Creating a Common Language

Last week’s column dealt with the challenges of working with acting-out children at home and in school. We pointed out that biochemical or sensory issues causing such behavior need to be diagnosed, addressed and treated by health-care professionals such as occupational and physical therapists, when applicable.

Behavior modification is helpful when working with all types of acting-out behavior. As most people are not easily persuaded to change behaviors to which they have become accustomed, an external motivational force may be needed to facilitate the process. If it seems that a child’s impulsiveness is a result of his general make-up (internal) rather than a reaction to something occurring in his life (external), creating a behavior modification system is the first step to take.

You may notice that the words “behavior modification” include the word “modify.” We are not expecting to change the child’s biochemical make-up, but to help modify it so he can more comfortably acclimate to this world.

The adrenaline rush that many impulsive children (and adults) enjoy when they exhibit “spontaneous behavior” is not something such individuals desire to stop. Like the feeling one gets after a roller coaster ride. However, a reward for restraining oneself from impulsive behavior is still a reward.

Create a behavior modification chart that focuses on the positive. With this chart, a child doesn’t lose points for misbehaving. There will be other consequences if necessary, but whatever the child already earned for positive responses will not be lost.

Though sometimes a parent or teacher sends a strong message by ignoring a child’s annoying behavior, such children respond much better to positive stimuli. (Just ask any parent or teacher of a hyperactive child: Punishments given as consequences of their actions often have little effect.) However, a child struggling with agitation and restlessness should not be constantly ignored by an adult who is losing patience. Of course, sometimes an adult needs to take this approach in order to prevent the child from concluding that negative attention will invariably get a response.
The child who is impulsive often spends 75 percent of his life being reprimanded, and parents are relieved when he isn’t “acting up” — and want a break from him. But rather than retreat into an oasis of temporary calm, the parent should use this neutral time to build a unique relationship that will help motivate the child to improve his behavior when his restlessness seems to be overwhelming. Most children desire to please their parents (at least at a younger age), and a parent should take that reality and build upon it. The adult needs to create a common language with the child — whether by discussing tropical fish, a favorite sport, a summer activity or anything else. This could involve sharing (or creating) personal words to a song or simply knowing and discussing the child’s favorite topics.

By focusing on the child, maintaining eye contact and commenting on the child’s concerns, the parent or teacher makes the child feel cared about. This empathy can sometimes help the child refocus on the task at hand. Although theoretically we should have this type of relationship with all our children, it doesn’t always happen. Though parents can question this idea (especially parents of very stubborn children), the vision of the parent/child relationship having great impact upon one’s life cannot be underestimated.