Recently I served as chair of my college reunion. It was a fair amount of work, but I had a hardworking and good natured committee. When the weekend came, I enjoyed coordinating things and had a great time. Then came the surprise. People thanked me. Many people—some I knew and some I did not—made a point of coming to me and thanking me for my work. One person even sent me a lovely thank you note. I was surprised, and really appreciative. It sweetened the whole effort, and made me feel even better about my classmates.
By now you might be wondering how this is relevant to raising children with special needs. Earlier this week I was reminded how effective it is for parents to show children their appreciation for any good behavior. Parents come to me when they are feeling frustrated in their efforts to deal with a child who is rigid, impulsive or overly reactive. In the first session the parents fill me in on developmental history and clarify where the difficulties are in their daily life with this child. At the end of the session I do not tell them how to deal with the problem behaviors. We usually do not know enough about what is going on to move to specific solutions.
However, I do offer recommendations that over and over I find help mend the relationship so that child and parent are able to work together better to solve problems. I recommend that they thank children for any good behavior, and I ask them to stop yelling and nagging.
I ask parents to praise children enthusiastically anytime the child does something that the parents want, whether the parent asked for it or not. For instance, your child comes to the dinner table when asked. You say, “Tommy, thank you for coming to the table when I asked.” You say it with delight and maybe you give him a high five as well. Your child buckles her seatbelt when she gets into the car. Again, “Thanks for buckling your seatbelt. That’s great!” Pour on the enthusiasm. Chances are your child (even a sullen middle school child) will smile and be pleased.
Some parents will ask, “Why should I praise for behavior that is simply expected?” The reason is that we all like to be appreciated. The truth is that life goes better in your family when everyone does what is expected, right? So, if you let your children know that you notice and appreciate this behavior, it is likely that you will see more of it.
Will the children get so that they expect the gratitude and demand it? Probably not if it is freely flowing. If kids feel appreciated, they usually don’t need to ask for it. Even so, is there a problem if a child comes to you and says, “Dad, I hung up my jacket, did you see?” If the praise is demanded in a rude manner, that’s another matter, but the problem is not that you are praising more.
The praise helps your child feel better about herself. She gets the message that when she cooperates, her behavior really makes a difference. You can honestly say, “Thanks for putting your shoes on all by yourself. It really makes my morning easier.” You are telling the child that she is important.
I think of this praise as a way to maintain relationships and keep things running smoothly. It’s like keeping oil in your car to keep it running smoothly. By the way, the same tactic works very well with husbands, wives and coworkers.
Eliminate Nagging and Yelling
This one is harder, but think about it. Is yelling and nagging getting you what you want? Chances are if yelling and nagging have become regular events, they are not working. Your repeated reminders are falling on deaf ears. And when you raise your voice, your child is probably as angry as you are. An angry child is not likely to be cooperative. No wonder you are frustrated and you want to yell. I get it. However, I am talking about what works.
At this point make a conscious effort to manage your anger. You can tell your child that you need to take a few minutes before you respond to a situation. In that time you might count to ten, take some deep cleansing breaths or whatever else helps you settle yourself. When you feel calmer, address the problem. You’ve just modeled an excellent coping strategy for your child.
Another tough piece of advice I give parents is to ask twice for something they want done, and then stop asking. When you get beyond two, you are nagging. Your child stops listening. It is true that for the short term (until you learn strategies to improve your child’s motivation), you might end up doing some things yourself, or you might leave things undone. This is a step on the way to building a more cooperative relationship between you and your child.
Things Get Better
Very often I find that parents return for a follow up visit and report that the difficult behaviors are happening less often. We have not devised a chart or worked on time out, but these changes in parents behavior are very powerful. We still have work to do, but the atmosphere in the family is improved; the work has begun.
Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist, Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. (www.drcarolynstone.com) educates parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and anxiety about their children’s needs using humor and evidence-based practices. Parents learn new strategies through role play and homework. She teaches children to manage their anxiety and attention and to understand their learning styles. You can learn about Dr. Stone’s work from her blog at http://www.drcarolynstone.com/blog/.