Behavior Modification sounds worse than it really is. It is basically a way of teaching or re-teaching cause and effect. Children are very adept at getting their needs met by whatever means they can. If whining and crying gets your attention then that is what they will do. This is a proactive way of dealing with behavior problems. If your child has developed some not-so-great behaviors, it does not mean that you are bad parents. The behavior modification techniques in this article can help you increase the amount of positive time spent with your children and teach them the right way to get their needs met.
Behavior Modification is about building a system that takes the pressure off of you and off of your children and places basic rules around time management and behavior. It will be very difficult in the beginning. The first two to three weeks will be the hardest by a long, long way. But if you can get through those first few weeks until the techniques become second nature to you and your children, the benefits will be well worth your efforts.
Consistency: Before you start both parents need to commit to this. Children are very perceptive and if one parent is not following or supporting the other there will be a split and this will not work.
Structure/Routine: You must first set up the structure and routines of the day. Basic time management - what happens in the morning, afternoon, and evening - should be as standardized as possible.
Limits/Natural Consequences: These are the behavior expectations and consequences for when the behavior expectations are not met. With consistent routine and consequences most of the negative behavior will disappear.
Start with a family meeting and put together a Family Constitution or House Rules, etc. If your children are too young to understand what a Family Constitution is, you as parents can create one for your family. Outline what is and what is not acceptable. No violence towards family or pets. No name calling. No yelling. Clean up our own messes. Spend time together as a family every week. Say please and thank you, etc. Create consequences for misbehaving and create a daily schedule for activities and chores. I am a firm believer in using TV and movies as a reward, however, everyone has a different view on this. For this article I am using it as a reward.
Here is a sample morning schedule: Wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush hair and teeth, get ready to go (week day) or play (weekend). If on a weekday they complete this within the agreed time frame they can watch TV before they go off to school or daycare. If they are staying home they can choose a movie or a few TV shows to watch. On a weekend they can pick a movie or get one-on-one time with mom or dad. If they are not following directions then they begin to lose these privileges. No TV or movies in the morning.
Offering Controlled Choices: One way to avoid power struggles is to provide Controlled Choices – offer two options you can live with and let your child choose which one. "You can play in your room or outside." To that they may say "In the kitchen."
"I know that you want to play in the kitchen, but right now your choices are either to play outside or in your room. If you want I can choose for you, but I might choose something you don't like."
Controlled Choices can be even more exaggerated "You can keep whining and having a tantrum and spend the rest of the morning in your room or you can stop and talk to me and have fun playing outside."
Natural Consequences: Only threaten consequences you can back up. Saying, "If you don't stop crying I am never taking you out to eat again" will not work. It would be better to say: “You can keep crying and we will have to leave the restaurant and go home, or you can stop crying and eat your sandwich, and then I will let you have a cookie for dessert. Your choice.”
If they break a toy in anger, you take the toy away. If they are being unsafe, throwing a toy in anger, they need to show you that they can be safe in an isolated environment. "If you can play nicely in your room for 10 minutes, then you can come out and we can talk about better ways to show you're mad."
Validation: Children do not have the vocabulary or the self knowledge to express their feelings. But we can help them by giving them the words to describe their feelings. "Jordon, it looks like you are very tired and upset. And you know what? It’s OK to be tired and upset. It’s not OK to pinch your sister." This validation of Jordan’s feelings shows that you understand, that what he is feeling is OK and that you love him.
Amends: If they pull the dog’s tail there should be amends made to the dog. “Can you pet the dog nicely and tell her you’re sorry? Tails are for wagging, not for pulling.” If they hit or pinch their sibling, amends must also be made to the child who was injured. “Can you give your sister a hug and tell her you’re sorry? It’s Ok to be angry. It is not OK to hurt your sister.”
Using Time-Outs effectively: A Time-Out is not a punishment. With punishment comes shame and that is not what a Time-Out is for. A Time-Out is to refocus and calm down for both child and parent. It is a way in which you stay ahead of the more serious behaviors that come when children are not stopped early.
For example: Crystal is playing loudly, not unsafe or out of control, just too loud. First use a Soft Limit. A Soft Limit is a reminder of behavior expectations and a way to teach children how to read social cues from adults. "Wow, I like how you are playing, but you are hurting my ears and I am trying to read." She will probably be quiet for about 30 seconds then start being loud again.
Next comes the Hard Limit. A Hard Limit is more direct and a restatement of the behavior expectation. "You are too loud and you need to use your inside voice." This may stop it for a minute or two and then she may get loud again. At this point she earns a Time-Out. She needs to sit quietly for 1 to 2 minutes. She should not be over-congratulated for taking a Time-Out, because that just teaches her that a Time-Out will get her lots of attention.
During a Time-Out, if both parents are present, use cross-talk. Cross-talk is talking to Crystal through each other. "Boy, Daddy, it sure is a shame that Crystal can't play quietly because she could miss out on the fun picnic we have planned." "That is too bad, but if she just sits quietly for 2 minutes she can have fun again."
When the Time-Out is over and you talk with Crystal, the questions should be about her behavior. “What happened? What can you do differently next time?” Then take her through a similar scenario. “What's going to happen when you are loud again?” Everything should be put back onto her and the choices she made. Make sure she knows that your are judging the behavior and not the child, which is something you should say. "I am not mad at you, you are wonderful. But sometimes I don't like what you do. When you do not listen to me that hurts my feelings, because I listen to you." This kind of discussion begins to teach the lessons of self control, empathy, and cause and effect. Again, after a Time-Out is not the time for lots of hugs and attention. You should comfort her and show her you are not mad at her, but overdoing the attention for being in Time-Out will backfire in the end.
The behavioral techniques described in this article can be used with success no matter how old the child. As your child grows older the consequences for poor behavior choices will change to fit the behavior and the age. Time-Outs can be longer, consequences stiffer, but the basic techniques of Controlled Choices, Soft and Hard Limits, Natural Consequences, Validation and Amends will remain constant. Your children will learn that there are consequences – good and bad – for their behavior, and that they can count on you as their parents to define the limits and reward good choices.Joe Sky-Tucker is Saralee Sky’s 34 year old son. Joe works with emotionally disturbed youth in an in-patient setting. He is currently awaiting his first child in August, 2010. Let's see if he sticks to these principals! :)