Why You Should Hit the Reset Button: Parenting and Supporting a Behaviorally Challenged Child
Parenting and supporting a behaviorally challenged child can make the already complex and daunting journey of parenthood feel that much more difficult. We all want what is best for our children. So, when they are engaging in behaviors that make things harder for them, and for us, we tend to zero in on this behavior. We want it to change. So that they can learn in school. So that they will have more positive interactions and relationships with others. Also, we want our own lives to be as minimally complicated as possible.
Furthermore, receiving phone calls from teachers multiple times a week is undoubtedly anxiety provoking. Moreover, if the behaviors are happening predominately in the home, figuring out what to do can be that much more complicated.
As a result, it is super easy for us to focus on these behaviors. Parents try to do everything in their power to change them. This may include talking with the child about their behaviors often. Or, finding suitable and appropriate consequences. There is also a tendency to keep track, in order to recount to others what exactly occurred. If it gets disruptive enough parents will often seek the help of a therapist.
Today, I want to talk about how we approach those behavioral issues. Because, how we conceptualize these behaviors, and our response to them all play a role in what happens as a result. In my work with parents, I often find that their actions and ways of thinking about their child’s behaviors are actually counterproductive to their goal of getting the behaviors to stop. This is usully not due to any deliberate actions on the parent’s part. Usually, it is simply because parenting and supporting a behaviorally challenged child is hard.
Lets talk about it.
When I meet with parents they are always highly motivated and eager for things to get better. These are some of the main points I aim to get across very early on in my therapeutic relationship with them.
These points set the foundation for what is going to happen as we work together to extinguish the behavior and replace it with more positive ones.
Behavior is a form of communication. It is important for everyone to understand that behaviors exist so that we can communicate. At baseline, most children are not built to be able to communicate flawlessly with their words. Those parts of their brains are not developed. So when children misbehave we need to do more than observe. We also need to be listening, interpreting, and trying to understand what in the world they are trying to say to us. (More on this in a later blog post).
How you describe your child’s behavior could be a part of the problem. This can be difficult for parents to hear. However I find that once I am able to explain it without placing blame it is well received. Why? Because it makes sense. Ever heard of a self fulfilling prophecy? Let me explain. There are usually many people involved in supporting and parenting a behaviorally challenged child. And many times, these adults communicate often about the child’s behaviors. Children learn quickly that the question “how was your day” when directed towards them is not the same as when it is directed toward someone else. They hear (even if you think they are minding their own business) what you say about them. Children are aware of what the conversation is like. They learn what is “expected” of them based on the frequency of these conversations and how surprised you may be when he/she behaves well. So, if you are the kid, why not continuously engage in “bad” behaviors? People are already expecting you to misbehave anyway. Plus, you do something enough it becomes habit and routine. Which leads me to my next point:
When you talk about your child’s behaviors(good or bad) you are reinforcing them. It is deeper than the self fulfilling prophecy. We are literally helping to shape the way our children’s brains develop by how we interact with them and how we set up the environment around them. Talking about negative behaviors reinforces the neural pathways associated with these behaviors in both the child’s brain and the brains of those caring for the child. So, it is no surprise then that parents often find themselves stuck. Feeling like they have tried everything yet nothing has changed. (Read more about neural plasticity here.)
So, we’ve got to hit the reset button. Hitting the reset button helps us to start building upon more positive neural pathways which will ultimately change behaviors. The reset button is a powerful tool to have if you are parenting and supporting a behaviorally challenged child.
What to do differently when parenting and supporting a behaviorally challenged child.
When coaching those who are parenting and supporting a behaviorally challenged child I help them to do the following things:
Point out strengths. Instead of having conversations and punishing your child over and over for the bad stuff ask “what did you do well today”. Ask the teachers not only for the instances where they misbehaved. Also make a point to ask them about the times when your child was behaving well. Have conversations about this with your child and others who are helping to support and parent them. These types of conversations help to reinforce that 1) your child is more than just their negative behaviors and 2) how amazingly powerful it is to intentionally look for strengths and positives. This causes the positive behaviors to build upon each other to create more and more positive experiences. Plus, it is training for everyone’s brain to be more positive. When the brain feels confident about being positive (as a result of being exposed to it over and over) you, your child, and the village it takes to raise him or her will notice that positive experiences are more the norm than they are the exception.
Talking about behaviors is important. Don’t ignore your child’s negative behaviors. Have clear and consistent consequences. But keep it short. A long conversation only serves to reinforce those neural pathways we talked about.
Take the opportunity to use behaviors as a lesson. After your child has experienced whatever consequence for their behavior, having a short debriefing session to connect the dots is so important. During this session, be sure again to focus on what will be better next time, and what was done well this time. Chances are your child already knows what they did was not OK and why they were being punished. So, no need to go there.
If you need to talk about the challenges you face while parenting and supporting a behaviorally challenged child, ensure that the child is not there. As parents we get frustrated, annoyed, fed up, and worried. So, don’t feel like you can never talk about it. Just make sure that when you do, your child is not around. Equally important is that you find ways to ensure that what you are talking about does not carry over into your energy and state of being. Because children are highly intuitive and will be able to sense your negative energy.
Hitting the Reset button means not keeping count. It means that you are interacting with your child based on all of the good things about them and not all of the negative things they have done or will do. That Reset Button gives you permission to try something new when parenting and supporting a behaviorally challenged child.
- Do it everyday. Multiple times a day if you need to.
- Talk to your child about your new approach so that they aren’t thrown off by all the positive energy coming their way. It can certainly be jarring if you are not used to it.
- Speak positively of them even when they are behaving positively. This seems intuitive but it is not. Reinforcing good behavior means doing it all the time. Especially in the absence of the negative behavior. We want to avoid them feeling that they need to misbehave in order to receive positive feedback.
- Make sure the message is 100% positive as much as possible. Statements like “Good job, why couldn’t you do that last time?” are bad for self esteem and self image. Anything that is bad for self esteem is bad for confidence. Which in turn is not helpful for a person’s ability to feel like they can change.
- Don’t underestimate the extent to which you can have a conversation with your child. Children are capable of reasoning and understanding on some level. So, don’t completely shut them out of the problem solving. Asking your child what they wanted or hoped to achieve from their behaviors is powerful. In fact, you may be surprised by the answers. This promotes deeper conversations about making the connections between feelings, behaviors, and consequences. Give them a seat at the table. It is here that they will learn the crucial skills they need to make it in this world without you!
The Art Connection
My main job as a therapist is to empower children and their families. I aim to empower so that they understand that they have the inherent ability to create the reality that they wish to experience. This is especially pertinent in my work with those parenting and supporting a behaviorally challenged child. We are all artists creating and experiencing life with the tools that we are given and the ones that we make ourselves.
As parents our children are our little works of art. And just as a sculptor molds clay, we are molding our children until they have the mental dexterity to mold themselves. Inevitably what we focus on in the molding process teaches them what is important. Focusing on building the skills necessary to communicate more effectively rather than focusing on the byproduct that is misbehavior will serve them well as they go on to create their lives without as much input from you.
Hang in there moms, dads, and caregivers! There is hope yet! 🙂