By Mary Ellen Christy
Behavior is the observable way a person reacts or conducts himself in situations or in response to any stimuli. Behavior is learned and therefore can be changed. Parents often feel embarrassed or ineffectual when dealing with a child who is presenting difficult behaviors. One should accept the fact that some children present more behavioral challenges than others. Working with these children will require more attention, planning, and a new bag of tricks.
If you are living with a difficult child, you will need to think like a detective and augment your bag of parenting tricks. A good place to begin is by consulting a developmental chart to clarify what are realistic behavioral expectations for your child. You will need to communicate with your spouse and caregivers to set realistic short-term goals and consistent responses to particular behaviors. Agree upon a short list of non-negotiable behaviors such as climbing out of a car seat and the specific language and consequences you will use. Think strategically and communicate clearly to the child what your expectations are. Praise positive behavior as consistently as you identify negative behavior. Consider using a positive visual such as a behavior chart. These can be modified based on the age of the child. For very young children you may want to divide the day into short segments, for older children it could be a week or even a month. Rewards for points earned should be non-monetary and might include such things as what we have for dinner or where everyone sits at dinner.
In addition to creating a more harmonious atmosphere in the family, the goal of encouraging modification of his or her behavior is to create within a child the ability to regulate behavior. When we can regulate our own behavior we can interact appropriately with others and be fully available to benefit from learning in school and other life experiences. A key tool in this process is the concept of logical consequences to behavior. We can see this even with babies. When a 12-month old baby who examines everything by putting it his mouth decides to bite his mother’s cheek, the most instructive response she can give is to put the baby down while saying in a firm voice “don’t bite mommy.” It doesn’t take the baby long to figure out that if I bite, I get put down. I really want my mommy to hold me so, maybe I shouldn’t bite her.
Since cruisers and toddlers have varying degrees of language development one of the best techniques for resolving conflict is to redirect their behavior. For example, if two children are fighting over a truck don’t bother trying to decide who had it first offer a second truck and use simple declarative statements like “playing is more fun than arguing. Here is a truck for each of you.” Because receptive language is usually more fully developed than expressive language, don’t expect them to apologize or discuss what happened. When a child reaches for an object that is potentially dangerous, you can say “oh, no thank you.”
This communicates the no but adds the politeness of the no thank you. This is a time when you can introduce a brief time out by saying: “When we hit, we sit.” Place the child gently on a chair in plain sight for a brief period of time.
Preschool-age children can express themselves verbally and understand the concepts of right and wrong. In fact, they love to comment on other people’s behavior: “He’s not being nice.” The best response to this is a suggestion that they “use their words to tell him.” Not only does this give them a chance to use their language but avoids casting you in the role of referee. This is an age when you can begin saying things like: “I like you too much to let you act that way.” This is also a time when they can begin to understand boundaries. It is the perfect use of time-out. Again, the time out should be on a chair in the same room with you but well away from toys. You may want to introduce a kitchen timer set for five minutes and located near the child but do not have the child hold it. The temptation to fiddle with it is too overwhelming. When the time out is over hug or comfort the child as needed and let them know that the slate is wiped clean.
This is an age when you can introduce the concept of the natural consequence of losing a privilege because of negative behavior. You might say something like: “Your behavior tells me that we need to cancel today’s playdate. We can reschedule it for another day.” If the child is upset comfort them, but don’t give in to tears or tantrums. Remind them that there will many other opportunities for playdates but don’t reward their tears with a trip to the toy store or a special treat. Stick to your routine for that day. Children thrive on structure and routine. They may not be able to verbalize it, but they will be better able to remember that behavior has consequences. Again, wipe the slate clean and make a positive comment on their cooperative behavior late in the day, such as: “I like the way you shared with your little sister. You are so nice.”
In school-age children, there is a tremendous leap in development. Expectations are higher at school and life has become infinitely more complicated. Sticking to routines at home around completing homework, keeping their room neat including making their beds and accepting responsibility for some household chores such as setting the table, emptying the dishwasher or feeding a pet. This is an age when children love getting rewards and hate losing them. They are still concrete learners and can become quite literal. This is the time when they love to point out that something is not fair. The best response to this is that life is not fair to anyone. This is a concept we all must master to have a satisfying life. At this age, children have greatly expanded their areas of interest. This makes it possible to create a greatly expanded list of meaningful consequences and rewards.
Limiting screen time is a very effective consequence and is something you want to keep restrictions on anyway for children of this age. As always, remember to balance consequences with rewards. At this age, there are many options, from choosing what Netflix movie the family will watch on Saturday, deciding what the family will have for dinner, or getting that new soccer ball they have been wanting.
Time-out is still an effective tool at this age but needs to be handled a little differently. You can say something like: “You need to take five and cool down. You may do it in your room or here at the table.” After that period of cooling down, you can have a meaningful discussion with a child this age. It is important to hear them out about what is bothering them and offer sympathetic and constructive solutions. Make it clear that everyone has complicated feelings and parents love to help kids figure them out.
Generally speaking, the school-age years are a happy and active time for children but if your child is exhibiting explosive anger, tantrums, reluctance to go to school or participate in extracurricular activities with friends, you may want to seek the advice of a professional. There is a myriad of therapies available. This is also an age when more subtle learning disabilities become more evident. Before making any decisions consult with your child’s teacher, any available counselors at the school and your pediatrician. The smaller the child the easier the problem is to solve.
In summary: Raising children who exhibit good behavior is a process and a long one. If you are consistent and fair in your practices and If you accept your role as the person who establishes boundaries for your child, you are well on your way.
Know your child and what is a reasonable expectation of children your child’s age. Keep a balance or correction and praise and a balance of consequences and rewards. Chart a well thought out course of action with spouses and caregivers. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Don’t let your temper get the best of you and contribute to the problem. Remember that every tantrum demands an audience. When a child is having a tantrum simply remove him. If this means you exit a grocery store abandoning a cart full of groceries and must patch together a strange meal for dinner — so be it. No one will starve.
Lastly, keep in mind that in order to be effective, discipline must be instructional. That is really one of the best ways a parent can express their love and respect for their child and his future. In my more than 40+ years of counseling parents regarding their children, I have never encountered a parent who did not have their children’s best interests at heart. Parenting can be a challenging and sometimes an anxiety-provoking experience, but it is also the most rewarding experience you will have in life.
If you are stressing over a behavior issue with your child, please contact us for a consultation at Christyrozenbergconsultants.com