Early in my career, I worked at a facility for children with emotional disorders. We provided services for children ranging in age from 8 to 18. Many of our clients came from juvenile detention and it wasn’t unusual for them to have received little parental discipline or direction. One of the major challenges of the job was getting our adolescent clients through their everyday routine without major blowups, violence, or even having them just sit down and refuse to do anything at all. This was particularly challenging when it came to doing chores, going to school, and going to bed on time. During the first few months at the agency the training regimen is excessive, between behavior intervention techniques, therapeutic crisis intervention, and basic relational techniques. During that time I learned a grab bag of techniques for convincing kids to follow directions or to stop acting badly without resorting to physical intervention. As a parent, I’m increasingly discovering how useful these techniques are in raising and disciplining my own children. Having options when it comes to kids is great because they can be incredibly frustrating. Being able to choose an approach gives you a sense of control that can feel like it’s in short supply when you have only one or two approaches. The following are the interventions that I have found most useful in parenting:
- Planned Ignoring/Positive Attention– This technique is based on the assumption that kids sometimes act out in an effort to get your attention or to get you to act in a particular way. Simply put, you do not reward undesirable behavior at all. You don’t cater to it or even acknowledge it. When they do what you want, you lavish praise and attention on them. One of the most obvious examples of this is the temper tantrum. Every morning I dress my 3 year old daughter and take her to work with me. Since she reached the age of 2 she has begun to disagree with me regarding the right wardrobe choices. This sometimes results in a fit of screaming and carrying on. Since it’s in my own home, I’m under no pressure to engage it. So, I usually walk away and let her yell. When she realizes that it’s not working she stops. On the other hand, when she asks for different clothes appropriately, I praise her and listen to her opinion. This approach works best with annoying behaviors when there are no time pressures. It essentially allows the child to figure out that what they are doing isn’t working. If they have a fit in the middle of the grocery store, ignoring it isn’t the right choice. If they are playing with knives, ignoring it is a bad idea.
- Redirection- Kids have a tendency to lock into ideas or behaviors, not easily letting go. This tunnel vision makes it hard for them to let go of what they are locked onto. This can be inconvenient when they get upset about something they don’t understand, want to do but cannot, or something they just won’t let go of. Sometimes the solution to this is redirecting their attention, getting the child to pay attention to something else that will draw their focus away from whatever it is that they are locked on to. Typically, this involves picking a new area of focus and giving them a reason to focus on it. Years ago I was working with a young man who had become very upset about losing some privileges. He worked himself into a tizzy and was acting out loudly. I sat down with him and began telling him a story about my dog. I put a lot of energy into the story and was animated in my telling of it. I maintained eye contact with the boy the whole time. He slowly calmed down as his focus shifted and he went from cussing and throwing things to listening to my silly story. The story worked because I gave him a new focus, I held his attention through eye contact, and I was energetic and interesting. This drew him away from his tunnel vision.
- Giving them choices- For some reason, children sometimes decide to just dig in and do the opposite of whatever you tell them. I pick out a shirt for her to wear and she doesn’t want it, no matter what I pick out. Part of reason this happens is because as kids mature they begin to assert more and more control over their environment. This prompts them to simply dig in because they can. One solution is offering 2 or 3 choices, which allows us them to have some control over the situation. The approach applies in all sorts of situations. I’ve had success using this when choosing what to feed the kids, who will read bedtime stories, etc. This approach is mostly effective when the child is resisting based on their desire to control their environment.
- Hurdle Help- Hurdle help involves turning a large task into small, easily accomplished steps. My daughter struggles with cleaning up the giant messes she seems to be able to make. When directed to clean, she will respond that it’s too much and that she cannot possibly do it by herself. Prodding and pushing only results in her yelling that she cannot do it. Instead, I tell her to pick up one specific toy, for example her toy train, and put it in the toy box. Then another and another. This continues until she is in the process of picking up toys. I’ve used it with older students who were struggling with being overwhelmed by school assignments, like writing papers. Instead of saying: “write the paper,” I tell them to pick out a smaller task to accomplish, followed by another, until the paper is completed. Hurdle help works well in situations when a task or expectation is too much to take on altogether, either because the child is overwhelmed or too stubborn to do a larger task.