Helping children learn to manage and regulate their behavior can be a challenge. My colleague Mandy Miller, LCSW, shared her insights with me, and I use her system regularly when coaching parents, teens, and children. To start, everyone should be clear about what is a right, a responsibility, a privilege, and a reward.
Rights: food, shelter, clothes, love
Responsibilities: respectfulness, completion of school and homework, doing chores, following adult directions
Privileges: video games, cell phone access, television, crafts, time with friends, name brand clothes
Rewards: ice cream outings, a trip to the toy store, having a friend over, trip to the park, choosing and playing a family game
After we are clear about our definitions, the next step is to shift from a negative approach, to a positive approach. We want caregivers and parents to understand the benefits of focusing on earning privileges, rather than losing them. As an adult, if I drive my car responsibly, I earn and keep my privilege to drive. If I choose to speed or run red lights, I may have to take city transportation or ride my bike.
Consistency: If 2 or more adults are involved in the home, everyone needs to be communicating and working together.
Short-term loss of privileges: Privileges can be re-earned by changing the behavior quickly or by staying calm while engaging in or with something else. Long-term loss of privileges can lead to hopelessness and increased defiance and oppositional behaviors.
Non-punitive: The child either chooses to earn a privilege or not.
Calm, caring and firm caregivers: Adults need to stay emotionally untangled with any tantrums. This means that the adult needs to remain calm, positive, and pleasant while not taking on the child’s emotions. Parents should be coached in active listening: “I hear you are upset, and I’m sorry you lost your privilege … You feel really angry at me right now and are upset you lost your privilege.” Parents should remain empathic and loving.
Caregivers and parents may use this program exclusively within the home or the program may include activities outside of the home. Children struggling outside of the home may benefit from having some of their privileges at home being made contingent on success at school or camp. For example, if the child has a green day, the child gets 1 hour of video games. If the child has a “yellow” day, the child has to wait 15 minutes to start playing the video games for 45 minutes. Finally, if the child has a red day, the child has no video game time. The child can do anything else like play outside, read books, or play board games with the parent. Time frames should match the child’s chronological or developmental age. If the school or camp day is included, teachers and parents will need to work closely together daily. Several days of success may be followed by additional privileges or reward activities.
Some children, especially younger ones, may need for the day to be divided into shorter parts, such as 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., 10 a.m. to noon, noon to 2 p.m. and so on. Children with self-regulation and impulse control issues may benefit from even shorter periods of feedback.