Many parents struggle to find the right way to discipline children that have challenging or negative behaviours. These behaviours can range from simply refusing to complete a task to hour-long screaming tantrums with the child screaming, kicking and hitting. Some parents turn to punishment in order to provide discipline; however, most parents still report that the challenging behaviours continue to happen. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center explains that punishment may make you feel better, but will not change the kid’s behaviour. Instead, he puts forward a radical technique where parents positively reinforce the positive behaviour until the negative behaviour eventually disappears.
As I was reporting my recent series about child abuse, I came to realize that parents fall roughly into three categories. There’s a small number who seem intuitively to do everything perfectly: Moms and dads with chore charts that actually work and snack-sized bags of organic baby carrots at the ready. There’s an even smaller number who are horrifically abusive to their kids. But the biggest chunk by far are parents in the middle. They’re far from abusive, but they aren’t super-parents, either. They’re busy and stressed, so they’re too lenient one day and too harsh the next. They have outdated or no knowledge of child psychology, and they’re scrambling to figure it all out says Alan Kazdin.
Kazdin’s parenting intervention works well with parents that fall in the middle group. While providing your child with a reason not to engage in negative behaviour is important as it changes how they think, improves their ability to problem solve and develops their IQ, it won’t get rid of their challenging behaviours. The research shows that telling an instruction does not change human behaviour very well. Instead, it leaves parents saying, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.” Kazdin instead uses principles taken from an area of research known as applied behaviour analysis which focuses on three things to change behaviour. This includes: what comes before the behaviour, how you craft the behaviour, and then what you do at the end. Kazdin explains how to deal with a child that refuses to comply with an instruction. Instead of providing, a stern instruction and forcing your child to comply you can change the way you approach the situation.
So what comes before the behaviour? One is gentle instructions, and another one is choice. For example, “Sally, put on your,”— have a nice, gentle tone of voice. Tone of voice dictates whether you’re going to get compliance or not. “Sarah, put on the green coat or the red sweater. We’re going to go out, okay?” Choice among humans increases the likelihood of compliance. And choice isn’t important, it’s the appearance of choice that’s important. Having real choice is not the issue, humans don’t feel too strongly about that, but having the feeling that you have a choice makes a difference.
Once you have changed what comes before the behaviour you need to tackle the behaviour itself. If the child complies and produces the desired behaviour then you can provide praise in a precise manner so the child knows what they are being praised for. This is the most desired outcome. However, what about children that don’t comply and instead tantrum for long periods, can anything be done in these cases?
Kazdin explains his method of tackling this situation. “I ask the parent, “Does the child ever have a decent tantrum?” And the parent usually says, “No, doctor, that’s why I’m here.” So we say, we’re going to develop with you and practice with the parent, something called a “tantrum game.” We’re going to do simulations, fake tantrum situations, like pilots going through a flight simulator. And so the parent will go to the child and say, “Okay, Billy, we’re going to play a game.” Here’s how this goes: I’m going to tell you you can’t do something, but you really can, and you can have a tantrum and you can get mad, but this time you’re not going to hit mommy, and you’re not going to go on the floor. And it’s only game, but if you can do that, I’m going to give you two points on this little chart.” So the mom leans over and smiles and whispers in this cute way, “Okay, Billy, you cannot watch TV tonight.” And Billy, have your tantrum, and don’t hit mommy or go on the floor [After the fake tantrum], the child is probably smiling a little bit and the mom says with great effusiveness, “That was fabulous! I can’t believe you did that!”
Choice increases the likelihood of compliance; however, it is not important that there is actually a choice, just the appearance of choice. Once the child’s behaviour changes, it changes the brain and locks in the habit. The activity is then repeated with the parent saying “I bet you can’t do it again. I don’t think there’s a child on the planet who can do this twice in the row.” And with that the child feels they are choosing to play the game again and you are the one that is complying. The situation is then repeated and if the tantrum has many different components, you change your requirement and ask the child to do something different. The game is practiced once or twice a day, until a real tantrum that occurs outside the game. This tantrum may either be slightly or a lot better. At this point parents should respond by praising and saying “Billy I can’t believe it, we weren’t even playing the game, and look at what you did, you got mad at your sister, but you didn’t hit anybody! Billy, that was fantastic.”
As you play the game more, the likelihood of these tantrums outside of the game being good tantrums, really increases. This same approach can be taken with different challenging behaviour. Whether it is minor or severe, the basic fundamental approach is the same. Analyse and change what is happening before the behaviour, repeat the change in practice trials and lock it in with praise after the behaviour has happened. Parents feel they don’t have tools to effectively change behaviour, so instead they use power and authority. However, a few key changes in their own behaviour can make huge changes in their child’s behaviour.