Ignore the behavior…not the kid!


Sometimes the best thing you can do to get rid of or change a behavior is to simply ignore it.  However, this can be a fairly daunting task sometimes.  But, here is the good news:

You can ignore a behavior, but not ignore the kid and it still be an effective way to get rid of some junky behavior

Lets start here:

Lets say your little one is acting like a clown making weird noises you know she is clearly making to get your attention (if you don’t know…she probably is).  This has been going on too long, so you say, “NO! Stop those noises.  That is RUDE!” and she laughs…

WHOOPS: You just paid attention to the behavior and probably have made it more likely to happen again.

So next time comes around when she is making those noises and you think ignoring it will be the right thing to do.  You hang in there for a while, but it gets worse.  It gets louder.  Now she is actually dancing right in front of you as you try to pay attention to anything else but her.  You can’t take it anymore.  You give up and say “Sit DOWN and STOP IT!”  She either laughs and runs away or gets upset and whimpers as she sits.  Neither is what you really wanted.

Here is where many parents get in the black hole of ignoring and where a lot of parents feel like ignoring is not a powerful or effective tool.

Paying attention to the child, but ignoring the behavior?  Here is how…

Pay attention to her without paying attention to the behavior.  Don’t say anything about the behavior, act as if it was not occurring at all…ignore it, but don’t ignore her. Try a little misdirection:  Lets try this again:

DANCING QUEEN: (Dancing in front of you with fingers pulling her mouth to her ears while making noises that remind you of a siren at the fire station)

YOU: “I love your shoes, what color are those?” or “Did you see what dad put on the front porch?” or “Tell me what you did with your best friend yesterday?” or “Can you grab me your magazine right there by the TV?”

If she replies, keep talking.  Engage with her.  You are now teaching her you will pay attention to her, but not directly to the behavior.  You have the best of both worlds: you have attended to her so she will not escalate her craziness to get your attention and you have ignored a behavior you don’t really want her to use to access your attention.  Things are good.

If she does not reply, ask other questions, things she will be like to talk about.  This is not a demand, but a way to get her to engage with you so you can attend to her appropriate behavior rather than simply ignoring the junk

If she continues to chirp like a bird or sing the “beans are good for your heart” song, just let her know you want to talk to her about her new gymnastics routine when she is ready.  Then do what you can to get out of her visual area and continue ignoring.

Just remember…ignore the behavior, not the kid.

Attention seekers and “empty cups”


Listen carefully and pause to think after reading this next phrase:

Your kids will get your attention one way or the other. 

Read that again, out loud…here, I’ll help

“The reality is that my child will get my attention one way or the other…whether I like it or not”

We have all seen it…kids who do a variety of things “for attention.”  From dance routines in the restaurant to counting in a foreign language to funny fart sounds with an armpit (a classic).  All behaviors that draw attention, both in good ways and not-so-good. 

It starts early.  Not long after they learn to talk, here it comes, “Hey, look at me!”  At least at this age it is obvious.  They are actually asking for the attention rather than getting it as a by-product of some behavior.  It is clear, right in your face.  It is not far at all from “Hey, pay attention to me.”  If only it were always this blatant.

Kids do so many things to draw attention to themselves.  Truly, it is not a bad quality to have if used appropriately and with behaviors that you actually want to occur again.  The problems come from when those attempts do not work.  

You’re job is to decide how you want them to get your attention (not really hard), to respond to them when they use those behaviors (kinda hard), to NOT respond to them when they try other ways (hard, truly) and to realize when they are doing things just for your attention (harder yet).

Lets start here:

I’m a “cup-full / cup-empty” guy (there is research behind this, so its really more than just me being me).  Truly, this is an example of being hungry versus being full.  People will do crazy stuff when they are hungry for food, attention, sex, etc.  Those behaviors get crazier when the initial attempts do not work and they are then more and more hungry, attention starved, etc.  You’ve seen the reality shows…c’mon, you know what I’m talking about.

Same thing with your kids.  If their “cup” is not filled, if they are attention “hungry,” they will behave in ways that often result in attention.  Don’t get me wrong, they might not be doing this purposefully (“I am going to pull the cat’s tail to get it to scream, then mommy will come running”), it is just how behavior works.  If they are not getting the attention, they will ultimately get the attention and likely with behaviors you don’t like and don’t want to see again.  

You HAVE to respond to the cat screaming, your underwear in the fan, mayonnaise in the baby’s hair, the phone being dialed that sounds a lot like 9-1-1, the dirty word or the ugly “where did you learn that” dance.  You have been there. 

If you don’t “fill their cup,” you will automatically be teaching them the more ridiculous and disruptive you are, the more likely it is I will pay attention to you.  EESSHH

If this sounds like your house, like your kids (all kids do it when “hungry”), make a point to pay more attention to the things you want: ask them to tell you a story, help in the kitchen, play a game, etc.  Set a timer, put something in your pocket or refrigerator to remind you – “hey go pay that kid some attention.”  It really does not matter, just as long as you are “filling the cup.”

The cup is always leaking, some kids leak faster than others and require more frequent attention, but “every now and then attention” keeps most kids “full.”  

My bet is the craziness will go away because they will already be “full.”

Do it on your terms…your kid does not come with a “30 miles till empty” warning. 

“Sit DOWN!” Batting practice for your kid


Imagine a child who just “can’t sit down,” is “always running around” and rarely sits when asked.  The usual routine is to point the powerful parent finger at the seat (or at the kid) and say more firmly, “SIT DOWN” as if he  did not hear you the first time because you were not loud enough. 

Sometimes, when things go really wrong, one of two things happen: 1) we give up and say something ridiculous like, “OK, then you can’t watch your Buzz Lightyear goes to the North Pole episode” or something even more ridiculous like, “TIME OUT!!” or 2) we get so emphatic with our words that the kid sadly slumps into the seat and pouts.  Neither is good.

This is a lesson not simply in teaching kids to sit down, but to do other things they are not likely to do. 

Many times we try to teach these behaviors when they naturally occur: sitting at church, staying in bed at nighttime, using a “quiet voice” at the library, saying nice words when at Grandma’s doorstep.  You get the point?  Think about it…do we teach baseball players to hit only when the bases are loaded and there are two outs?  This is obviously not the optimal time to teach hitting. 

So what does “batting practice” look like for your kid?

Back to sitting still.  There have been multiple times when we have introduced the “sitting game” to families and teachers.  The game is simple: sit for some period of time and you get praised and you get to get up.   Pull a chair over in front of you and introduce the “game” to  the kid.

O.K. Let’s start…Sit down!”

Count quietly for several seconds (maybe have a timer that beeps, but don’t show them the timer), and when the time is up say, “Times up! You did it! Go play!”  Let her play for a minute (I would actually do less than 30 seconds or so).  Play with her…make this really fun.Extend the time, make up new “rules.”  Remember: it is a game!

Repeat.  Change it up…do some increments shorter and some longer.  Make sure success happens.  Don’t interact with them during the sitting time…the game is to sit!

The objective here is to teach a behavior at a time when the focus can be on rewarding the behavior, making it fun and creating some momentum.  Next time when real sitting happens, the kid will have had a lot of practice behind them with a lot of positive experiences.

This can be used for so many other behaviors.  Maybe its not sitting in your house.  Maybe it is “quiet voices,” “telling the truth,” or “walking with mommy.”  Practice “STOP/GO” (kinda like red light/green light, but using the word “stop” is important) next time you are waiting outside a restaurant.  Make a point to practice when there is no pressure,

when the chances of succeeding are more than the chances to fail,

when failing doesn’t mean you have to carry them out during the sermon or run out into the parking lot because they did not listen to you saying “STOP!”

“Why is bath time so hard?” – Rubber ducky is NOT the one!

During a recent presentation I made to a group of parents, we had some extra time at the end for me to answer questions from the audience.  One parent raised her hand and essentially said, “why is bath time so hard?” 

Good question…here you go.

Bath time is not hard just because it is the bath

There are other reasons why bath time is hard.  A lot of the problems can be remedied even before the water starts splashing and you wonder how dirt got in “there…”

One of the first problems is when bath takes place.  Not necessarily the time of day (although this can be important too), but where in the series of events does bath time occur.  Is it after dinner, after homework, after TV time and right before bedtime?   

It might very well be more about what you are taking your kids from (telling them to stop doing) rather than what you are asking them to do (take a bath).  Stopping a highly preferred activity such as an epic battle of Wii bowling or the Thomas the Train episode right before Percy dumps into the mud is NOT the time to ask your kid to take a bath.  Terrible timing.  When you say, “you can bowl the last 2 frames when you are done,” your kid is thinking “or, I could bowl them NOW!”

Another problem comes from what they do after bath time.  If your kids go to bed right after taking a bath, bath time is like the Krispy Kreme “HOT NOW” sign except the sign is blinking, “Your night is over, pal…”  Bath time stinks because they know what is coming next: bedtime, and that is generally not fun.

Combine the two, and you have a problem: most preferred activity to lesser preferred activity to least preferred.  Bath time is NOT likely to happen.

So, have I convinced you its not about the water, the soap or the terrible “Rubber Ducky” song you try to sing to make it all better?  No soapy crayons or Mickey Mouse sponges will be likely to help this situation.

Here is the suggestion: think about your evening routine.  Set things up for your advantage.    Least preferred things (bath time, tooth brushing, picking out clothes for tomorrow) happen first, then more preferred things (Wii, TV time, computer time, preferred book time).  Control access to those things so you dont get stuck taking them away from games or TV.  Don’t get stuck on the “it needs to happen now” thing.  Let the motivation of access to preferred things work.  Stand back.  Don’t force it.  Wrestling your kid into the bath will not work out for you (or them).

Warning…you might have to be OK with a bath not happening or the teeth not getting brushed a few times to make sure the contingency sinks in.  A night without a bath or furry teeth are not worth the continued struggle and fight.  If it happens over and over, you need to find things that are more motivating…your Wii has lost its power.

Walking in circles…


I was reading something recently that explained a phenomenon that occurs when we are lost in an area without landmarks: when we are lost and try to walk a straight line, we will undoubtedly veer to one side or the other and find ourselves right back in the same place where we started.  Some circles might be small, some might be larger and take longer to get back to the starting point.  But, it is almost a rule. 

Without some way to guide ourselves, without some landmark or way to focus on a path (and sometimes even in the presence of these things) we come back around to the beginning.

How telling is this?  I can tell you parents often feel “lost” having walked in “circles.” Sometimes it even comes in the form of “is this the best it gets?” which suggests we have gotten to a point where there is not a way out; that we should just camp out in the woods and consider ourselves lucky that we found some nuts and berries along the way (or simply consider that our children will never learn to behave differently). 

One more story, then I will get to my point.  I once found myself lost in deep woods (flooded at that) with a friend who was much more seasoned in getting out of strange places than I (he graduated from a military institute and would not be found dead without a compass).  He said, “the way out is that way” (pointing ahead, but looking at his compass).  Pick a tree along this line and walk to it.  Once we get there we will pick another tree along the line and repeat the process until we get out.”  Brilliantly simple.

My point? 

In changing behavior, we need to pick “trees,” guiding points, so we don’t walk in a circle.  We have to stay focused not only on the goal (the edge of the forest), the direction we have chosen (the compass heading), but also check-points along the way.  Sometimes I think we find the line, have the direction, then forget which tree we were walking towards because we finally had a way out, confident we were going to change things, but not diligent enough to keep our eye on the tree or even the compass. 

If you come up with a plan for changing a certain behavior, have check-points.  Review your implementation of the plan frequently enough to make sure you stay on course.  Think about how the behavior has changed (or not).  Check your line. 

Use me and my posts if your compass seems a bit off.

“Mommy…I’m scared”


This is a long overdue answer to a question written in to BehaviorBandAid:

I have a problem.  My son is 4.5 and has a twin sister. He is now scared to go in any room of our house alone.  This is now affecting his sleep. He now wakes up between 5:15 and 5:45 because he is scared. His sister is in the room, but…he can’t go to the bathroom alone or to get his clothes from his room without one of us going with.

Interestingly, the experiences this mother has are not uncommon. I recently posted an article written about “fear of the dark” that I feel was interesting and helpful in terms of getting through different “fears” kids often have.   My answer is a little more in depth, so see what you think.

I believe the answer lies in practice outside the event when it usually occurs (you don’t want to practice hitting a baseball only at the times when the bases are loaded and there are 2 out) and a bit of work up front when the occasion is likely to occur.  Make sense?  Lets attack this one area at a time.

Calming agent: It seems the “calming agent” is you or your husband (a good think if you time it correctly).  We need to arrange this from the beginning to make sure you are initially present and slowly fade that presence instead of putting him out there, crossing your fingers, then going to him once he gets more and more fearful.  This is likely not a “sink or swim” situation in which you can say “you do it this time” because you might be setting up a situation where you are contributing to his experiences of getting scared and having that fear relieved by you guys. 

Play it out:  Find opportunities to “play games” where he can practice being alone for short periods of time and experience fun around those events.  I quickly begin to think of “hide and go seek.”  Play games with getting dressed up (independently).  The idea is to find ways to make these behaviors fun, so they are likely to occur then you can reward them and use them as a reference in the future…”see you can do it!”

Set the alarm:  As for the nighttime thing, does this happen every night (having to wake up to use the restroom then calling for you guys to go with)?  If so, (and this might be initially painful) I would set my alarm for 4:00 AM, go in to get him before he wakes and take him.  Don’t make this very entertaining, but do reinforce this with praise, “good job…I knew you could do it. Well done.”  Send him back to bed and tell him you will come to wake him up later, but he needs to be in his bed.  Make sure you get there (again…initially painful) a bit before he is likely to wake on his own (given you have already toileted…if that is a nightly thing).  If that is too early to be up and about, you should give him things to do when he is awake, but in bed.  I am trying to make sure he does not need you at these times and at the very least has a lesser opportunity to gain access to you by screaming or calling out for you and “being scared.”

Slowly back away:  Slowly fade your presence from the bathroom (assuming this occurs throughout the day).  Begin by going with him before he asks.  Over time, slowly fade out (“O.K., I will be right here outside the door” – “O.K. I am going to step into the kitchen” — “O.K. I will be in the living room”).  Praise and maybe even have some other reward (see this post and this one).  The idea is to do this slowly enough that he will be likely to succeed and less likely to get fearful and then get access to you.  This applies to the nighttime thing too.  If he can go overnight without you…there needs to be some positive effect of that.  Whether that is solid praise and high fives or something more tangible is up to you guys (consider what it would be like not to have to wake up at 5:00 in the morning when considering this).

Timing is everything:  Same idea with the clothes.  You essentially want to begin with what you would do after he gets scared, but do it before he gets scared and tries to get access to you guys.  So, if you go collect the clothes for him when he says he is scared, then I would do that before he gets scared (go with him) and then fade back from that after you have gotten some momentum with him doing it without getting scared.  Again…not a “sink or swim” behavior because you know he needs to get dressed and you will ultimately help him if he gets scared.  So, my idea is to go back to where his success can be rewarded then slowly and predictably move back and let the effects of the success take hold.

Main ideas: a) the recognition that it is your attention and help that is likely the “calming agent,” b) this attention and help can be used to your advantage before the fear behavior occurs, c) “sink or swim” won’t likely apply, d) praise, reward, praise as you slowly back away.  Fear is reduced initially by reducing the opportunity for the fear to occur (you are there from the get-go) and is less likely to occur as you reward the independent behavior and back away.