When one of my kids starts to make a habit of a behavior that’s not-so-great, I start to be a real drama queen in my head. I place all the blame on him and wonder why he can’t just do what I want him to do. Why doesn’t he understand (or care about) the consequences I have in place?
Then I realize, he does understand the consequences I have in place, which is exactly why this behavior keeps happening. I may not realize it, but sometimes my behaviors actually cause his undesirable ones to increase when I really want them to decrease. Sometimes it’s not his fault. Sometimes it’s mine.
Maybe my one year old screams, so I give her what she wants to keep her quiet. Or maybe my eight year old ignores me when I tell him to do something, and I just let it go because I don’t feel like starting a fight. Perhaps my four year old whines when he wants attention, and I sit down and have a long chat with him about why we shouldn’t whine.
In all these cases, I am giving my kids EXACTLY what they want. Their inappropriate behaviors keep happening because they are successfully meeting their needs by doing them.
If I want to change these behaviors, I have to look at my own responses and change them. I need to meet my kids’ needs when they show appropriate behaviors (like asking nicely), and not give them what they want from those inappropriate ones. I have to stop letting the inappropriate behaviors “work.”
I actually ran into this a few weeks ago with one of my friends. Her daughter, Grace (not her real name), was throwing fits about everything. EVERYTHING. Like, sure, the normal-ish fits, like when her brother took her toy and she was upset and screamed. Or she was told she couldn’t have the treat she wanted so she screamed.
But there were other crazy ones, too. She and her sister were sitting together, eating pizza, but Grace didn’t want her sister to eat pizza too, so she screamed. Or another time, she wanted to take a bath, but it was too hot until it was ice cold. Then it was too cold, so she screamed.
When I talked to my friend about Grace’s fits, I couldn’t find something they all had in common. No specific reason jumped out at me. So I told my friend to start with step one: take data. I LOVE DATA!! Really do. It actually solves a lot of my problems. So I told her that as soon as a snit fit starts, she should start writing.
I wanted her to record everything that happened before, during, and after the fit. Who Grace was with, if she was playing, working, or eating. Was she really tired or hungry? I wanted her to write what the mood was like, was my friend stressed? Was she distracted from the kids, maybe doing some cleaning? I also wanted to know what happened during the fit, how long did Grace scream, or was she just whining? Did anyone talk to her during the fit? Then I wanted her to write what happened after: did Grace get out of doing an undesirable task? Did she get her toy back? Did she get alone time or attention?
My friend was absolutely happy to do this. She actually started right away. The next snit fit started, she grabbed her notebook, sat down next to Grace, and started writing. She wrote and wrote until the snit fit was over, and you know what she realized? Taking data had let her take a step back emotionally. She wasn’t as upset, and actually handled the fit better!
My friend recorded snit fits the same way for a week, and Grace’s behavior changed from overwhelming fits for hours a day to manageable five-minute outbursts during disagreements (which is reasonable. She is three, after all).
My friend realized her behavior was actually the reason for her daughter’s long fits. When she was tired, stressed, and more emotional, she acted differently toward Grace, causing fits. The two of them escalated each others’ emotions and both started freaking out.
Taking a step back and recording some data was all the intervention they ended up needing. I decided to take this lesson to heart. Whenever I start to have a problem, before I freak out, I take a deep breath and a step back and take some data. I analyze my own behavior to see if I’m actually the cause of the problem. As it turns out, sometimes I am! And it usually takes just a small change to make a big difference.