“THIS HAS GOT TO STOP!”
Whatever it is–tantrums, hitting, whining—there are childhood behaviors that just reach their shelf life, like, yesterday, and you want them to be gone. There’s a trick to make this happen right? Easy parenting tools I can use?
Sort of. Well, not exactly… but don’t give up yet. Stay with me.
The science of behavior analysis (ABA) doesn’t believe in tricks. Tricks aren’t reliable. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, and that’s not really fun for anyone. We need things that actually work reliably. That’s why ABA includes analysis. Because it is the systematic discovery of why a behavior happens, and what to do to make it stop, that really makes a difference. I don’t know about you, but I feel good about having a solution that’s actually going to get us where we need to be.
So, back to the thing that must be stopped. If I don’t have a trick to offer, what else is there?
Three easy parenting tools to decrease behavior
Stop reinforcing the behavior.
To recap: reinforcement is what makes behavior stronger; it keeps the behavior happening over and over again. But reinforcement is complicated. It doesn’t always have to be something good and it isn’t always clear what is reinforcing the behavior. One thing that is clear: if a behavior is continuing, it is getting reinforcement from somewhere. Maybe negative reinforcement. The key is to find the reinforcement for that behavior and remove it.
Need an example?
If hitting gets a child the toy that their sibling is using, hitting is going to keep happening. If hitting gets dad to pick up a toddler and provide one-on-one time, hitting is going to keep happening. But…and here’s where it starts to get hard…if hitting gets a child sent to their room and they are in a situation where they are feeling overwhelmed, and therefore, the room is a respite, hitting is STILL going to keep happening. Behaviors that persist do so because they work.
That could be easier said than done, but there are ways. Using an ABC data sheet is one way to determine what is happening before and after the behavior and see what is keeping the behavior going. You should be prepared that the behavior may increase temporarily due to the fun that is the extinction burst, but if reinforcement is not available, the behavior should go away.
Provide reinforcement for the RIGHT kinds of behavior.
Let’s stick with hitting as the thing that we want to go away. If you know what was keeping that behavior going—attention or getting a cool toy or escaping from having to do something—you can give that same kind of reinforcement for the right kind of behavior. If you’ve got a hitter or a whiner, you should give them tons of attention when they ARE NOT hitting or whining. You should especially be giving them attention when they are good. If your hitter asks nicely for the toy that they want, you bet they should get that toy as fast as possible.
Make sure you are paying attention to good behavior and giving lots of praise, attention, hugs, and excitement when the good stuff is happening.
Teach a new set of skills.
Sometimes bad behavior happens because the child doesn’t have the right set of skills to do it differently. PS: This happens for adults too. Kids who hit because they are overwhelmed need someone to come in and talk them through how to ask for a break. Kids who hit because they want a toy need someone to teach them the language to ask for the toy appropriately. Kids who hit for no apparent reason need their parents to drink more wine. Okay, maybe not, but probably.