Kill ’em with kindness

Thanks to those of you who offered support and/or advice last week. I am currently feeling refreshed and ready to tackle this task. I began thinking about things we could do right now, and one of the things I kept coming back to was the sleep thing that The Brother-in-Law mentioned. I started thinking about when we began having behavior issues with The Big Sis. It began pretty much with age three and has let up occasionally but has generally been pretty intense since then. When did she begin resisting bedtime? Right before she turned three. When did she give up her naps for us? Right before she turned three.

Hrm, perhaps we’re not looking at a specific behavior issue, after all, and should focus more on sleep. Or maybe there is another behavior issue present and the sleep deprivation is amplifying it. With her getting to sleep no earlier than 10 p.m. on a good night and having to be woken at 6:30 a.m. on school days (in addition to no nap), it’s pretty clear she has a major sleep debt. I know how grumpy and testy I can get when I haven’t had much sleep, so why wouldn’t the same be true for her?

I was asked to pick up The Big Sis early on Thursday because she was misbehaving on the playground and they couldn’t control her AND manage the other kids in the class. I was filled with a sense of defeat as I drove to preschool, and I really dreaded how it was going to go once I picked her up, but I have to say that it was one of my better parenting moments. I did not yell; I did not raise my voice. I was able to talk with her before we’d even turned off the street (usually she shuts down and won’t listen for a long time since she’s in Intense Tantrum Mode), and I started telling her how I thought it was a good idea to really focus on getting her more sleep in order to get past this stuff. We had an 8:30 bedtime for her before and it’s very hard to get it much earlier than that since we don’t get home until almost 6 p.m. and she’s the kind of kid who needs help through transitional times. However, for everyone’s benefit, we had to at least try our best, and we’ve currently got an 8 p.m. bedtime set. When she and I got home, we got out a kid sleep log that The Brother-in-Law had recommended, and we read through some of the tips on there and I asked her what would help her go to sleep. She said that patting/rubbing her back might help since they often do that at school to calm her body, and we also decided to try some warm milk before bed (she’s not had that since she dropped bottles at 12 months).

So that has been our #1 focus right now, and I’d say overall it’s going well. Last night she had trouble going to sleep and finally fell asleep between 9:30 and 10, but each night before that she was asleep closer to 8:30 or 9 p.m., so definitely an improvement. Even an hour can make a huge difference in how you feel, so I’m glad to see some positive difference in this area.

The next thing is that I’ve started reading The Kazdin Method of Parenting Defiant Children. In a nutshell: First you determine the behavior you don’t want and figure out its positive opposite, and that’s what you focus on getting from your child. So if we want to stop her from hitting her friends when she is angry or frustrated, then our positive opposite would be that we want her to make good choices with her friends and deal with her anger in a way other than physical aggression. (Though we have a lot of positive opposites we’re currently trying to achieve.)

So the next step is to bombard them with praise as a means of positive reinforcement, and Kazdin (who is the former president of the American Psychological Association) says that most parents don’t do this as effectively as they could, even if they think they are. Praise should be frequent, it should be delivered very enthusiastically (and in the beginning, it should be on a cheerleader level, even for the most mundane things), and it should include a touch of some sort to really reinforce the behavior in a positive manner. Touch is one of those things that you think you do more often than you really do, so it’s been nice to have that suggested since we weren’t doing that nearly as much as we should have while trying to reinforce a desired behavior.

So you set up conditions for them to perform some or all of the desired behavior, and you reward that well. Basically, you try to catch them being good — and OFTEN. Then you react VERY excitedly when this happens and they get a point on their points chart. This period shouldn’t have to last too long — maybe a few weeks — before the behavior becomes more ingrained and is their default behavior. In addition, you also do practice sessions where you practice the desired behavior and reward that with points as well. The child has a natural desire to please the parent(s), and they are motivated to get more and more points, which are used to buy rewards. Kazdin recommends having some rewards that are a smaller point value so they can redeem some of their points more instantly and feel that instant gratification (and they also achieve a desire to continue to get more rewards), and there should be some rewards that take a little longer to save points for.

So we have our points system set up a little differently, though still generally similar. We bought The Big Sis a blank journal and a heart stamp. So whenever she gets points throughout the day, she gets to put a stamp in her book. At the end of the day, The Husband and I look at her stamps and think about how our day went, and we can give her zero, one, or two gemstones based on how her day went. It is the gemstones that she uses as currency to buy her rewards. We are currently coming up with other rewards besides a TV show (2 stones) and a movie (4 stones) that we had in place before. For example, The Big Sis wanted to eat dessert before dinner last night. I reminded her why we should eat dinner first, and she was disappointed but didn’t freak out (hey, STAMP!). I then told her that maybe we could come up with a fair price for us to have a Backwards Day at home one day, including getting to eat dessert BEFORE dinner! (We decided that was worth five stones, btw.) I think getting her input is crucial in this because it helps her feel involved in the program and in control (to a degree) and it also makes sure that we set it up so she’s going after the things she wants.

One of the criticisms of this book/method in Amazon reviews is that it’s rewarding kids for behavior/tasks that should be done without a reward. While I understand that point with a compliant child, the fact remains that not all children are compliant, and some kids NEED to be rewarded for such mundane tasks so they can gain the skills to do it without a reward later. For some kids, something as simple as getting dressed in the morning is a challenge. This is a temporary setup that will eventually phase itself out and we won’t always be giving her stamps and gemstones for getting dressed the first time we ask. But for now, it’s something that’s necessary to get this behavior to become second nature for her.

One key point is to not reward misbehavior with any sort of attention. If she’s resisting getting dressed in the morning, I’m supposed to neutrally say, “Remember: This is a chance to get a stamp. If you don’t get dressed and don’t get a stamp, we’ll try again tomorrow for one.” I’m so far unclear on what I’m supposed to do (aside from staying calm) if she’s hitting me, as that can be ignored for only so long, but hopefully it’ll be addressed in the book later. (I’m only on chapter 3 right now.)

We’re unsure at this point how to incorporate this at school, as it’s not realistic for the teachers to give The Big Sis such over-the-top praise for every little thing like we do in this initial stage in addition to frequent stamps in her book, as it’s just too disruptive to the class. Though, Kazdin claims that once these behaviors become more ingrained at home, it starts to bleed into other areas of the kid’s life, including school. I’m told she did have a good day at school yesterday, so perhaps that’s already happening. I’ll be curious to see how this week at school goes. If not well, then we’ll need to figure out how to tackle that part of it and can maybe do a separate chart for there. We’ve already told the teachers to really lay on the praise as much as they realistically can; Kazdin says the praise is the most important part of all of this.

I won’t lie — this is a little bit very exhausting having to praise every little thing that The Big Sis does correctly. It’s not just cooperation that we reward, but so much more, including times when she powers through one of her tantrum triggers without a tantrum. (We’ve had that happen SEVERAL times now, which is just amazing.) But even though it’s exhausting, so is dealing with hitting, tantrums, and other misbehavior, so I’ll take this kind of exhausting any day. And, if Kazdin is right, this initial stage of intense and frequent praise should not last forever — for most kids he estimates it’s usually two or three weeks depending on what kind of behavior you’re trying to change. In fact, knock on wood, but we haven’t had to deal with a tantrum since we started this on Thursday night. Let me say that again: We have not had to deal with a tantrum since we started on Thursday night. Shocking, to say the least.

Hopefully the novelty of this method won’t wear off for The Big Sis. We’ve done sticker charts before and she’s lost interest after a bit — though Kazdin says the key to the chart is to make sure there are also lesser rewards they can redeem for a fewer number of points instead of just a bigger reward at the end, which we haven’t really done before.

So I certainly can’t say we’re over the hump yet — not by a long shot. This is going to take a lot of commitment and effort on everyone’s part (and hopefully going on vacation in a few weeks doesn’t mess up everything we’ve worked on — or maybe she’ll be a perfect angel at Disney, who knows). We will still meet with the therapist next month and hopefully not have quite as desperate a story to tell but will still be able to gain some valuable coping tools for all of us.

But I can say I’m quite encouraged so far following the positive events of the past few days.

I no longer feel as defeated as I did last week. This approach is very positive and fits my parenting outlook/style very well.

We can do this. I know we can.

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4 Responses to Kill ’em with kindness

  1. Kara (yellownorange2) says:

    Wow. I just wanted to comment and let you know that I’m following your journey, and learning so much from it. It sounds like you guys are having a lot of fun with this – which is so you. I hope there are many more good days in your future.

  2. kdulong says:

    So glad you are finding some good tools already. Your tenatious approach is making a difference. Remember that!

  3. Kelly says:

    Awesome news!!!!! Enjoy the peace in your home!! More importantly…now u can fully. enjoy her and not be on eggshells.!!
    What a relief for everyone!! So happy!!!

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