Our Reactions

The previous post we talked about a couple of things to do when your child is acting appropriate. Now let’s look briefly at what not to do when your child is still doing something appropriate. Don’t ignore! Play, be close, give attention, and do anything else to let your child know that when they are doing something appropriate, that’s when Mom and/or Dad will be engaging with them at a higher intensity.

In my line of work, I help children with Autism build new skills (social, academic, behavioral). Most of the time we can create behavior change (increase in positive behaviors and decrease of challenging behaviors) through our reactiveness to a child’s behavior. They quickly learn that there are consequences to their behavior and that the more appropriate behaviors receive more preferred consequences (a tangible item, a break, games, etc.). It is not that we are making horrible consequences for the challenging behaviors… actually we just make the consequence either so minuscule that it makes the behavior so ineffective in obtaining a certain outcome or we make the consequence meaningful and linked to the behavior (think, having him cleaning up the floor after they spilled their plate).

Here’s an example… When my daughter was less than 2 years old she did a naughty thing. She bit me! She bit me hard and it hurt! That was a behavior I’d never like to see again, so me having practiced this many times with the children I work with I was prepared. Here’s what I did to combat her challenging behavior (biting). I did…nothing. I didn’t react at all. She bit me and looked at my face, no reaction.

The next day, my wife was laying next to my daughter and guess what. My daughter bit her! My wife sprang up and yelled “ouch! No! That hurt! No biting!” A couple days later, the same thing happened to my wife and she reacted again. Literally, this went on for almost a year. Every few weeks my daughter would bite my wife. My wife would say, “I already told her not to bite!” *

The crazy thing is…my daughter NEVER bit me again. It didn’t do anything. Daddy, didn’t react so what’s the point in doing this again? There was no consequence, and it made her behavior totally ineffective in getting my attention. Even though she was getting yelled at and it may be perceived at negative attention, it made for a very efficient way of getting her Mom’s attention.

Another way to think about it is that our two most common emotions we should be showing our young children are Neutral and Excited. We are neutral when giving our children an instruction/direction and excited when they are doing something appropriate. We are also as neutral as possible when those problem behaviors arise. Of course we show other emotions but for young children we need to be as clear as possible. Using these two emotions keeps the confusion to a minimum for younger kids ages 1-3. There’s less guesswork involved for them. They won’t be thinking “Why’s mommy mad?” or “What just happened to make Daddy so sad?” They will just be thinking “Wow this is fun!” or “Mommy wants me to do something.” Later as the child grows older we can work on empathy and teach children about emotions and the cause & effect of their behavior on others.

Hopefully these examples and tips are coming across as applicable for many different situations. We should be thinking about those little problem behaviors that are getting big reactions from us but aren’t decreasing over time. If the behavior isn’t decreasing, we are actually reinforcing the behavior. Crazy huh!? It isn’t the child that needs to do something different, it’s us! Change how we react and the child will change as well.

* Footnote: My wife is amazing! She responded like anyone else would. She has learned from this experience and knows what to do when silly little behaviors occur that we want to see decreased. Often she reminds me that most of this is natural for me and I’ve been practicing in my profession for so long that I may forget how parents feel and react without any training. So true! With knowledge and practice though anyone can change their behavior…just like she has! I once asked her, “How often do you get frustrated with our child?” She told me “maybe once per week.” Once per week!? This was when our daughter was 2-3 years old. I would think that number is incredibly low for a parent of a toddler. No, our daughter isn’t perfect! We are just equipped with the basic knowledge of behavior and strategies to help ourselves and our daughter communicate more clearly. I’m so proud of my wife for her parenting abilities, she’s a rock star!

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