Connection and Discipline from an OT Perspective

Now more than ever we are spending time with our kids (which is a good thing). With this extra time, for many of us, has come more meltdowns, more boundaries being tested and more attempts at discipline. We all want our children to behave well, in both our homes and the outside world (school, grandparent’s houses, friend’s houses, etc.) and there are many ways to get there. As occupational therapists we often help children and families navigate behaviors from a sensory processing perspective. In addition we have had the opportunity to work with many other professionals who address behaviors such as behaviorists, child psychologists, and social workers. This newsletter is not an exhaustive list of all the ways to address behavior but it is our list of the things we have found to be true in our work.

First and foremost, know your child. So often we want our kids to do and be just like the other kids we see but each child is unique and individual. Due to this, your approach to discipline will be unique and individual for each child as well. Some kids respond really well to working for a reward, whereas this can become something that causes anxiety for another child. Most often positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement. What this means is catching your child behaving the way  you want them to and praising them for this behavior. You want to be very specific in your praise, so instead of “good job” you can say “I love how you shared that toy with your brother, thank you so much”. This is typically more effective than “Give that toy to your brother now” or “If you don’t share that toy you don’t get tv later”. These second statements are more reactive and heading more towards negative reinforcement, meaning you are giving your child attention for what you don’t want. Even parents who are constantly providing positive reinforcement for the behavior they want to see will find themselves in a situation where their child is misbehaving and they have to handle it somehow. So what do you do?

To start, take a deep breath yourself. It can be beyond frustrating when your child misbehaves; however, when you enter the situation in an escalated place yourself, nothing gets resolved. Dan Siegel, the author of “The Whole Brain Child” and “No Drama Discipline” reminds us to check in with our child’s foundation. Is your child hungry or tired? If so, they are in a place where they literally cannot access their higher level thinking and we need to be cognizant of that. Think about yourself driving home on a day when you were so busy you didn’t get to eat lunch, probably not the most reasonable version of  yourself, correct? For our kids with sensory processing sensitivities also consider the level of input they have received in a day. Has your child been on the computer or watching television all morning so you can work (no judgement here for that, this is most often my own personal situation around 1 pm in the afternoon). If so, they may be in a place where they legitimately cannot behave. Let’s address those foundational concerns first, get a cup of milk or water, a snack or in some cases, scoop your screaming child up and bring them outside to the swing set. At a later time, when your child isn’t in a complete meltdown mode (in OT speak we call this the fight, fright or flight response) you can address the behavior that you did not like. For example, you might say “I know you were hungry earlier and really wanted my attention. I’m sorry you were so upset about it, but what is a better way to get my attention? Do you think dumping all of your puzzles on the ground made me feel happy or sad? Why do you think it made me sad?” This line of conversation will help your child begin to develop empathy and accountability. From this place they can understand that their behaviors have consequences and these consequences impact other people. It is this thinking that will help your child behave in other circumstances (even when you aren’t around) because it will come from the inside. In contrast, “clean up your puzzle if you want ice cream” is all about external motivation. You want your child to want to behave and these longer conversations can help move them towards that.

Another excellent strategy is distraction. Depending on your child’s age, they literally do not have the upper brain connections to take their mind off of what is upsetting them. So even though you told them they could only watch 1 Elmo and you warned them that it was about to end….when the show does indeed end, your child is relentlessly screaming “more Elmo” and just can’t seem to snap out of it. First try changing environments, go outside, go into a different room, shake it up to help their brain release what is frustrating them. If that doesn’t work try to engage them in a task that again refocuses their brain. You know your child best so find what works for them. For my son, reading a favorite book in a new room is often a useful trick or getting outside into the grass. As he begins to calm down I will cue some deep breathing to help his nervous system settle. For some kids deep pressure with a couch cushion or a pillow can help their brains and bodies settle. It will be some trial and error to find what works best, but just remind yourself that they are legitimately stuck in their circle of thoughts. Think of yourself, when something upsets you oftentimes you have to work at redirecting your thoughts. And even when you work at it those nagging thoughts creep back in. It is no different for our little ones, except that they don’t have the brain power to work on this like we do, so we need to help them. As always, go back and address the behavior later when things are calmer. Distraction is not a get away with things approach. You might say, “That was so frustrating when Elmo ended, you seemed really mad. Do you think it is okay to kick and scream when you are mad? What else can we do when we are mad?”

Let’s backtrack a bit and talk about having your child work for something or some good old fashioned bribery. This approach to behavior can be very useful, when done well. In all instances, remember that your child is a person too. They aren’t giving you a hard time for sport, they are having a hard time. So even when we are using external motivation, like working for a prize of some sort, consider what your child may be feeling and address that as well. When working for a prize you want to be very clear in your expectations. It should not feel arbitrary to your child why they do or don’t get the prize. This can lead to frustration and mistrust. You may want to use specific tasks as markers. In therapy sessions I often find myself saying “when you finish writing your name you can go on the swing”. As your child becomes upset you may want to offer them comfort (again addressing the emotional component of behavior). This might sound like, “I know you want the swing and you are upset. Let’s take a few deep breaths. When we finish writing your name you are going to get the swing. I know this is hard and I am really proud of you. We can do this.” If you are looking for more general behavior expectations you may want to use a list of “rules”. Again write these in the form of what you want to see. It is often useful to have a visual of these rules to refer back to. For example, some dinnertime rules could be written on piece of paper or dry-erase board as follows:

  1. Take a bite of everything on your plate.
  2. Stay in chair.
  3. Use nice words with your family members.

Remind your child of what they will earn when they follow the rules and refer back to the rules when you see some behavior flaring up. Instead of saying “do not say that to your brother, I told you not to talk that way”. You could point to the rules and state “Remember our rules, should we read them again? If we follow all of our rules we can play outside before bedtime”. When appropriate I often include children in coming up with “OT rules” for behavior. This gives them some accountability and autonomy over their circumstances. Also consider how long you are asking your child to wait for their reward and how long your child can truly handle waiting. Some children can wait all day until the evening, but for some kids an hour is pushing their limits.

One of the greatest tricks to helping with behavior, is catching it before it starts. We all know it’s about to happen right? We are in the other room, we here the whining and scuffle about to erupt but we really just need to finish typing an email or cooking part of dinner. And then boom, upset occurs. When possible, and it won’t always be possible, intervene before the eruption. Again, take a deep breath, come in to the situation and get down on your child’s level. Making eye contact with their child at their level can be extremely therapeutic in of itself. If your child isn’t comfortable with eye contact, joining in their play in a way that feels safe to them can be used. The point is let your child know you are there to help, in a non-confrontational way. “Hey what are you doing, can I play? No, you want to play alone, okay I am going to play over here next to you”. Something as simple as this can save you lots of time later working your way back from a tantrum.

It also helps to be proactive in giving your child body what it needs to the best of your ability. If your child needs lots of sensory input, work with your OT to set up ways you can provide that throughout the day. Your child will have more neurochemicals to handle things that may upset them if their body has gotten what it needs. I know it can feel like you don’t have time, especially right now. But the truth is you will be spending the time regardless. Without addressing your child’s sensory needs you will be spending the time addressing their behaviors. Often if we can put some time in on the front end we can save ourselves lots of frustration later. And for some kids it might be more than movement, it might be your undivided attention for 30 minutes in the morning (no phones, no tv, no house stuff, just being with your child). It might also be some cognitive stimulation, doing an art project or reading a book or practicing letters. Your child may be craving more routine and structure since school has gone remote and now it is summertime. Your therapist can be a detective with you in finding out what your particular child needs to be their best self.

I also want to address that at times you will not be your best self. You will yell, you will negatively reinforce the behavior you don’t want, you may rip up the dinnertime rules and tell everyone they can never eat ice cream again. It’s okay, it really is okay, this is life. You can still turn this eruption of your own into a teachable moment with your child. First, take a moment for yourself to calm down. Most often after these eruptions, when the anger, stress and upset subside, the next emotion to join the party is guilt. Guilt for how you acted and treated your child (we have ALL been there). Give yourself some grace and then go talk to your child. Model what self-regulation, empathy and accountability look like. Apologize for your behavior and explain what happened. “I am so sorry I freaked out, that must have been a bit scary. I was really frustrated that you were fighting with your brother and I was pretty hungry and tired myself. I am sorry if I made you sad”. You will mess up,  your child will mess up, it’s a part of living, show them how to come back from that responsibly and gracefully.

The last bit of advice I want to leave you with is something I learned from a child psychologist. It is one of the most powerful pieces of parenting/therapist advice I’ve ever received. Make your words count, make your yes’s real and your no’s real. So if you enter the grocery store and your child asks for a cookie and you know you are not up for the fight  say yes. That is better than saying no and letting them wear  you down to a yes. Maybe next time you go to the store your rested (or highly caffeinated) and you know you can battle gracefully with your child. In this moment, when they ask for a cookie, say no and stick to that no. Let your child know that you mean what you say and that they can trust in your words.

Discipline at its core is connection. We are responsible for teaching our children how to be in the world. When we discipline our children it is not to be punitive, it is to help them become the best version of themselves. Sometimes that will mean talking about feelings, sometimes that means a drink of water and a snack and sometimes that means getting really clear about expectations. In OT speak we talk about “therapeutic use of self”, which means using our relationship with a child to facilitate therapy. It is the same with you at home, when your child feels connected to you they can take in the discipline you have to offer. You are all doing a great job, especially in these unprecedented times. If you want any further or more specific suggestions about your child’s behavior don’t’ hesitate to reach out to us!

Written by Jessica Addeo

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