Thursday, November 20, 2008

Handling Aggressive Behavior and Deliberately Hurting Others

We have been looking at 5 different types of misbehavior: disobedience, attention-getting behaviors, breaking rules and routines, deliberately hurting others, and wrong behavior rooted in real problems. So far we have covered disobedience and attention-getting, and breaking rules and routines. Today we tackle the question of what to do with a child who is acting out aggressively or deliberately hurting others.

The primary tool for teaching a child who is hurting others or acting out aggressively is the “time out.” When carried out consistently and properly, this can be a very effective means of helping a child learn appropriate behavior. But it can fail to accomplish this goal if it is not applied quickly, consistently and completely. Here are some guidelines for applying the time out:

1. Act immediately. We sabotage ourselves when we do not take action the first time we see the behavior. “If you hit your brother with that toy again, you are going into time out.” Giving this warning teaches the child that consequences come after a second offense. Giving the time our right away teaches the seriousness of the harmful behavior. This also keeps the situation from escalating to the point where the parent loses his temper. Remember, a parent losing his temper is the number one way to lose effectiveness. How can a child learn self control if we can’t?

2. The length of the time out should, under normal circumstances, be 1 minute for every year old of the child. A small kitchen timer or microwave timer can be used to track the time. Don’t just use the clock, this puts the burden of watching the time on you. (Besides, you need lots of kitchen timers around the house to track turns on the computer, reading time, turns on the video game, TV time, etc.)

3. There should be nothing interesting to do in a time out. Going to his room where there are many toys and games is not really a time out. Sitting on the bottom step, in a chair or in a corner, out of view of the TV, is more appropriate. A crib or travel yard can be used for small children.

4. Say as little as possible before, during and after the time out. Little Joey hits his brother with a plastic shovel. Mom comes up and in a calm but firm voice says, “We don’t hit other people.” Picks Joey up and deposits him in the play pen in his room and sets the timer. Also notice the statement is phrased as a general truth, “we don’t hit,” rather than “I’m sick and tired of you hitting your brother!” This second statement is about “the child’s hitting” making “me sick and tired,” which puts the tension between me and the child, rather than where it belongs: between the child’s behavior and the universal truth that hitting others is not acceptable. Absolutely nothing is spoken during the time out. Once the time out is over, for very young children (under 4) a one sentence reminder of the offence is all that should be spoken, “We don’t hit other people.” For older children (4 and up), nothing at all should be said. The child should be able to start over. At this point look for neutral and positive behavior to affirm so he knows that you are on his side.

5. If the child resists or does not stay in the chair, use the “kinetic assist.” Remember, this is using your body or movement to affect the body or movement of the child (this is not hurting or punishing, it is assisting). If the child does not stay seated or tries to run, place your hands on his shoulders and hold him to the chair and explain, “You must sit quietly for a 5 minute time out. I will start the timer when you sit quietly.” You continue to hold him until he stops struggling, then calmly, without a word, set the time and walk away. You may have to repeat this for an hour or all evening long, but showing the child that the limits are firm and secure, no matter how hard they are tested, will pay off in the long run. Keep your cool, the struggle is not between you and him, but between his self control and the temptation to fight the limits.

6. Finally, if the child’s emotional state becomes escalated, you may have to physically restrain him to help him get control of himself. To do this, come behind the child, his back against your front, put his arms across his chest (holding his left hand with your right and his right with your left), sit down and wrap each of your legs around each of his and say to him, “I am not going to hurt you, but I am going to hold you until you can calm down.” When he relaxes, loosen your grip, if he struggles, tighten your grip. It may take an hour or more before he is ready to sit quietly for his time out, but that is still the goal.

If all of the above are being followed, and the aggressive behavior is increasing rather than decreasing, then it is time to look for the underlying causes and get outside help from mature, trusted friends and perhaps a good Christian counselor.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Handling Habitual Breaking of Rules and Routines

We have been looking at 5 different types of misbehavior: disobedience, attention-getting, breaking rules and routines, deliberately hurting others, and wrong behavior rooted in real problems. So far we have covered disobedience and attention-getting behaviors. We now come to the third of these: breaking rules and routines.

Rules and routines are expectations of family members that are clear and have been taught over the years. We keep some of ours printed out and posted at strategic locations throughout the house (we did this even before the kids could read!). These are things that kids know about, but tend to ‘forget’ over and over again. Examples are: not finishing school work, not cleaning up toys, leaving a bike out, leaving a mess in the kitchen, forgetting to feed the pet, and not taking out the garbage. These can often result in a power struggle between a parent and a child that builds tension and can be very damaging over time. To begin to eliminate these behaviors, the parents need to set up an environment where the child can experience the natural or logical consequences of such behavior. In this article, we will focus on logical consequences. These accomplish a main goal that we have mentioned many times: put the tension where it belongs: between the child and the behavior, rather than between the child and the parent.

Here are some tips for developing some natural consequences to address this type of behavior:

1. Decide which behavior you want to change. Don’t try to tackle everything at once. Pick the one that is causing the most problems and work on that, then move on to other things. Recently we had an issue with leaving a Kool-aid mess in the kitchen, so we will use that as an example. (This is obviously for older children, the same core concepts would be applied to younger children.)

2. Determine the most logical consequences for the action. This should be as fair and reasonable as possible, otherwise it will be perceived by the child as punishment or personal revenge. It should be set up so the inherent logic and life experience will do the teaching. For our example, we would say, “If we find powder on the counter or Kool-aid drops around the kitchen, you will not be allowed to make Kool-aid for a certain period of time.” My tone of voice and demeanor communicate that “I am not mad and you’re not in trouble, this is just the natural order of things.”

3. The consequences should put the discomfort on the child not the parent. If my child has a habit of leaving his coat on the floor by the door every day after school and I choose to remind and nag him to hang it up, then I am taking on the burden and putting the tension between me and him. If I simply set up a logical consequence: “If your coat is left on the floor, you will lose a certain amount of allowance,” then there is no argument or anger or tension. If I see the coat, I just write on the dri-erase board, the child’s name and “-$1 coat”. I don’t want to take away allowance, I am on his side, I am his greatest cheerleader in getting victory over “forgetting to use the coat-hook.” But I don’t say anything, I let the consequences do the teaching.

4. Follow through. Be consistent. Not carrying out the logical consequences teaches the child that your word is meaningless. Even if a child seems very sorry and promises never to do it again, the consequence should be carried out. If a child can avoid consequences by being cute, they will practice charm instead of appropriate behavior and grow up to expect others to absorb the results of their poor choices.

5. The child should be able to “earn back” freedoms and privileges. “When we see that you are able to clean up your mess, you can starting making Kool-aid again.” This also teaches them the natural and logical order of things in the real world. When you are responsible, you are allowed to have freedoms that are given to responsible people.

Logical consequences give children the gift of experiencing a taste of life in the real, grown up world in a controlled environment, mixed with the patience and love of someone on their side.

In the next article, we will be looking at how to handle hurtful and destructive behavior.