Getting a Grip on Out-of-Control Behaviors: A Parent’s Guide to Maintaining Winning Influence Over Children (page 4)
All too often, children are operating outside the realm of parental control; they are doing and saying what they please despite the best efforts of their parents. This is a common complaint shared by many families seeking the help of a mental health professional. Parents with unruly children often feel overwhelmed and ineffective. Simply put, they are out of things to try, and need practical answers to some tough parenting questions. If this is you, let me offer you a few helpful suggestions.
First, it is important to recognize that while every family is unique, there are practical principles from evidence-based psychotherapies to help guide you on your quest to quiet your child's resistance. One such principle suggests that for families to function optimally, parents must establish and maintain a suitable amount of behavioral structure for children. Practically speaking, this means parents must design and introduce a set of family rules that clearly communicates to children how they are expected to behave both in and outside of direct parental supervision. Another principle further suggests that parents create a system of behavioral reinforcement, a practical means of shaping a child's responses to family rules through the systematic application of meaningful rewards and consequences. Parents who exercise these principles are destined to become the "master architects" of the family realm.
The first step to becoming the master architect of your family is to identify the type of behavioral structure presently in place for your child. The following questions will help you do this; they can also help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your own unique way of shaping your child's attitude and behavior. Answer the following questions alone if you are a single parent, or together with your parenting partner:
- Are there specific family rules in place for my child to follow?
- Have I communicated the family rules to my child in a way that makes sense to him based on his age and particular stage of development?
- If asked, would my child be able to define the family rules and expectations I want her to follow in a clear and accurate manner?
- Do the family rules and expectations currently in place fit the present needs of the family, or are they ineffective and outdated?
- Is there a system of meaningful rewards and consequences in place to increase the likelihood that my child will adhere to the family rules?
- Am I appropriately reinforcing the family rules on a regular basis?
If the answers you provided suggest that, the type of behavioral structure you have in place now requires some attention, not to worry. Most behavioral structures do. Like the family system itself, behavior modification systems for children are dynamic; you can re-evaluate and adjust them at anytime to meet the changing developmental and behavioral needs of children. Here are some guidelines I recommend you follow as you consider the possibility of enhancing your child's behavioral structure to fit his or her specific needs:
Guideline #1: Write family rules to fit the developmental needs of children.
In childhood there are several developmental tasks geared toward teaching children the specific skills they will need to successfully manage the demands of life at every stage of growth. For example, the infant who learns to trust others and the world will likely succeed at establishing and maintaining meaningful friendships with peers during school age. While it would not be appropriate for a parent to assign an infant a family rule at this beginning stage of life, a reasonable expectation for parents with infants would involve spending adequate amounts of time with the infant, providing love and nurturing. Doing so will help the infant develop a strong sense of safety and security that he or she will need to build trust with others; this is the first developmental task of childhood.
Similarly, parents with older children are encouraged to begin to view their child's challenging behaviors as an outward expression of their underlying developmental need: in this case, the unconscious drive of the child to learn the skills of self-control. It is, therefore, important that you begin to think of the behavioral structure you are creating now as the strong foundation your child will need to support their successful progression through the developmental stages of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Understanding this concept is crucial. Research studies indicate that the guidelines for acceptable behavior parents give children are instrumental in teaching them the skills they will need to accomplish important developmental tasks later in life.1
That said, I suggest you begin drafting your family's rules by prioritizing your child's non-compliant behaviors by severity and potential risk of harm. Behaviors such as physical aggression, verbal threats, touching others, and inappropriate sexual behavior should be first on the list for intervention. For example, if your child hits others, you would want to demonstrate to them the seriousness of this act by establishing a "no-hitting" rule that corresponds with an immediate behavioral consequence. You would simultaneously want to reward your child for taking any actions that demonstrate the use of self-control. Gradually, your focus will shift from attending to your child's negative behaviors to his willingness to comply with family rules and other behavioral expectations. In technical terms, this process of parental intervention is called behavioral shaping, and the focus of my next guideline.
Guideline #2: Reinforce appropriate behavior using meaningful rewards and consequences.
A thoughtful application of rewards and behavioral consequences to a child's problematic behavior can dramatically improve the situation. With a little training, a parent can wield the strength of such a system to develop desirable behaviors in children such as behavioral compliance while decreasing unwanted behaviors such as fighting and tantrums. (It is important to note that positive reinforcement and minor punishment are the proper terms to refer to this process of shaping human behavior; however, I have replaced these somewhat technical terms with "rewards" and "behavioral consequences" for clarity and ease of recall.)
Rewards, then, refer to the presentation of a particular incentive or event (attention, praise, a family outing) by a caregiver that increases the likelihood that a child will comply with a behavioral expectation. Meaningful rewards are those incentives that inspire your child to take desired actions. For example, if your child willingly takes a bath before bed when you remind him of the allowance he can earn for cooperating, the allowance is a meaningful reward to your child. You can identify other such rewards through careful observation of your child's reactions to other possible incentives, and through direct conversations with them about what he or she might like to earn.
Behavioral consequences, on the other hand, refer to the presentation or removal of a certain incentive or event in response to a child's misbehavior that decreases the likelihood that he will repeat this behavior. Like rewards, I recommend you base your behavioral consequences upon the strength of the approach to motivate your child. The following are some examples of appropriate behavioral consequences for children: brief time-outs, assignment of an additional chore, loss of free time, failure to earn allowance, and a loss of points if you are using a chart to monitor your child's behaviors.
Now that you have established a program of suitable rewards and behavioral consequences for your child, here are some recommendations for putting them into action:
First, schedule some time to sit down with your child to introduce and explain the family rules and behavioral expectations you would like her to follow. Take care that the information you communicate is spoken at a pace and developmental level that she can easily comprehend. You may even want to ask her to repeat back what she heard you say for clarity.
Second, explain to your child what actions you would like her to take in place of those, which violate the family rules. For instance, you might tell her, "Instead of hitting, I would like to hear you tell me that you're angry, see you walk away from the situation, or even hear you yell if you feel this will help. You will earn 10 points toward your weekly allowance if you do this." Afterwards, your child will know what behaviors you want, and which you will reward, exactly!
Third, provide opportunities for your child to practice the skills of self-control. Practice role-playing how your child would go about applying specific tools (such as those Safety Tools described in Table 1) to "real life" situations, which typically trigger strong emotions for him or her.
Fourth, prompt your child to use his new safety tools. For example, to encourage your child to adhere to the no-hitting rule when upset, you might say something like "Remember your safety tools: You can take a personal time-out if you think you need to. It might help. Hang in there, I believe in you!" You can also provide a visual prompt by modeling the desired behavior when you become upset or angry.
Fifth, promptly reward your child for any actions he takes to demonstrate the desired behavior. Remember: reinforcing approximations of the desired behavior can increase the frequency and consistency of the behavior. Lastly, follow a violation of a family rule or behavioral expectation with a reasonable and timely behavioral consequence.
If followed regularly, this program of behavioral modification will teach your child the fundamental principle of cause and effect. In other words, it will help your child understand the parallel relationship between cooperation and the acquisition of rewards, and non-compliance and the acquisition of negative consequences. Over time, these parental interventions will teach your child the benefits of thinking through a situation--critically--before choosing a behavioral response. Your child's use of this critical cognitive skill will promote the gradual development of self-control and the willingness to cooperate with others.
Moreover, if your family's rules reflect widely held conceptions of what is appropriate and expected behavior within larger society, your care to prioritize and counteract your child's non-compliance will spark a growing awareness and an eventual respect for the cultural norms of society. Teaching your children to measure their behaviors against a discriminating code of family ethics will help prepare them to meet standards of behavior upheld by contemporary society. This will be more and more important as your child enters adolescence and young adulthood when standards of personal conduct and societal costs for breaking rules are much higher.
Guideline #3: All adult caregivers will discuss and agree upon family rules.
Every family is a system, and like a system, the characteristic way in which family members relate to one another ultimately determines how the family will function as a whole. Like a thermostat that systematically works to create a safe and comfortable living environment, adult caretakers have a wonderful opportunity to create a safe and loving family environment for children by agreeing to work together.
In simple terms, this means that adults involved in the care giving and supervision of your child must work together to draft family rules that make sense to everyone. While this may seem obvious, disagreement about family rules is one of the most common reasons parents struggle to resolve their child's behavioral problems successfully. Parents and caretakers who disagree about family rules will unintentionally create a system that encourages non-compliance. For example, if Parent A gives a child a behavioral consequence for violating a family rule and Parent B annuls it because the child cries and promises "never to do it again," the child ultimately learns that crying and negotiating are tools to control others; in this case, his parents. This experience also communicates to the child that family rules and behavioral expectations are essentially, flexible.
Here are a few suggestions I recommend for you to begin the collaborative process of writing your family's rules in a way that makes sense to everyone:
- Arrange a time that you and your parenting partners can sit down, uninterrupted, to discuss the matter of establishing a list of family rules and behavioral expectations for your child. An hour to an hourand- a-half should suffice.
- To begin the discussion, ask each person about the specific behaviors they are seeing from your child, which may be causing problems within the family, in school, etc. Is everyone witnessing the same behaviors? Does everyone believe these behaviors are problematic? If everyone agrees, move onto the next step. If not, take a few moments to discuss the differences of opinion present within the group. Doing so may give each person a valuable glimpse into the underlying beliefs about discipline and other parenting practices, which could be unconscious, and contributing to the style of parenting within your household. Talking about these differences may also help the group identify and separate old, undesirable beliefs about parenting and discipline from those constructive parenting behaviors the group wishes to reinforce.
- Ask for commitment. Once the group has developed and consented to a list of family rules, ask each parenting partner for their verbal commitment to do their part to reinforce them with your child. In what ways will each parenting partner help to reinforce the family rules? Are there specific activities or interventions that individuals are willing to do to help reinforce the rules on your child's behalf?
- Schedule regular check-ins. It may be helpful to schedule regular check-ins with your parenting team for the first few months following the implementation of the new behavior modification system. This will help resolve any problems that may arise in the beginning stages of the structural changes taking place within your family.
Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist, discovered that when 51 percent of the variables in any system change, the remainder of the system organizes itself at a higher level of functioning. This is great news! However challenging the task of getting your parenting partners to collaborate, you can rest assured that your family only has to go a little more than half the distance to earn many of the benefits that stem from family-systems change. The more your parenting partners work together to reinforce family rules, the more your child is equipped to meet his or her full behavioral potential.
Guideline #4: All adult caregivers will consistently reinforce family rules.
Over the years, I have met several parents who have an expressed disbelief that behavior modification programs actually work, especially in children with hard-totreat symptoms. They say, "I've tried that already, it doesn't help." A close look into these situations typically revealed a problem with the timing and delivery of the proposed behavioral interventions, not with the behavioral program itself. In many cases, the rewards and behavioral consequences were delivered too late, or too infrequently to have any significant impact upon the child. Therefore, it is important that all parents understand the key role consistency plays in creating positive outcomes for children whenever behavior modification techniques are used.
Although there are a number of evidence-based, behavioral techniques available to treat conduct problems in children, none of them are effective alone: appropriate timing and consistent delivery of behavioral reinforcements over time must accompany the behavior modification program for change to follow. One study of behavioral techniques and children found that continuous reinforcement (reinforcement every time a desired behavior occurred) most often led to higher levels of performance of new behaviors, whereas inconsistent reinforcement led to problematic behaviors that were more difficult to extinguish.2 In other words, parental diligence to follow through with treatment recommendations must always accompany the implementation of any behavior modification program. This helps ensure that best possible outcomes for children and families are met.
Behavioral management problems in children remain a problem for many parents today. For example, in the report, America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2008, "five percent of parents in the United States reported that their child had definite or severe difficulties with emotions, concentration, behavior, or being able to get along with other people." While this figure may sound discouraging, now, more than ever before, we are bound to hope: Most of the symptoms and distress associated with childhood and adolescent behavioral disorders are treatable with timely and appropriate interventions. Behavioral therapy combined with treatments from other forms of psychotherapy is highly effective in successfully resolving hard-to-treat behavior problems in children. It is therefore imperative that parents learn effective strategies to make practical use of these treatments: understanding how to apply these therapeutic concepts is the key to establishing and maintaining winning influence over children.
I recommend that parents begin this process by prioritizing their child's problematic behaviors according to the risk of a particular behavior to cause harm or disruption. Next, it is important that parents set a strong foundation for behavioral modification by establishing a set of family rules that addresses the developmental needs of children. The ability to interpret your child's "acting-out" behavior as a developmentally appropriate way of communicating his need to learn the skill of self-control (not to punish you) can be liberating. Moreover, the thoughtful development and consistent application of meaningful rewards and consequences to your child's behaviors is a powerful way to strengthen adherence to family rules and other behavioral expectations. Lastly, it is important to remember the benefits of working together with your parenting partners to affect positive change on behalf of your child: without this type of cooperation, the behavior modification techniques discussed in this article may simply, not work.
In closing, I would like to encourage struggling parents by noting that researchers are working to gain new scientific insights that will lead to better treatments for mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders in children. Innovative studies are also exploring new ways of delivering services to prevent and treat these problems; and research efforts are expected to lead to more effective uses of existing treatments, so children and their families can live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives. Be well!
Table 1: Safety Tools for Children, Adolescents and Their Families
Stop, Think and Choose
Stop what you are doing, be aware of your thoughts, and carefully consider your choices and the consequences of each possible choice.
Briefly excuse yourself from a situation that may cause you to make a decision that you could regret
Talk About Feelings
Talk to someone who you feel you can trust. Name your feelings and explain to the person how these feelings are affecting you.
Use your mind like a tape player: repeat the positive statements you have created for yourself when you are going through a stressful time.
Imagine a special place where you can feel safe,relaxed, and free from all of your problems. Use your imagination to create the details. Stay in this special place for least one minute.
Check to see if you are invading the personal space of others around you. Ask someone, if you are not sure.
Take several, long and deep breaths when you are having a hard time managing your feelings.
1 Masten, A.S., & Coatsworth, J.D. (1998). The development of competence in favorable and unfavorable environments: Lessons from successful children. American Psychologist, 53, (pp. 205-220).
2 Kazdin, A. (2005). Parent Management Training: Treatment for Oppositional, Aggressive, and Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents (pp. 75-77). Oxford University Press
About the Author
Tony Madril, M.S.W., B.C.D. is a board-certified clinical social worker licensed to practice psychotherapy in the State of California. He has thirteen years of experience treating children and adolescents with an array of psychological and behavioral impairments. He is an active member of the National Association of Social Workers (N.A.S.W.) and serves on the field faculty of several University Graduate Schools of Social Welfare. His private practice office is located in Los Angeles, California where he specializes in working with children and families of culturally diverse backgrounds. You may e-mail at Tony@tonymadriltherapy.com, or visit him on the web at www.tonymadriltherapy.com.
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