In a collaboration with Go Duckling, Benchmark Psychologists will take it in turns to answer questions from the members of the Go Duckling parenting forum.
Q – I understand all the ideas about managing behavioural problems in children, but my child is too old for that. What other options are available.
A – Tantrum behaviours in younger children are a common concern for parents, and this is an area where psychologists are frequently asked for advice (please refer to Dr Aaron’s Frost previous article regarding how to manage this).
But what about if your child is school-aged or older and still exhibiting challenging behaviours?
All behaviour is essentially a form of communication.
Typically, ‘challenging behaviours’ (including verbal or physical aggression, opposition or defiance) serve one of four broad objectives:
- Social Interaction – e.g. attention/response, interaction with others
- Access to desired activity or object – e.g. favourite food
- Avoidance of unpleasant stimuli or situation – e.g. difficult task, crowded social situation, school refusal)
- Automatic reinforcement – e.g. self-stimulation, such as hand-wringing, rocking etc.
Ok, so if I know the behaviour serves a purpose, what can I do about it?
- Modify the environment where possible – eg. Remove potential
- triggers, reduce likelihood of behaviour occurring, avoid boredom (as this can often be a trigger!)
- Promote alternate strategies for identified need or maintaining function of behaviour to be met (e.g. other ways of earning rewards, or getting attention or response, providing assistance with difficult tasks etc)
- Encourage and model appropriate behaviours
- Teach relevant skills (eg. social skills, self-care, problem-solving)
- Avoid punitive/coercive strategies – research has shown these to be ineffective long-term
- Strengths-Based approach: focus on your child’s goals, strengths, abilities and available resources rather than “what’s wrong” (eg. problem behaviours).
- Appropriate/alternative behaviours – promote self-esteem and confidence
- Absence and/or reduction of problem behaviours
- Follow-up on behaviours or incidents after they occur: Discuss
- inappropriate vs. appropriate behaviours, and provide
- explanations, and clear expectations. It can also help to talk to your child about their point of view on the situation, which may also provide an opportunity to better understand their needs.
- Provide opportunities for responsibility – involvement in establishing rules and routines.
Who can help?
It is always important to rule out medical causes, or other explanations for behaviours (such as skills deficits, or other underlying issues). If challenging behaviours are causing you, your family, or your child significant difficulties (e.g. at school, family relationships), it may be worth visiting your GP to discuss the issues.
Your GP can also discuss other referral options for professional support to deal with, and modify challenging behaviours at home or at school.
A psychologist can assist with assessing the main functions of your child’s challenging behaviours, as well as what might be keeping the behaviour going. A psychologist can also work with your child and family (or school) as a whole, to put in place strategies to rule out other causes, assist with skills development, and to work on modifying the behaviours.
4th April 2014
Q – My son has been having some trouble with reading, and I’m worried that he may have dyslexia. What exactly does it mean if my son has dyslexia, and how do I find out if he does?
A – ‘Dyslexia’ is a developmental learning disability, characterised by pervasive difficulties in regards to reading and processing written language. Developmental dyslexia occurs in approximately 5-10% of children, and can often run in families.
Typically these difficulties are due to impaired brain function in specific areas, causing deficits in the child’s ability to process phonological components of language – for example, the ability to recognise and sound out words by segmenting into parts, and blending separate letters and sounds to form whole words.
The difficulties experienced by a child with developmental dyslexia are usually specific only to reading, and are unexpected when compared with the child’s overall cognitive abilities in other areas.
Whilst most of us will have heard the term ‘dyslexia’ used in regards to impaired reading ability, reading difficulties (particularly when they go unidentified) can also impact on a child’s speech, verbal knowledge, writing and spelling abilities, as well as their ability to take information in quickly and hold information in their mind.
As children with dyslexia progress in terms of their schooling and development, reading difficulties can significantly impact their ability to process and comprehend information required for learning (such as development of vocabulary or general knowledge). Children who experience significant difficulties with reading are also less likely to enjoy and participate in reading activities, which may impede their academic progress further. For some children, this can also make them more likely to experience social and emotional problems at school, or other behavioural issues (such as school refusal).
Children experiencing difficulties with reading will usually benefit from remedial support with reading skills development, as well as encouragement to persevere with challenging tasks.
Most benefit occurs when support is made available earlier, such as when a younger child is first diagnosed with developmental dyslexia. Other support strategies include adapting tasks to include non-verbal information, such as visual cues, practical and experiential learning tasks, and use of spoken language to convey important information.
If your child is experiencing reading difficulties, or at times has trouble keeping up at school despite being an otherwise “bright” kid, it may be helpful to seek professional advice from your GP or Paediatrician. A referral to a psychologist for an in-depth assessment of their learning and reading abilities may also assist in identifying specific learning difficulties, such as developmental dyslexia.
A psychologist can also assist with strategies to support your child’s learning, as well as their social and emotional well-being. This may include strategies to overcome behavioural challenges (such as school refusal), and anxiety in classroom settings as a result of learning difficulties.
28th April 2014
Q – My child keeps throwing tantrums when we are out, how can I avoid them?
A – Great Question, this is a common concern for parents, and strategies like time out don’t feel like they are as easily accessible. Here are a few ideas:
Plan some rewards Explain to your child what they will receive for behaving well. Remember that your time is a more powerful reward than treats.
Plan some distractions Bored children are far more likely to be misbehaved.
Don’t ignore them when they aren’t having a tantrum Most tantrums are about seeking attention. Its easy to get distracted by what we are doing when we are busy. Keep chatting to your kids, playing games with them and interacting.
Explain the rules Talk to your child prior to leaving about where you are going, what will be happening and what you expect from them.
Remember that a well planned trip out of the house it more likely to be successful. Bring snacks, bring books or games, and think of things to chat with your child(ren) while you are out.
21st April 2014
Q – What is the best way to deal with childhood tantrums?
A – Firstly, it is important to rule out a couple of things. In all of my years working with families of children with behaviour problems, I have learned that there is no amount of good parenting that can overcome some fundamental problems: Sleep, Routine? and Diet.
Is your child getting enough sleep? Overtired kids are grumpy kids and they are likely to respond emotionally to even the smallest provocation. If your child is still having a day nap, make sure it is not so long that they aren’t sleeping at night. If they no longer need a day nap, check that they are going to bed promptly and falling asleep readily. If the problem is not enough sleep, then behaviour management strategies are wasting everyone’s time.
Secondly, how is your child’s diet? Kids who don’t eat enough are often easy to anger and some children can be particularly sensitive to low blood sugars. Do you need to build some regular snacks into their routine? On the other side of diet, far too much effort is put into elimination of the esoterics: gluten, salicilates, nitrates and all the other nasties. It is true that for some kids, these particular allergens can cause major problems, but for most kids the problematic foods are far more everyday – sugar and caffeine. If your child has just drunk a 600ml bottle of coke, personally I would advise just backing off and letting them burn it off (preferably outside).
But presuming that sleep is ok, diet is ok, the child isn’t sick and there is nothing major happening in their life that would cause disruption, then we are talking about good old fashioned bad behaviour.
Basically, we have a choice – change the behaviour with reward or change the behaviour with punishment. Punishment strategies include removal of priviledges, time-out, naughty corner and a range of others. The problem with punishment, is that after a while the kids just get desensitised to it. How many of us have heard from our parents about how they broke the wooden spoon over the backside of one of their children and they barely flinched. So for punishments to be effective, it needs to be used sparingly.
The second thing is ignoring. Just because a child is having a tantrum it doesn’t mean you have to have one too. For the most part tantrums are about attention. Sometimes children need attention if they are genuinely distressed, in pain or have a need they can’t meet for themselves. But most of the time, tantrums are just a way they have learned to get you to pay attention to them. If you are busy doing something else, there is a better than fair chance that what your child would like is for you to be busy with them. Throwing a tantrum and having you yell at them gets them what they want. We have to learn to ignore attention-seeking tantrums. This is a younger child, but it’s a great example of how to handle the attention-seeking tantrum.
Which brings us to reward. It’s too easy to focus on the bad behaviour that we want to see less of. Another way to think about it is ‘can we make the good behaviour go for longer?’. If good behaviour lasts longer, then there is simply less time for bad behaviour. So the starting point to managing any bad behaviour is simply to catch the child when they aren’t behaving badly. The most effective form of reward is your time and affection. It might seem like an odd conversation to have with your child when you get up really close to them, look them in the eye, use their name and say “Mum is so proud of how well behaved you have been for the past 15 minutes” while giving a gentle pat on the back or a ruffle of the hair. BUT, lots of attention for good behaviour, with lots of praise and attention will reduce bad behaviour more than any number of broken wooden spoons, or parental meltdowns will ever achieve. Of course, for older children, more sophisticated reward strategies such as reward charts can also be highly effective. But even with older children, the most powerful reward is your time affection and attention
Not only is the use of praise and reward more effective, it’s also much nicer for both the child and yourself. Try to stick this method out for two weeks and you should have a better behaved child, and a more harmonious household all round. If this still still isn’t working, contact your GP, there is a lot of individual tailoring that can be done to improve children’s behaviour, and your GP will be able to point you toward the right person to help further. Remember, it is much easier to manage behaviour problems in a 5 year old than in a 15 year old, so lets get on top of them early.