Ah. . . discipline.
It’s a tricky thing when you’ve got a child with a learning disability (ASD, ADD, ADHD, ODD, etc).
I really kept hoping that the ABA, RDI and our biomedical approach would just “fix” Hamhock and I could therefore discipline him like a “normal” kid. Well, I kept waiting and waiting. Hoping and hoping. We’ve made significant improvements, if not recovery, but he will always have his own unique individual way of relating to the world, and I needed to figure out a better model to help direct his intense energy and emotion.
Hamhock is also a very aggressive, high-energy ASD kid, and it’s very hard if not simply impossible to ignore hitting and aggression.
The thing is, ABA and RDI don’t really give you discipline tools. They do other things in their respective philosophies, just not discipline. Everything I learned was to basically ignore the bad behavior and reinforce the good behavior. OK. . . yeah. . .but how? Exactly?
To be fair, ABA does have a good discipline tool with “quiet sittings” and I did see Hamhock’s tantrums decreasing by 95%, with the remaining 5% thereby somewhat manageable.
Once we phased from ABA to RDI, however, Hamhock took the tantrums and defiance to a whole new level. Maybe it was the change in the structure of ABA to the free-flow of RDI? Maybe it was turning 5? Maybe he sensed with RDI that I was now “in charge” of the therapy (and had no clue what I was doing and exhausted from working at night to pay for it) that he could be the boss? Or maybe Hamhock has just by nature a strong-willed and defiant personality, with or without the autism?
Any which way, I needed some discipline tactics that worked. All the normal parenting tools were falling short. Even trying to be more strict with a strong-willed child DOES NOT WORK (as most people think – you know: “if only those parents were more strict with that child he wouldn’t behave that way” or “if that were my child I’d MAKE him behave”). Finally, resorting to yelling at your kids may produce a short-term reaction, but does not teach appropriate behavior. Plus the cycle of yelling, crying, and feeling lousy as a parent is just not fun for anyone.
Late one night surfing autism blogs, I came across This Mom’s Blog about The Nurtured Heart Approach to Transforming the Difficult Child. AHA!!!! Somewhere in my soul I knew this sounded like IT.
Superboy & I stopped by the library the very next day to get the Transforming the Difficult Child book while Hamhock was in preschool. I started reading. And reading. I discovered FINALLY a discipline approach that explained WHY strong-willed children continually behave badly and don’t seem to care about consequences, and WHY they don’t react to normal instinctual parenting tactics.
It all made sense. Everytime Hamhock would do something wrong, I would try to explain why that was wrong (which was often, and all throughout the day). I would attempt a time-out which would turn into a power-struggle and end up with him in a tantrum and me in tears.
That has it all backward: too much energy is given when a rule is broken, and not enough is given when behavior is fine. (Which sounds like the same thing as “ignore the bad, and reinforce the good” BUT the difference is, this book tells you EXACTLY how to do it.)
Strong-willed and challenging children seek our energy and so to get it, they’ll constantly do something wrong when it seems as if that’s the main way we get excited about things.
So. . . the basic discipline tactic is this:
- Specifically praise and therefore teach good behavior constantly throughout your day.
- When a rule is broken, make no emotional reaction to it, but simply state: “Oops broke a rule: no yelling. That’s a time out.”
- Use a credit system so your child can see a physical representation of his successes at making good choices and let him purchase his daily privileges as rewards using his credits.
Dr. Glasser likens the approach to a video game:
- You constantly get positive feedback throughout your game (reaching the next level, gaining experience points/health points).
- When you do something wrong, the game doesn’t lash out at you and give you this emotional lecture, rather you just die and have a short time-out from the game until your character comes back to play.
- You constantly earn credits that you can use throughout your game for bigger, better experiences. The payoff is clear, success feels good, and you are motivated to work for it.
It looks like this: “Hamhock, I notice that you are playing so well with Superboy right now. You are following the rules by not fighting or hitting. And I can see that you’ve been sharing your toys. That is a great way to use your strong energy in a positive way. Keep up the good work!”
It also works to diffuse a tantrum/meltdown: “Hamhock, I notice that you are very upset right now. You feel angry. Your face shows me that you want to cry right now and you really really really want to get so mad at something. I notice you are controlling your very strong emotions even though it is so hard.” (Must repeat several times to help diffuse).
At night before we go to bed, I review the whole day with them, and tell them specifically all the good things I saw them doing and the rules that they didn’t break. I don’t mention anything about the rules they broke, but I do praise them for taking their time-outs so well.
Since Hamhock is only 5, and Superboy is only 3, and they can really only count up to 20 so far, they don’t really pay attention to how many credits they have. I do all the accounting right now. I know they’ll want to take it over someday soon, but for now, it is enough that they SEE and HEAR about their successes throughout the day, and they KNOW that they can cash in their credits for privileges (for example: tv time, video game time, candy treats, soda treats, and the big Kahuna: buying a toy).
Dr. Glasser has you start each step of the discipline approach in increments, which I found very helpful. The credit system does seem a bit daunting when you first read the chapter, so I suggest reading and thinking about it for a few days before you get overwhelmed and don’t try it. But it is essential to success of the discipline approach. The credit system is the thing that gives them tangible proof of their success, helps them earn privileges, and puts them in control of their lives.
Since we’ve implemented this program, Hamhock is completely receptive to my praise (previously he would get mad when I’d try to praise him; “Shut Up!” would be his response). Now he looks at me and nods his head in agreement to the proactive and creative recognition and video moments I give him), he has stopped hitting (this was a HUGE problem – and I and Superboy were the main targets. Now, hitting to express his anger is GONE!), he actually plays (instead of fighting) with Superboy in their room for at least 30 minutes before I get them out each morning (previously we started the day fighting and at 7:30 am I was already exhausted and depressed), he plays much better throughout the day, we haven’t had any full-blown tantrums or meltdowns since starting the program, AND I FEEL EMPOWERED AS A PARENT. Also, I have absolutely noticed that Hamhock seems much much HAPPIER in general. He likes hearing how he’s earning credits and he’s noticing how everyone has to follow rules – even mom (they’ll catch me if I run a yellow-to-red stop light and say that I broke a rule.)
I think this is the structure we had all been looking for. Finally the world makes a little more sense and feels a little more ordered to him.
And I’ve stopped feeling like a lousy parent – the power struggles are gone, and I can enjoy parenting my kids!