Personally, I hate the term behavior modification. But it has an important place in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). Anyone who has worked with, known, or been in contact with a child with an autism spectrum disorder knows behaviors are inevitable. These are highly sensitive, highly rigid individuals, which makes even the slightest deviation tantrum-worthy.
The goal of ABA behavior modification isn’t to try to control the children or their behaviors. It’s to understand why the child is behaving that way so they can be taught how to ask for what they want and express their needs in a more socially acceptable way. It helps give them tools they can take out into society.
Why Kids Tantrum or Otherwise Misbehave
Young children tantrum because their vocabulary and understanding of themselves and the world are not yet sophisticated. They feel a certain way, but can’t articulate it. So, they have what the ABA world calls a behavior (like tantruming). The behavior gets the caregiver to react a certain way and, if it works for the child, they’ll keep doing it. But, for the caregivers, it becomes exhausting and frustrating.
Kids want something, and it’s up to their caregivers to figure it out. It’s also up to the caregivers to teach more appropriate ways of asking for what they want and express how they feel. Caregivers are in charge of helping the child understand and identify what they are feeling.
What Being an ABA Interventionist Taught Me
Over the years, I’ve worked at four different places. I’ve been taught a lot about children with autism and ABA. I’ve had my skills and knowledge tested and pushed to their limits. I once had a child pull a pair of scissors on me. And not the rounded safety kind. The really sharp, scary kind. I’ve also heard of children pulling out knives. It’s scary. It’s definitely not easy dealing with their behaviors.
My training was always divided into two halves: how to teach skills and how to deal with behaviors. Both were of equal importance. As a parent, the later one has been incredibly beneficial.
What helped the most was learning the four major reasons why kids tantrum: escape, access to tangibles/edibles, attention, and self-stimulation.
The Four Reasons
Escape means escape. Escape from a situation, escape from a demand, escape from a chore, escape from anything they don’t want to do or a place they don’t want to be in.
Misbehaving for attention is done so the child can access the attention of someone else, regardless of what that person is doing. I once worked with a child who would hit us to gain our attention, and we had to ignore it. Ouch.
Misbehavior for access to tangibles or edibles is done so the child can get something they want, like a toy or a treat. They want something tangible, something they can hold or eat. It’s usually for something they’re being denied access to.
Self-stimulation is the hardest to deal with. This is when kids do things to stimulate something in their brains. Kids will bang their heads against the wall, hit themselves, or otherwise harm themselves. It’s all done for the sake of self-stimulation, and it can be incredibly hard to stop.
How This Applies to Motherhood
Since I learned behavior modification techniques well before having children, I had ample opportunities to use it in my work. Even though it’s been a few years since the last time I worked in the autism field, my training has been invaluable in how I approach my children’s misbehavior.
I don’t assume my kids want to throw fits. I don’t assume they might be trying to manipulate me. I don’t assume they’re just being difficult, needy children. I’m sure the label of high needs is warranted for some children, but the label, and others like them, bother me, but that’s for another post one day.
Instead of wanting to lock myself in the bathroom and never come out again, I know from my training that the best thing to do is to remain calm and in control. I need to figure out what my child’s goal is. Do they need more of my attention? Do they want to escape the demand I just placed on them? Do they want a snack? Is something bothering them? Once I figure out what they need, what they are trying to say to me but can’t put into words, than I am able to work with them so they learn the appropriate ways of asking for what they want. By knowing these four reasons why kids misbehave, I’m able to look at the behavior and analyze it so I can understand them better, help them develop ways of expressing their needs in a more appropriate way, and decrease their misbehavior.
Of course, this works best with toddlers than older children as older children develop complexity that can’t always be neatly labeled and put into certain boxes. I have to say that this has been a sanity saver with my kids. My son may be 5 and developing a more complex personality and vocabulary, but, when he was a toddler, this helped me help him. He had a speech delay, so we taught him some sign language and I really took a close look at his behavior to see what he was trying to communicate to me. Not only did it help me identify similar behaviors later on down the road to help prevent more meltdowns, but it gave me an opportunity to teach him why I’m doing something he doesn’t like and how to ask for what he wanted. My daughter is 2 and has quite the personality. But the reasons why she throws fits are the same. Fortunately, she doesn’t misbehave often; just when I take something away, but she responds when I patiently explain why she can’t have it and is accepting when I let her know when she can have it again. It’s so cute when she says “okay.”
How I Taught My Kids to Request Appropriately
Of course, my kids have had their bad days, and will continue to have their bad days. There are some days where they’re so overwhelmed nothing helps and they don’t want to request appropriately. But gentle, patient, and calm reminders go a long way.
The hardest one for them to deal with is when they want to escape something but can’t. Kids love to say no, which becomes frustrating for parents. I can’t say I haven’t been there. I sometimes wish I could just let them escape and get away with not doing what I asked, but that would only teach them mommy is a pushover and they don’t have to listen to me because I don’t follow through. That would be bad. It gets annoying and frustrating, but I hold firm. I patiently explain why they have to do something, why they can’t get out of doing what I asked. I offer to help them and I listen to why they don’t want to do something. I can’t let them out of it just because they said why they don’t want to brush their teeth, but I can make it more fun for them as I make them do it anyways.
My kids are attention hogs. I often feel like they both need my attention 24/7. I can’t escape them! They would yell, scream, cry, and pull on my clothes to get my attention. It’s not like I was ever too busy for them; they always had an ample supply of my attention, but it never seemed like it was enough. But I still needed to alter my own behavior. Sometimes I did get a little too wrapped up with chores or doing something else I enjoy, so I had to remind myself to give them enough play time. Still, they needed to learn how to ask appropriately, by using their limited words and taking my hand instead of my clothes.
As much as my kids always wanted, and still want, my attention, they want access to tangibles more. Usually, they want more snacks. Sometimes, they want toys. Once in a while they just want something they can’t reach. I’ve had to teach them to get my attention without tantruming and showing me what they wanted. I’ve also had to be aware of them. I’ve learned that if they struggle too long thinking they can get something on their own, they will eventually throw a fit. Instead, if I am cognizant of them, I can tell them to ask properly.
The one thing I haven’t had to deal with too much is self-stimulation. Neither of my kids have sought to stimulate themselves in potentially harmful ways. In theory, I know that constant intervention and teaching replacement behaviors (making them do something they couldn’t do while also engaging in self-stimulation) work over time. As I said, my kids never engaged in harmful self-stimulation, but my son has recently started sucking on his fingers. I’ve read it’s normal at this age, but I still have him do things that make sucking on his fingers difficult, like clapping or playing a game.
Kids Misbehave, but It Doesn’t Have to be Overwhelming
Kids will always misbehave. Their vocabularies lack breadth and sophistication. They are unable to self-regulate on the way an adult does. But by understanding why they are misbehaving, it makes it possible to take steps to help them learn how to ask for what they want and express how they feel.