IeRLbC Today's question for Dr. B (our resident early development specialist) is about challenging and attention seeking behavior in children.

It was submitted by Kelly (from Dances with Chaos), who would like to perform an exorcism on her tantrum prone four-year-old (pictured left) before the little devil drives her out of her mind.

Editor's Note: If the picture weren't cropped, I'm almost positive you would see the word "HANDFUL" hanging directly over his head.

The strategies were written specifically for Kelly's question, but Dr. B assures me that you can use them for almost any age. (How 'bout a 37 year-old manchild?)


Dear Dr. B,

On some days I have a sweet, adorable four-year-old little boy. On other days it's like I gave birth to the devil himself. I know most of the time, he's just testing me, but other times, it's as if my son is seriously possessed. Last week, we had a day when he had over thirty meltdowns. It was absolute insanity. In these moments, he doesn’t listen. Or he simply doesn’t care what I'm saying. And he goes ballistic if I fail to bow to his wishes. I've tried redirection, rewards, and punishments. But typically it doesn’t matter what I do/say/threaten – he acts as he pleases. To confuse me further, other days he is a paragon of virtue: listening, obeying, and helping me take care of his 1 1/2 year old sister. Sometimes he switches from “devil” to “angel” in the same day, as though swapped with another child.

Is he just testing me in “normal” ways? Or is my son destined to turn into a bullying brat intent on world domination?

And what can I do in the meantime to keep from going insane??

Please help.
— Kelly

Dear Kelly,

Challenging behavior is often triggered when a child is denied something they want or when a demand is placed on them that they can’t or don’t want to do. Similarly, the challenging behavior continues because it worked in the past by helping the child either obtain what he wanted (e.g., a tantrum leads to getting the toy) or avoid the task he didn't want (e.g., a tantrum leads to a delayed bedtime).

You can break this negative cycle by observing what happens right before and after the challenging behavior to find ways to avoid your child's triggers and respond in ways that don't maintain or reward the negative behavior.

It is not uncommon for children to seek attention in inappropriate ways after the birth of a new sibling since they no longer have their parents’ undivided attention. As a result, many children try out new ways to get attention that are both positive and negative. The negative behavior continues when it is very effective at getting the attention the child may be lacking at the moment. This does not mean you are providing your child any less love or affection, it simply means that your child wants to say, “I need you,” “give me a hug,” "do you still love me as much you did before I had a sister?" “show me you care about every little thing I do – RIGHT NOW!” But instead, the child misbehaves because they don’t have the insight to recognize they want attention and don’t have the skill to ask for it.

You can test this theory out by observing what happens right before the behavior (is the attention removed from him for a moment to focus on his sister or other household chores?) and what happens after (does the attention immediately shift back to him?).

5 Effective Strategies to Prevent and Respond to Bad Behavior Used to Obtain Desirable Items or Attention:

1. Increase the positive attention provided, especially at times when less attention is usually available (e.g., have him help with dinner preparations or praise him from a distance for playing nicely while you are busy changing his sister, etc.)

2. Ignore inappropriate behavior used to get attention or to obtain something that was denied (when the behavior is not aggressive or harmful to others). The benefit of ignoring is that your son will learn that positive behavior has a powerful pay-off, while his negative behavior is ineffective and therefore no longer necessary.

3. Teach your child to ask for what they want in a more appropriate way. If they are seeking attention, teach them to ask you for a hug, help, or a turn playing with you. If he wants an item, teach him to ask nicely. Remember to praise him for asking you for attention or items appropriately, even when it may not be the best time (e.g., Great job asking nicely. Mom is on the phone right now. I’ll help you when I’m finished).

4. Set aside special alone time with each parent (e.g., 5 minutes of special play time per night and/or a special weekend outing).

5. Avoid triggers for the behavior such as the word, “no.” Instead of telling your child what not to do (e.g., No screaming), tell him what to do (e.g., Ask nicely). Similarly, instead of telling him he can’t have something (“We are not playing with toys now”), tell him when the desired item will be available (“You can watch TV after dinner).

5 Effective Strategies to Prevent and Respond to Bad Behavior Used to Escape or Avoid an Undesirable Task

1. Offer choices to increase motivation and interest in performing less desirable tasks (e.g., If a child usually resists getting dressed, instead of saying, “Its time to get dressed,” give choices such as “Do you want to wear a red or blue,” or “Which do you want to put on first, your shirt or pants?” Also, increase your child’s opportunity to make choices throughout the day so that he feels more control over his environment and learns to be responsible for the decisions he makes.

2. Avoid power struggles by picking and choosing your battles carefully. In other words, if you don’t have the time and energy to respond effectively and avoid giving in, say yes from the start.

3. Create a visual schedule with pictures to represent your daily routine. Sometimes challenging behavior occurs because children don’t know what is going to happen next or when the activity or item they want will be available again. Instead of telling your child what to do or what he can’t have, use the schedule to show him what he needs to do and when enjoyable activities are available. For example, when your child is misbehaving because you asked him to stop playing, instead of focusing on the behavior, direct his attention to the schedule and say, “Play time is finished. It is time for bed. We will play again tomorrow morning.”

4. Change the timing of specific undesirable activities to come before more desirable activities. For instance, if your child resists brushing their teeth, plan something fun to do afterward, such as special reading time with mom or dad. When they begin to exhibit resistant behavior, say, “First brush your teeth, then we will read a book together.” If you use a visual schedule as mentioned above, you can say this while pointing to the pictures.

5. Make the task or demand easier to accomplish successfully. Sometimes children misbehave because the task is too difficult or overwhelming. For example, it might be too much to expect a child to clean up all of their toys when we ask; however, they may respond very well when we ask them to put one toy away at a time with some praise along the way (e.g., Please put the red block in the box. Great job putting the block away. Put the green block in the box, etc.).

Finally, in order to keep yourself from going insane, I highly recommend taking adult time-outs. Sometimes we need a moment to step away from the situation, take a deep breath, and then come back when we feel calm and in control of our own emotions. Only then are we able to respond and assess the situation effectively.

You may also wish to consult with a mental health professional to determine whether your son’s behavior falls within normal developmental limits and to help you select strategies that may work best for your son.

Best of luck,
Dr. B

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