It’s a situation that most parents face at some point in time: Mom and Dad busy cooking dinner while two year old daughter Grace stands at the safety gate, crying.
Grace isn’t hungry, wet, or hurt. Like clockwork, if Grace finds herself separated from Mom or Dad by a gate, the crying ensues.
What should you do?
You’ve probably heard (over and over) that you need to ignore the child to avoid feeding attention-seeking behavior.
But ignoring isn’t always the best advice, explains BCBA Jamie Waldvogel of Behave Your Best.
“Even when it’s attention seeking [behavior], ignoring can’t be the only answer because we haven’t taught them what else to do,” Jamie says. Jamie is the creator of a method called Pretend You Are a Light Switch®, a way of responding to unwanted behaviors that goes to the root of the problem without triggering the child further.
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So if you’re not going to ignore, what should you do? Here is how Jamie approaches this situation.
You don’t want to intensify the situation. Research shows that when a child is in meltdown mode Mom and Dad’s words can actually trigger the child further, shutting off their ability to even hear or process what their parents are saying.
So in the moment we want to approach the child silently, and with a neutral expression.
Wait for the Right Moment
It’s true that picking a child up the moment they start screaming reinforces this behavior.
Instead, Dad can crouch down to eye level with Grace, hands ready to scoop her up, looking at her expectantly.
The moment Grace takes a breath from crying and there is quiet, Dad picks her up.
“The next time, he’s bought himself a couple of seconds of quiet before he picks her up,” Jamie says.
As time goes on, Dad is able to increasingly extend his waiting time, as Grace builds up a tolerance for waiting.
In time, the child starts to associate Dad picking her up when she stops crying.
Jamie also recommends exploring other methods to see what happens. She suggests that the next time Grace enters meltdown mode Dad should try to redirect her attention and encourage her to accept an alternative activity.
So this time, instead of picking Grace up, Dad walks past her into the living room where her toys are. Soon Grace follows him into the living room and starts playing with her toys, and eventually Dad goes back to the kitchen while Grace stays with her toys.
Now Dad has diffused the situation, but he still has two more steps if he wants to come up with a long-term solution.
Do An Assessment
Now we need to figure out what skill it is that Grace needs to learn. Does she need to learn to tolerate denials? … Find a constructive way to get Dad’s attention when she has a real need? … Figure out how to keep herself entertained when Mom and Dad aren’t helping her move from one activity to the next?
Sometimes the answer is straightforward. Sometimes it’s not. Having a BCBA-certified ABA help with a Functional Behavior Assessment can be valuable in discovering underlying skill deficits.
In Grace’s case it would be easy to assume that her issue was a desire for attention.
As they looked at Grace’s responses to other triggers throughout the day, however, it became increasingly clear that the skill Grace needed to learn was tolerating denials.
Teach Alternative Behavior
This is the part where you empower your child to make better choices in the future.
At a time separate from the incident, when parent and child are both emotionally in a good place, the parent uses playtime to start teaching the child an alternative behavior.
Whether the preferred behavior is asking for help instead of throwing things when frustrated … finding constructive ways to get attention instead of crying … or not throwing a fit when Mommy says no… proactively practicing these skills is what makes for long term change.
So Grace doesn’t like being told “no”. Essentially, putting the gate up to keep her out of the kitchen is like a big fat “no”.
But how can Mom and Dad teach Grace to tolerate these denials?
Jamie says that in the beginning the teaching method will feel a little counter-intuitive, but over the long term it can be very effective.
First, Dad will choose a time that he and Grace are both rested and in a good mood. As they sit down to play, Dad will say, “Ok Grace, at some point during our playing I will say ‘no’ to you. When I say that, I need you to say, ‘OK Daddy!’ And guess what? I’ll still give you that thing you want!”
After doing this for a while Dad will start to build in delays.
As Grace’s ability to tolerate delays grows in these areas, and as Dad is simultaneously building delays into picking Grace up at the gate, eventually he will move on to saying, “Not right now, Grace, first go play with your blocks for a few minutes.”
Over time, this toleration for denials will expand to other areas and the meltdowns will decrease. If Grace has autism or another developmental disorder she may need more hands on teaching to transfer this toleration to other realms, but it can be done.
In the end, choosing to proactively teach your child instead of simply ignoring unwanted behavior equips them with the tools to respond to future situations in a way that is healthy and socially acceptable.