Do Ultimatums Work to Change Behavior?
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Do Ultimatums Work to Change Behavior?

 
If you don’t read this, I will never write another blog!  I have found that ultimatums never work. If you are threatening someone by demanding change with the beliefthat you will change their behavior, you may be in for a rude awakening.  I see couples who are in conflict strugglewith this every day.  Unfortunately, we believe that if we give our partners, children, friends or parents ultimatumsit will get their attention and convince them to go along with our demands.
 
How do you feel when someone gives you an ultimatum?  What is your first thought?  I know that my first thought is “who do youthink you are?”  Of course, as I tellevery client, “your first thought is usually wrong.”  But that is a issue for another blog.  Everyone wants to be heard andunderstood.  We want to be in charge ofyour own lives and behavior, even if we are our own worst enemy.  When someone makes a demand and gives you an ultimatum they are denying you all of the above.  Essentially they are saying that you do nothave the power or ability to take responsibility for your own behavior.
 
Often I will have a client ask meto fix the identified patient.  They havebrought the client into my office to be repaired primarily.  I do not fix clients.  We cannot force clients to change theirbehavior.  This is typical with theparents that present with their children who have a behavior problem.  I understand the frustration and the factthat the parents are most often at the end a long rope.  They feel that they have tried everything,and they want changes. 
 
I remember when my son was eight or nine years old we were confronted with his behavior.  He had been diagnosis with ADHD and had been prescribed Ritalin.  At one, time, my husband was so frustrated that he threatened to send my son to military school.  I went as far as to drive my son to a military school to visit the campus. To my shock and surprise my son liked the school.  He was hugely disappointed when we refused to send him.  We had to find another avenue quickly.
 
Please understand that if you are in an abusive relationship or you are concerned with the health and safety of someone I am not suggesting that you ignore the behavior.  As I write about in my book, “When the New Becomes the Normal” when you ignore a new behavior it becomes the normal behavior.  Once the habit is established it is much harder to change something that is part of the new normal.  I think that you must address the new behavior in the beginning, establish boundaries and let the person know thatyou are not willing to accept the new behavior. 
 
Let me give you a few quick examples of how to address behavior without demands or ultimatums.  You have a child who is unwilling to pick up after themselves and has left their toys, clothes and personal items scattered all over the house numerous times over the past few days.  Again, this is new behavior that you have observed.  You might say to the child, “I am not happy when I see the mess in the living room every evening, and I will not be responsible for picking up your things. What do you think you need to do to take care of this issue?”  At this point, you have not dealt with  behavior that has become the normal.  You have addressed the behavior early on, and you are not at the end of your rope. This is when you can afford the child the ability to make the changes,take responsibility and feel that they are in control of their own behavior.  If the child says, “I know I need to pick it up but I am busy playing a game.”  This would be a good time to say, “I am gladyou will be picking your things up.  Iwill be cleaning, and I do not want to have to clean around your toys.”
 
Yes, this may seem straight forward but remember this is a new behavior.  You have not been dealing with this behavior for months.  You have not made threats, demands or set down ultimatum.  You have not made unrealistic expectations or consequences that you did not carry out.  Many times children have reported to me, right in front of the parents, “They always threaten to take my video games away for a month, but I know that I will get it back in a week.”  This type of parenting reinforced the behavior and sends a message that the child is not only in power but that the parenthas lost control.
 
What if you had made a demand or laid down the law with a grand ultimatum? For example, you say, “I am sick of this mess, and if you do not stop leaving your stuff all over the house I will ground you for the next three weeks.”  First of all, as a grandmother and a mother of three grown children, I never want put myself in a position, to be stuck with a child who is grounded for three weeks.  You are punishing yourself for the child’sbehavior, and you are not getting the results you want.  You want the child to feel empowered.  The problem is that we get ourselves into a power struggle with a child.  We do the same thing with our partners, spouse, friends, employees, coworkers or anyone we think we need to change.  It is not about having power over others.
 
We do need rules and boundaries for behavior.  However, I think that it is more productive and more beneficial to teach responsibility than to teach compliance.  When we teach compliance and demand others to behave to meet our expectations we are not providing the individual the opportunity to improve the behavior or to own their own decisions.  As in the above example; if the child is forced  to meet the expectations of picking up their possessions, how do you think they will behave when there is no threat?  What is the reason for their behavior?  They have not learned to be responsible for their behavior because it was not an option. We want our children to learn to make good choices, but we take all their options away. 
 
Do you think there can be consequences without a demand?  Just as I stated in my first example if you address the behavior with the child you must let them know that it is their responsibility to take care of their toys and items that they have left out.  You must let them feel empowered to manage their own behavior.  Despite the best intentions, as parents wetend to believe that our child’s behavior reflects on our ability to be a good parent.  Therefore, we see their negligent behavior as something that we need to control. Unfortunately, when we feel the anxiety of seeing something out of ourcontrol we try to demand change.
 
Whether you are unhappy with your spouse or your child, your ability to change another’s behavior is limited.  It is limited, by the way, in which you behave.  If you yell or scream at someone,and demand that they change you may experience short term results.  Of course, the results you see are only an product of your tantrum.  When you stop yelling and waving your arms the effect may be over, or the result can be a negative one that lasts much longer.  What you are doing is controlling with fear.  You are teaching the child or your spouse to fear your behavior.  They do not learn to manage their own behavior, but they learn to adapt to your mood by becoming fearful. 
 
Do you want to have someone stay with you or respect you out of fear? What is more satisfying and beneficial for relationships and parenting is to allow others the courage to feel good about their selves.  If pride in everything that you accomplish is.criticized, your behavior is controlled and you never believe  you have the ability to take the responsibility of your own behavior, you are left feeling less than.  We do not want to make others feel less than anything. 
 
I challenge my clients to be self-differentiated and not let the emotions of others dictate their emotions.  I also encourage them, toopenly expressing their feelings, needs and wants in their relationships.  If behavior makes you uncomfortable remember that, speaking about it and express your feelings is appropriate and useful.  You should feel comfortable in expressing your feelings and allow others to do the same. You are giving the other person the opportunity to grow.  This is what I believe is the loving thing to do.
 
If you are in a relationship where you feel that you are being controlled with fear, intimidation or threats, or you are being abused, please seek help.  If you feel immediate danger, call 911.  If you feel you have been trying to control others with fear and intimidation, ask yourself if you want to continue. Finally, ask yourself what it would look like if you could change the behavior. I would be happy to discuss your treatment options and I offer a free initial consultation.
 
 
 
 
 

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