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Ending Kids’ Out of Control Behavior

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We don’t waste time blaming others for allowing out-of-control behavior. We now just take responsibility to end it.

I tell kids that out-of-control behaviors are never-evers. Why? Well, it’s a behavior that never, ever—anywhere on this planet—do people embrace. For example, no one is seeking a friend or spouse or employer who hits, screams, bites, spits, or throws things when upset.

Yet, every time a child is allowed to do a never-ever (and if the child does these, then there is some “permission” in the air), the brain registers such behavior as okay, even helpful, if it results in a reaction from others that is perceived as favorable (e.g. the child receives attention, ruins everyone else’s sense of harmony, no longer has to do whatever, etc.).

But here’s what becomes even more concerning: Parents of kids who do never-evers become desensitized to their kids’ out-of-bounds behavior—and that, itself, makes eliminating it more difficult.

For example, the parents may no longer view it as shocking that an eleven-year-old boy hits his mother or spits or slams doors when something doesn’t go his way—even though others are viewing that same behavior with disbelief.

So how do such parents become desensitized? Well, the brain often kicks in a self-defense mechanism (i.e. becomes desensitized) to a repeated negative experience that does not improve. For example, I recall how my friend was initially sickened by the level of poverty she encountered during her first three weeks in India. But by her last week there, she no longer saw the suffering as when she first arrived. In just a short period of time, she had become desensitized to all the anguish.

How Parents May Be Encouraging Never-Evers (and Not Know It)

Not only do parents become desensitized to extreme, out-of-bounds behavior, but other factors also keep them alive.

1. Parents rationalize the behavior.

At the Brain Highways Center, here are some of the common reasons parents have expressed to explain/justify their child’s never-evers:

• She’s nonverbal, so this is how she communicates.

• He gets tired.

• She gets overstimulated.

• He doesn’t understand what is being asked.

• She does (fill in the blank) because she’s been diagnosed with (fill in the blank).

• He doesn’t really know what he’s doing in that state of mind.

• He’s too underdeveloped to internalize any cause-and-effect response to his behavior.

Yet, a never-ever is just that. There are no excuses. Period.

Plus, none of the above reasons even hold up. For example, the nonverbal child still communicates without words when she’s happy, so why would being nonverbal suddenly be an issue when she’s not getting her way?

And kids, regardless of their diagnosis, are not aliens who slip into some bizarre state of mind that triggers never-ever tantrum behavior.

Tired? Overstimulated? Very possible, but why would that justify never-ever behavior?

Too underdeveloped to understand cause-and-effect? Actually, the child proves that he does understand cause–and-effect. After all, he’s learned to pull out the never-ever behavior whenever he doesn’t like something because such behavior often gets him what he wants (see number 2).
One fact is for certain: As long as parents rationalize never-ever behaviors in any way, they will continue.

2. The child’s brain registers others’ response to the never-ever as beneficial.

Suppose we put a screaming child in her room for a “time-out.” Yet, this response may give the child exactly what he wants (i.e. gets out of doing whatever). If that child then decides when to return (to whatever), he’s still controlling the situation. If he gets to merely apologize and waltz back into the family as though no never-ever happened, he’s additionally given a distorted sense of power since he’s the one who is always deciding when and if he’s going to interact nicely with others.

Moreover, if the child can repeat outrageous behavior—but then all is forgiven after he apologizes verbally and is acting pleasant again–why would the child ever stop doing never-evers? In the adult world, out-of-bounds behavior followed by a sweet apology is framed as an abusive relationship. Yet, we don’t often recognize a similar kind of relationship between a child and parent. Granted, it’s pretty chilling to think that our child is abusing us—and we’re allowing it. But that doesn’t make it not so.

Sometimes parents respond to the outrageous behavior by immediately comforting the child, with the idea of trying to calm her down. But how does that kind of response register in a child’s brain? Let’s see: The child screams. Kicks. Throws something–and that results in getting the parent’s undivided attention, complete with full-on comfort. Any surprise that this brain also views never-evers as beneficial?

In some homes, family members (including the parents) have become intimidated by the never-ever behavior. Consequently, they’ll now try to avoid being the recipient of such actions. Yet, the child who does the never-ever behavior knows this. So, once again, her brain believes such behavior is actually in her best interest. For example, she has learned she may get out of doing something or will be required to do less of something simply because others fear her reaction if asked to comply.

3. One or more people in the home need chaos in order to avoid dealing with some other issue.

Yes, never-ever behaviors are a great distraction. After all, when would we have time to think about something in our own life or relationships (that we’d rather not) if we’re so busy dealing with an out-of-control child? In fact, if there is an invitation for pandemonium in the air, another child in the house often steps into the role as soon as the out-of-control child’s behavior starts to improve.

Stopping Never-Evers Today

Any chance never-ever behaviors go away on their own? No. In fact, never-evers always escalate in intensity with time. For example, the child who darts out the door (to run away) at age four grabs the car keys to escape at fourteen. The child who throws toys and books at five throws furniture at fifteen. And so it goes.

So then, how do we stop never-evers if we’ve allowed them in our lives?

1. We look at the behavior as others view it (i.e. appalling, atrocious, etc.) We acknowledge that we have become desensitized to behavior that has and always will be an unacceptable way to respond.

2. We accept that we have played a role in teaching our kids to act this way. But that also means we can teach them something that creates a more useful brain map as soon as we respond differently. So, that’s encouraging!

3. We realize that we have already taught (on some level) our kids about never-evers. For example, while we may have allowed door slamming, kicking, and screaming, our kids know that they can never ever take a knife and slash furniture when they’re upset. So the same “presence” we used to establish that boundary can also transfer to the never-evers we have inadvertently allowed.

4. We pause and ask ourselves questions before deciding how to respond. What kind of brain map will result from my reaction? Will that be useful in my child’s life—or will it actually reinforce behavior that will alienate others and prevent my child from learning a constructive way to respond?

5. We spell out what never-ever behaviors our child does and explain why we would not want the brain to believe such responses are okay. For example, the child who hits and screams while riding in a car first learns that such behavior is unsafe. Simply, we cannot have distracted drivers. It’s not only unsafe for those in the car, but also for others on the road.

If needed, we get creative and use visuals to help our kids really understand why the never-ever has to stop. Here’s an impressive, graphic video a mom made to help her child understand why he cannot hit his face or bang his head when he’s upset.

6. We share, up front, what will happen if the never-ever appears. For example (continuing with the child who hits and screams while riding in the car), if we can’t trust the child to act in a way that ensures everyone’s safety, then we cannot trust her to ride in the car. And yes, guess that means that the child does not go to (fill in the blank) if he has to get there by car. Only after some time (perhaps three or four days—it can’t be a quick turn-around), do we reconsider whether we can trust the child in a car again and give him a chance to prove that.

For some kids, we may actually do a burial service of never-ever behaviors. In such case, we dig a hole in the backyard and bury a list of the child’s specific never-evers. Sometimes, this visual/event helps our kids get that we are absolutely done with those behaviors.

7. We respond to never-evers differently than to general kid-infractions. Forgetting to make the bed or leaving a mess can’t get the same response as punching the wall or ripping a shirt or kicking. We also can’t use the same generic consequence—time out, take away a toy or privilege—for never-ever behavior if we’re going to get the message across that such behavior is way out-of-bounds.

A mere apology is additionally deemed no longer enough to move forward. Instead, we must create an opportunity for our child to experience how such behavior interferes with his life—right now—even though the rest of us are going to (merrily) continue with ours, regardless. The latter is important. We are no longer held hostage by our child’s never-evers.

8. We hold the child accountable for his actions. For example, if he destroys something, he completes a job (e.g. scrubs grout) to earn money to pay for whatever he ruined. If he throws a chair, he now sits on the floor (sitting in a chair is not an automatic “right”).

9. As we do all of the above, our demeanor remains one of indifference. We may now sing a song or flip through a magazine while the child’s having a tantrum. We are no longer angry since that still gives our child a feeling of power (i.e. he likes that he can upset us). We are no longer consoling since that gives our child a confusing message (i.e. his brain registers never-evers as a way to get comforted). In contrast, our indifference negates whatever distorted power the never-ever may have previously generated. After all, never-ever behavior is intended to provoke, throw everyone off-balance. But now it does nothing.

In short, once we understand about never-evers, we no longer participate in ways that enable such behavior. We now realize that doing so actually hurts our child. And that can’t be what any parent wants to do.

Why Feeling Uncomfortable isn’t Bad

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Has it become the norm for today’s kids to quit as soon as they feel uncomfortable?

Would pioneer parents be baffled by how some modern-day parents “protect” their kids?

After all, doing more of our child’s nightly homework than the child, calling meetings with a teacher or coach or dance instructor the minute our child voices something didn’t make him feel good, or even going further by insisting our child switches to a different class or team . . . is a far cry from the perils that pioneer parents faced to keep their kids safe.

Do today’s parents believe they’re helping their child when they dive in to thwart feeling distressed? Yes.

But in the world I know, not everything is always easy or a perfect fit.  So if we teach kids to flee at the first sign of discomfort, we keep reinforcing a brain map that says: Hey, feeling a little uneasy?  Then bail!

And with that kind of brain map in place, why would we be surprised, for example, to learn such kids become adults who quit jobs the minute they don’t like their boss’s feedback or end personal relationships as soon as they becomes a little tense?

So, instead of modeling how to flee, we can use such times to teach our kids how to deal with a little distress or discomfort. For example, a child (not the parent) could talk to the teacher to explore whether homework could be modified so that he could do it independently. Similarly, a child could talk to the coach to discover how he might improve in order to get more playing time.

In other words, we teach our kids to first engage in a dialogue to express their concerns and give the other (involved) person a chance to respond.  We teach them that they can actually “survive” a little discomfort, which in itself, creates a useful brain map.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we always stay in whatever situation, no matter what. That’s not what we want our kids to learn, either. But there’s a big difference between bailing at the first sign of discomfort and making a decision based on knowledge that various options were truly explored.

Turns out,  we’re really no different than pioneer parents. It’s instinctive to want to protect our kids. However, the difference today is in recognizing whether our kids are experiencing a little uneasiness or are truly in danger.  It’s that kind of awareness that then helps us know how to best respond.

Tips for Giving Kids Directions

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We can cue our kids that we’re about to give directions by placing our hands on their arms or shoulders.

We often become upset because we think our kids didn’t follow our directions. But did we ensure they processed them in the first place?

Here are some simple ways to help kids follow directions.

1. Give directions only after our kids’ brain registered that we’re about to speak.
Some kids really can’t “hear” if their back is to the person talking, or they’re unable to immediately transition from what they’re presently doing to tune into what someone is now saying. So this means we may first need to kneel down (for small kids) to make eye contact, and/or give tactile stimuli (e.g. put our hands on their shoulder)—something that ensures we’ve stepped into “their world,” front and center.

2. Have kids spin or jump or rock before (or while) giving directions.
Such movement wakes up the brain, increasing the chances that the information is processed.

3. If directions include materials, distribute those only after telling or modeling what to do with them.
This ensures that kids are less distracted and are not tempted to touch or play with the materials while we’re giving the directions.

4. Demonstrate what we do and do not want to happen.
Suppose we’re giving directions for an art project that requires kids to dip part of a piece of paper into a cup of water. If we don’t also model soaking the paper (as an example of what we don’t want), we can’t be sure that the kids fully comprehended what we meant by “dipping.” This applies to general directions, too. For example, if we want our child to walk directly to (wherever), we also demonstrate straying elsewhere to illustrate what we don’t expect to see.

5. Break up directions (as needed) to ensure kids can comprehend the entire message.
Instead of telling a child to wash his hands, get his shoes, and come to the kitchen, we may need to start with simply: Wash your hands.

6. If including more than one direction, motivate the brain to pay better attention by adding an element of fun.
In such case, we might tell our child to start jumping as soon as the directions start to get silly: “Take off your shoes, put them in the cubby, and then fly to the moon. No? Okay, take off your shoes, put them in the cubby, and then come stand on this line.”

7. Verify that the direction was indeed processed by asking a “choice” question.
Perhaps we just told our child to brush his teeth. But before sending him off to do so, we check for understanding: “Are you going to brush your teeth . . . or your nose?” Note that if we make the second choice something silly, it further increases the probability of the brain paying attention.

8. Select the fewest words possible to convey the message.
Fewer words mean there’s less for the brain to process. Compare: “Tiffany, I’m really needing you to bring your backpack to the front door so that you won’t forget it when it’s time to go to school tomorrow” with “Bring your backpack to the front door.”

It’s only when we’ve done all of the above—and the child still does not comply—that we can conclude that he’s choosing not to listen to us. But, more times that not, our kids just need a chance to process the directions—and that requires us to do our part.

When Labels Hurt Kids

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When we view kids as champions,
they act like one.

Mia is autistic.  Jon is bipolar.  Tyler is ADD.  Carley is manipulative. Tom is lazy. Jenny is shy.

If we look at how we often describe kids, it seems we may think they’ve become the diagnosis or description that follows the word “is.”

Interestingly, we don’t do this for every diagnosis. For example, I’ve never heard anyone say, “She is cancer.” Or, “She is canceristic.”

But that’s because there is a huge difference between “she is cancer” and “she has cancer.” The latter does not define the condition as being the whole person. Moreover, it implies a temporary condition that comes with hope for improvement.

When we slap an adjective after the word “is,” we also seem to infer a static view of the child. It’s as though we’re saying whatever the child “is” (as defined by the adjective) is as inherent as skin color.  Yet, there are no “genes” for the adjectives often used to describe kids.

So then why do we often frame them this way?  Maybe, it’s a quick, subconscious way to tell others to back off—that nothing they’re going to say or do is ever going to change how the child (or we) respond, since we view the child’s behavior as already etched in stone. Yet, how can that kind of thinking be ultimately helpful?

For example, if we think our child runs out into the street because he is impulsive or because he is autistic—does that then reduce his probability of being hit by a car? No, in other words, the drivers in the passing cars have no idea which child “is” what.  So we can’t be resigned to certain behaviors—if we want every child to be safe.

After decades of working with kids who’ve been given all kinds of diagnoses and who’ve been thought of as a string of not-so-attractive adjectives, I’ve learned a simple truth: Kids become how we view them.

So if we believe their behavior is unmanageable, they’ll give us out of control.  If we believe they are rude, they’ll give us sass. If we believe they are helpless, they’ll give us resigned.

I’ve also learned that kids usually feel judged whenever we view them negatively. When they feel judged, they get defensive. When they get defensive, they get combative. And so, is it any surprise that negative behavior escalates when negative perceptions prevail?

But then, what do we do if our child, for example, rolls his eyes at us when we ask him to do something?  While definitely a leap from framing our child as rude, we could respond with the following:

”Tony, I’m worried your brain is registering eye rolling as an okay and helpful response. Yet, I can’t think of a single place in the world where anyone applauds eye rolling or where doing that then improves the current situation. So what might be a different way to communicate that you don’t like what you’re hearing or being asked to do?”

With that response, we’ve shifted our perspective from thinking Tony is rude to viewing him as someone who has not yet learned a constructive way to express his dislike, and we’re moving forward with that mindset.

And guess what? Kids start to adopt positive behaviors when we shift our view of them in kind. For example, at the Brain Highways Center we believe every child is a champion. That’s the only word we use after “is”—and that’s the behavior they show us.

So here’s a challenge: Put $10 in a “perception” kitty every time this week you think of or describe your child with a diagnosis or adjective after the word “is” (unless that word is champion).  You may be amazed at the changes if that kitty stays empty.

Is Your Child in Trouble Again?

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If the child keeps doing the same behavior, should we consider another approach?

I’ve met a lot of kids whose body language changes the minute they think someone is going to talk to them about their behavior. They either look resigned and defeated or combative and hostile. Sometimes they’ll throw in, “I know. I’m a bad kid” or, “I’m always being called out.”

Couple that with a parent, teacher or coach who already views the child’s action as negative, and it’s no wonder that the exchange does not go well.

But what if we wipe out a perception that the child was “bad” or did something “wrong” when we approach her about a concerning behavior?

What if, instead, we first assure the child that we want to help, rather than punish, her?

What if we then communicate in a way that helps her understand why the behavior is worrisome—and therefore helps her conclude on her own that such behavior is not in her best interest?

So how do we do that?

We start by assuring kids that they are not in trouble . . . that we just want to talk to see if we might be able to help them. Upon hearing those words, it’s amazing how many resigned, slouching kids sit up straight or how many hostile kids automatically unfold their arms.

We then explain why the concerning behavior may not serve them well. To do that, I find it helpful to make a connection between what happens in the brain every time the child does the behavior and how that may then cause problems today, tomorrow, and far into the future.

Here are a few examples of how such a dialogue might start:

Behavior: Son hits his mother when he’s upset
Father’s starting dialogue: Every time you hit your mom, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “Hitting a female is okay if you’re angry.” The only problem is . . . there is nowhere on this entire planet where anyone thinks it’s okay to hit a female—at any time. So it worries me that your brain is learning something that it thinks is fine—when it’s definitely going to mess you up.

Behavior: Child doesn’t wait before being given the signal or permission to do something
Mother’s starting dialogue: Every time you don’t wait, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “If I’m feeling impatient, it’s okay to go ahead and do whatever.” The only problem is . . .there are lots of times when it’s in our best interest to wait—and how is your brain ever going to learn that?

For example, what if your ball rolls out into the street and you run to get it without waiting to see if any cars are coming? What if when you’re older and driving, you don’t feel like waiting at a red light—so you just punch it?

Note how the above dialogue is focused on helping the child reflect, not defend, his concerning behavior.

For those who are saying: What? The kid gets off scot-free with this approach?

Guess it depends on the parent’s goal. I’m thinking if the child has already been previously scolded and punished for the behavior—and she still continues to do it—the punitive approach probably isn’t working all that well.

Maybe that’s a sign to try something different.

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