We can’t make them think, feel, do, or physically react in a certain way. We can only offer, suggest, model, or try to force and manipulate, but at the end of it, they will have the choice whether to do it or not).

5. All total behavior is chosen, but we only have direct control over the acting and thinking components.

6. We can only control our feeling and physiology indirectly by how we choose to act and think.

7. All long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems.

8. The relationship problem is always part of our present life.

9. What happened in the past has everything to do with what we are today, but we can only satisfy our basic needs right now and plan to continue satisfying them in the future. (In other words, we brought ourselves to the position we are today, but we can’t change the past and must leave it where it needs to be—in the past—and focus on the present and the future. The more we think of the past, the more frustrated we will be and will keep using the seven deadly habits.)

Reality Therapy

Based on the choice theory, Glasser developed a very successful counseling method that was very flexible and adjustable to everyone. He started teaching his reality theory in 1965. His intensive training, which was quite useful to therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, councilors, managers, and teachers, was also very relevant and useful for me as a mother. What worked for me as a teacher, worked for me even more as a mother. Why?

The reality theory considers all problems as sourced by our inability to connect. Therefore, its main goal is to help the patient, client, student or child to create connection.

Who is best to do it than a parent who is already connected with love and caring?

I believe that parents are the best carer for their kids. Therefore they are the best therapists or best persons to help their kids develop emotional intelligence. When I had to design my parenting course and kids’ coaching program, I focused on the parents as the best therapists and made sure kids see me as little as possible. A big part of the kids’ coaching program is to teach the parents to help their kids, so they would not have to “trust” an external person.

Here are Glasser’s instructions for “therapists.” If you want to be a very successful parent therapist, follow the guidelines and you’ll be surprised with how much you can help your kids.

1. Focus on the present. Avoid discussing the past. It is the source of all trouble. All human problems are caused by an unhappy present relationship. No point talking about past unsatisfying relationships. Why? It triggers the 7 deadly habits of criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, bribing, or rewarding to control.

2. As soon as you can, find who are the people the child is disconnected to. It is not easy to do it as a parent, as most of the time it is one or two of the parents. This is why it is best for parents to work on themselves first and help them connect to their kids (by then, the child is no longer disconnected). I have a client who is going through a relationship crisis with his wife, and his son, a 14-year-old, is very angry, aggressive, and uses many swear words at home (no one in the house does). One of this client’s goals was to have a better relationship with his son. It took only one session to find out that his son is seeking a better relationship with him (mum is home and dad is the one threatening to leave). The following session, we worked on my client’s challenge in connecting with his son. When he came to the third session, the child was a happy, respectful child. It doesn’t take long, but parents need courage to take responsibility over their relationship with their kids.

3. If it doesn’t work to re-connect, help them find new connections and be strong enough to accept that others can help them greatly. It can be friends, teachers, and other family members. I myself found that other family members are very good connection with my kids. As long as you don’t see other connections as a threat to yours, you’ll be fine.

4. No matter what you do, avoid criticizing, blaming or complaining! Teach your child to avoid criticizing, blaming, or complaining and make sure you are a good model.

5. Understand what “total behavior” is. Focus on acting and thinking. It is the only thing we can control directly. Any person who needs therapy seeks some sense of control. Focus on what they can do, not on what they can’t do.

6. Help your child change feeling and physiology by changing the thinking and action.

7. Stay non-judgmental at all times. Refrain from using force and pressure to make your child do things. It is a bad modeling of the deadly habits.

8. Encourage your child to be reflective. Be careful not to confuse judging self with being reflective. When they examine their action themselves, they are reflective. When you are pushing them to come up to a specific conclusion, you are using them to judge themselves.

9. Teach them to ask the questions: Is what I am doing getting me closer to the people I need? Remember, love and belonging are the heart of the needs. They have a problem because they are disconnected somehow. They need to constantly reflect and ask themselves if what they do works for them or not. They don’t need your judgment on it. They need their understanding of it.

10. Help your child find new behaviors that will help him connect. Remember, do not force. Be gentle and caring. Offer, suggest, respect them, and let them choose!

11. Teach your kids that excuses and justifications of things that are not good and not working contribute to their helplessness and are obstacles to their ability to connect. Yes, we need it sometimes when we feel the responsibility is too heavy, but responsibility is power!

12. Help your child develop a plan (goal, milestones, or celebration) to reconnect with the people they need. Help them follow through and evaluate their own progress. You can suggest a plan but never force it. The kid must have ownership of the plan and believe he can do it. When working on a plan, make sure the child understands the plan is flexible and there are many options for a plan. The child can choose the one that best suits his/her style and it can be changed at any time. It’s not carved in stone!

13. When working with your kids, you can teach choice theory as a way of saying, “It is not me. It is not manipulation. It is a theory that works really well, and it is external to us“. It helps kids understand that many other families have the same experiences and they are just normal.