Parents be warned! Trying to change your kid's behaviors can do more damage than good if you don't know what you're doing. In the thirteen years I've been in the business, the phrase I've heard most is "I've tried that," sometimes followed by, "...and it doesn't work." Parents try a new approach, don't get their instant American results, and then give up when the "eight-year-old-going" gets tough.
What most parents fail to recognize is that the child has his/her own expectations of how THE PARENT (and anyone else) is to behave, as well. Mr Smith, the school principle may react to unwanted behaviors in completely different ways than Coach Jones. And Ms. Lovingheart, the teacher, may have yet another, completely different style.
“What I can and can’t get away with”
Children, naturally, have an amplified interest in exploring, which contributes to their interest in testing boundaries. This testing of boundaries, or “what I can and can’t get away with,” is examined by the child on a person-by-person basis. Little Tammy may think “Grandpa will let me run around in the house, but if Grandma sees me, I'll get a swat."
Okay. All of a sudden, Grandpa witnesses Little Tammy slip on the floor because she was running, which makes her bump her head. Grandpa decides to enforce the rules of no running in the house. Grandpa has made up his mind in this scenario, and will simply not budge. EVER.
Tammy is not used to Grandpa doing this, so she will:
- Test Grandpa out to see if he really means it
- Try little tricks, charms, etc., to get Grandpa to change
- Become upset and act out when Grandpa does enforce the rules
- Test and retest
- Act out even more (possibly throw a fit to see if that will help)
- And only when she BELIEVES (operative word) Grandpa won’t budge, will she finally comply with the rules that now Grandpa enforces
In more extreme cases, matters become more complicated and more difficult.
If the parents crumble, if they don’t “Stick to their guns," a horrible thing happens. The child learns “Oh… now I have to act up this much to get what I want.”
The child wants you to go back to what the child is used to, and will work hard at getting you there. (Ask me about the Soda Machine example.)
S/he will act out, argue, talk back, try to run away, throw things, and in some circumstances spit, try to hurt themselves, urinate, or even defacate. Anythig to show YOU that what you're doing just WON'T work. It is only when things get so far out of hand that the parent finally decides to seek help. The graph above shows a child's typical response to a new behavior management program. When they come my way, behavior severity is already well above acceptable (40). After a visit or two, the parent(s) will usually make consistent use of the new program (day 6). After the parent is convinced that even though "I tried that already," two things will happen. First, child(ren) and parent(s) will sometimes go through a "Honeymoon" period, depending on age (usually this only happens with older kids). After a while, kids will check to see if parents will return to "the old ways," and parents will often relax and let things slide (say for good behavior).
Next, the child will begin to act out and parents will "stick to their guns," making sure they adhere to the new methods. Here's where most parents give up. The child will not like the new program (never really did, but wanted to show Mom & Dad, "No, no, I'll be good."). The child will begin acting out EVEN MORE than before in an effort to convince Mom, Dad, Grandma, etc, that the new program is not going to work. I once had a 5 yr old who, during a time-out, got into his favorite Jedi position and said, "I'll never join you! Ha-ya!" It took us 2 hrs and 20 minutes to finally get a properly executed 5 minute time out (a personal record). The point: expect the behavior to get WORSE (days 11 through 17). But if you stick with it and make the personal decision that "The old ways" are dead and gone forever, the child will come around.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
But there’s hope. If you remain calm, use your business tone (not your frustrated voice), and show your child that you are not going to budge, EVER, the child will eventually BELIEVE that there is no way out, and a beautiful thing happens. After a period where the child tests and re-tests you (to see if you're really not going to budge), the child’s unwanted behaviors taper over time to eventually get to an ACCEPTABLE, and even a “Brag Worthy” level. Again, this ONLY happens if the child BELIEVES you are no longer going to budge.
Secrets to shortening this time period will be reviewed in my article on 4 Ways to Manage Behavior.
How to Make Behavior Worse
If parents try a new behavior program and do not make it throught the Worse-before-better part, they will unintentionally teach their child that the severity of acting up must now reach new heights in order for the child to get what s/he wants. It is because of this severity-raising potential that parents who are serious about changing unwanted behaviors must "stick to the program." Do NOT take that step into using a new behavior program if you are not willing to invest the necessary energy and time. You could make matters worse than if you had kept things the same!