I am happy to have Sara Au, who is a mom and a journalist specializing in parenting and health issues, share with us on how to understand children’s behavior problems and choose the best discipline response for the behavior. She’s the co-author of the Stress-Free Parent series, Stress-Free Discipline (AMACOM, 2015) and Stress-Free Potty Training (AMACOM, 2008), both written with pediatric neuropsychologist Dr. Pete Stavinoha. Au offers unique insight on understanding adolescent behavior problems, and how to provide children with discipline, structure and boundaries without being unreasonable. Affiliate links to her books below.
Understanding the ABCs of your child’s behavior
Tantrums… mealtime meltdowns… homework horrors… awful attitude. Are your kids’ bad behaviors driving you crazy? Mine were starting to, until I got the chance to co-author a book series with a pediatric neuropsychologist who gave me a peek inside my children’s minds. What he taught me is offered up in our new book, Stress-Free Discipline.
First, you need to understand why your child is doing what he or she is doing, and then you can start to move them in a more positive direction. For kids, behavior is communication; it’s their way of saying, “I want this,” or, “I don’t like that.”
When psychologists analyze a behavior, they think in terms of the ABC formula:
Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. All behavior, positive and negative, follows this pattern.
The buildup of events, the contributing factors, and sometimes the triggers that lead to your child’s behavior.
The response your child has in reaction to the antecedent.
What happens after the behavior that makes it more or less likely the behavior will occur again.
Here’s how to handle children’s problem behaviors and chose the best discipline response
1. Take deep breaths.
2. Identify Antecedents.
Think about the antecedents, those triggers that led up to the behavior. There are infinite possibilities, of course, but here are some examples:
- If she’s having a tantrum, consider whether she’s hungry or tired—by far, the two biggest antecedents of tantrums.
- When he pushes his brother, figure out whether it happened in trying to get to something first or if he did it out of anger.
- If she starts mouthing off to you, look around and see if that tends to happen more in a particular setting or when a specific friend is around.
3. Reflect On Specific Behavior.
Reflect on the specific behavior that you want to change:
- If she pulls a swing away from another child at the playground and the other child falls down, focus on changing the behavior of pulling the swing away.
- When he turns his nose up at dinner, emphasize tasting one or two bites.
- Frustrations run high with homework, but keep the attention on trying her best.
4. Choose Appropriate Consequence.
Choose an appropriate consequence. Many parents go straight to punishments, but there are many other potential consequences that influence whether the behavior is repeated.
- If your first reaction is to give a Time-Out, make sure he experiences enough Time-In—positive together time—which is the only leverage that makes Time-Out work as a consequence.
- Role-model good behavior, your kids will copy you. If you see her mimicking something you don’t want her to, own up to it, explain that you don’t want her doing that— and then make sure you stop doing that!
- Give good directions with positive reinforcements, such as when/then statements: “When you put away all these toys, then we can go to the park.”
- Make sure he understands your limits, rules and expectations. Enforce those consistently, so he knows he has to be consistent with his behavior.
- Learn what antecedents lead to the behaviors you don’t like, and then interrupt those antecedents. After the immediate problem is over, you can coach ways for her to better handle these situations by practicing the behavior you do want to see.
- Has he ever had a tantrum in an empty room? No, the point is that it gets him attention. Sometimes ignoring is your best tactic. Without any reinforcing consequences, he’ll find other ways to communicate.
- Don’t reinforce bad behavior by reacting with laughter or giving in to her demands, because that’s a consequence she will likely want to have repeated.
- Prioritize your Absolutes, those behaviors that you will absolutely not tolerate, address them immediately, and take decisive action. Every family has their own Absolutes, but common ones are hitting, being mean, or doing dangerous things.
- Punishments/negative consequences should be immediate, specific, and within the context of the behavior you’re trying to stop. Don’t overdo it just because you’re mad. Keep punishments potent by changing them from time to time.
- Praise good behavior whenever you see it, because the ABCs apply there, too. When your child gets positive reinforcement as a consequence for doing something right, he or she is more likely to do that again!
If this sounds like an awful lot to do each time you’re confronting a bad behavior… you’re right. It’s not easy, but ease into it by first thinking through the ABCs of the last couple of problem behaviors at your house. What contributed to those problems? How could you have controlled the antecedents better? Did your consequences make it more or less likely the behavior will happen again? What might have happened if you’d reacted differently?
After you go through the ABC’s a few times, it will be easier to use it in the heat of the moment. You’ll probably start seeing patterns of behavior, which will clue you in as to how to shape his or her behavior in even more effective ways. Eventually, you’ll start seeing fewer bad behavior episodes. Pretty soon, using the ABCs of behavior will become intuitive: they are the keys to unlocking your family’s stress-free discipline plan.
I hope you found these tips for choosing the right discipline for your child’s behavior problem useful. Which part did you find to be most informative or helpful?