A 5-year-old boy, Felix, is playing with blocks near the kitchen while his dad is busy cooking dinner. Felix starts singing loudly, but his dad doesn’t respond. Felix then suddenly throws his blocks across the room and yells as they crash against the wall. His dad reprimands him in a stern voice for throwing the blocks and demands that he pick them up. Felix then turns to his dad and yells, “Stupid, Daddy!”
An 11-year-old girl, Ashley, comes out of her room after a long day of distance learning and grabs the iPad. Mom tells her that her brain needs a screen break and that she can play later. Ashley slams the iPad down, kicks the wall and yells, “I hate you!!” at her mom.
Chances are, most of us have had similar experiences with our own children, usually resulting in yelling, punishment and tears. Often, the most difficult part of managing challenging behaviors is managing our own reactions. Parenting is definitely not for the faint of heart, nor the short of patience, and parenting neurodivergent kids can be exponentially more intense. (The terms “neurodiverse” and “neurodivergent,” or ND, refer to children with different “brain wiring,” which can manifest in learning, behavioral and/or developmental differences from their typically developing or “neurotypical,” NT, peers.)
The good news is that there are constructive ways to respond to our ND children’s challenging behaviors. As a baseline, it’s important to understand that all behavior is simply a response to the environment or to a specific circumstance and is a mode of communication. Our children are trying to tell us something via their behaviors, not simply trying to frustrate (or torture!) us. Understanding that, we can more effectively address the challenges.
Start by Asking, “Why?”
Most of us focus on challenging behavior itself and try strategies to address it without really considering the cause of the behavior. To rein in challenging behaviors more effectively, first understand the purpose that behavior serves for your child and what they are trying to tell you. Start by asking, “why?” And I don’t mean the face-up-toward-the-sky, rhetorical-questioning-of-the-universe “WHY????” I mean working to unearth the underlying factors that are triggering your child’s behavior.
In his book “Uniquely Human,” Barry Prizant works to reframe the perception of autism from something wrong with a child to simply something different, and asks us to stop attempting to “extinguish” a ND child’s behavior before asking ourselves why the behavior may be happening. This strategy aids in addressing any ND child’s behavior, regardless of diagnosis. Once we identify the trigger or motivation for the child’s behavior, we can begin to identify the most productive intervention.
Common Purposes of Behavior
Typically, the purpose driving behaviors for ND children can fall into these categories:
- Escape or avoidance: of a place, a situation or a task
- Social attention: from adults or peers (can be attention for positive behaviors or for negative behaviors)
- Sensory stimulation: depending on the child’s sensory profile (think of the “sensory-averse” child who enters a loud classroom and cowers in the corner with hands over his ears; or, conversely, the “sensory-seeking” child who loves to jump on everything and bang her body into things)
- To get access: to a preferred item, activity or place, or to protest the limitation of access
- Control or power: when a child feels powerless, certain behaviors may give them a feeling of control in their world
Setting Your Child Up for Success: Advance Planning for Predictable Challenges
It is critical to understand that caregivers can change what happens before and after a behavior occurs (“the antecedent” and “the consequence,” in behavioral therapy parlance), but the behavior itself is not in our control, as much as we would like it to be. Although most parents focus their energies on setting consequences for what happens after undesired behaviors occur, a bigger “return on investment” comes from addressing the antecedent, in other words doing things in advance to mitigate the underlying triggers of challenging behavior.
- Step 1: Identify your child’s predictable challenges and responses and ask “Why?”: Ask yourself, “What is my child trying to tell me by their actions/behavior?” In the previous examples, Felix tries to get social attention from his father, yet communicates his desires unproductively. Ashley, on the other hand, seeks access to her iPad, and also seems to try to exert control after a long day of virtual school with limited control. Both children may be communicating a general feeling of disconnectedness as well.
- Step 2: Let the purpose of the behavior inform the antecedent intervention: Ask yourself, “What can I put into place ahead of time to help my child manage this particular challenge?” For Felix, his father could set up a visual schedule for him, so he knows when Daddy will be busy. He could create a social narrative (a simple story, represented visually) that would help remind Felix what to do when he wants Daddy’s attention. He could ensure that he sets aside special one-to-one connection time with Felix. Ashley and her mom could engage in “collaborative problem solving” to create a clear schedule of when recreational screen time is permitted and post the schedule in visible locations. As an 11-year-old, Ashley can weigh in on creating the schedule, which will increase her adherence to the limits.
- Step 3: Ensure that consequences are related to the behavior/issue: Consequences are best used as a last resort in addressing behavior. They are most effective when directly related to the original behavior, when they take into consideration your child’s sensory profile and when they are designed to match the goal of either increasing or decreasing this behavior. Counterintuitively, consequences work best in increasing positive behaviors, so catch your kids’ positive behaviors whenever possible and name specifically what you see (“Wow, you got your lunch ready all by yourself! That’s so helpful!”)
Overall, when we start from a place of empathy for our ND kids, especially in these challenging times, we can better understand and address their dysregulation and the behaviors that come along with it. Celebrate small steps toward a larger goal and keep your focus on what you can do to set your child up to thrive. Ask what conditions and supports they need to help make that happen and involve them in determining those supports whenever possible.