Before You Discipline Your Child

Make Sure Discipline Is What Your Child Really Needs

You've had it up to here with your child's behavior -- but is it really misbehavior worthy of disciplinary action, or behavior related to your child's special needs that can be better addressed with understanding, support, and accommodations? Often, changing your actions and reactions will change your child's behavior for the better. Ask yourself these twelve important questions before you think about consequences.

Does my child understand what's being asked?

Frustrated Child
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You may feel your wishes are obvious, and your child's lack of response means defiance. But if your child has problems with language, particularly with pragmatics like tone of voice, figures of speech, and body language, that message may not be as clear as you think. Make your requests straightforward and simple, free of things like sarcasm or wordplay, and make sure your child truly understands before you place blame for noncompliance. Read more.

Have I broken down the task enough?

Maybe you've asked your child to do something, and she's stopped right in the middle and wandered off. Before considering that a punishable offense, think about her ability to complete multi-step tasks. Have you proposed a job that's too big and complicated? Would your child cooperate if you broke it down further? Try making requests by the step and not by the completed task, and see if that increases compliance. It may also be helpful to teach your child tasks backward, so he always ends with an experience of success. Read more.

Does my child have trouble with transitions?

Many children with special needs have trouble transitioning from one activity to the next, and may need extra time to shift gears. Planning for transitions and giving your child plenty of warning can head off bad behavior -- and looking for hidden transitions when behavior flares up can suggest ways to restructure the situation. Read more.

Does my child have an executive function problem?

If you know your child has a disability that affects the "executive function" of the brain -- that is, the part of the brain that involves organization and control and foresight -- don't treat those problems as deliberate misbehavior. Your child can't keep track of things, control impulses, predict consequences of actions, or retain a useful memory of your disciplinary action for future reference. Instead, change the environment so that problems don't come up in the first place, provide lots of positive reinforcement when things are going well, and address misbehavior with a short, emotion-free time out. Read more.

Does my child really understand the difference between truth and lies?

Lying seems like a clear-cut offense, and it's a zero tolerance issue for many parents. But some children with special needs don't see as sharp a line between honesty and deception as we do. Poor memory, lack of cause-and-effect thinking, language impairments, and developmental delays may lead kids to say what's not so without malice. Discipline will not make a dent in the problem, so beware against forcing your child to lie and then punishing him for it. Instead, provide good supervision, so that you never have to take your child's word, and an understanding heart for fibs. Read more.

Is my child paying attention?

Kids who have problems with attention may miss messages about what they're supposed to do. And, though it seems contradictory, they may be able to fix attention so hard to one particular activity that they screen out everything else. If you know your child has issues with attention, make very certain that he or she is actively engaged with you when you give instructions. No fair yelling instructions from the other room, or speaking normally in a loud distracting environment, and then blaming your child for not following through.

Is this a battle that needs to be fought?

Some issues are just more important than others. The ones that affect the safety of your child and others have to be non-negotiable, but most everything else ought to be in play. How often do you draw the line based on your own preferences and convenience, not some true issue of right and wrong? Allow your child some wiggle room on those issues, and use it as an opportunity to teach the art of compromise. Otherwise, you're likely to get caught in a power struggle or ultimatum that will only make things worse. Read more.

Am I too emotional?

Never administer discipline when you're the one out of control. Children with special needs can show uncanny skill in pushing our buttons, and it's easy to get so revved up you go overboard with the consequences. Rather than roll everything back when you've calmed down, or force your child to endure a too-severe punishment just to keep consistent, excuse your overly emotional self and take a little time-out before dealing with your child's misbehavior. Keep in mind, too, that kids with special needs may overreact to stress in your environment -- so if you're not staying calm, you're a co-conspirator in that tantrum. Read more.

Do I have reasonable expectations?

You wouldn't punish a vision-impaired child for not seeing something, or a hearing-impaired child for not listening when you speak. So don't make a punishable offense out of something you know your child can't do, or ought to know. Consider your child's communication impairments, attention problems, developmental delays, sensory sensitivities, behavioral challenges, and other special needs before formulating your expectations, and when misbehavior seems stubborn, consider whether it could be disability-related. And when you knowingly put your child through something you know she can't handle -- like an overlong mall trip or a meal at a noisy restaurant, blame yourself for that public meltdown, 'cause you knew better. 

Does my child need more time?

Counting to three is a staple of behavior management, but for kids with transition issues, it may not be enough time to stop one activity and start another. Instead of making it three and out, try a little longer count for your child. If your child ignores that, you may still have to administer that consequence; but in our house, a oount of ten gets my son moving the way three never did. Read more.

Would a bribe work better?

Positive consequences often go farther than negative ones in motivating good behavior from difficult kids -- and if nothing else, they should be as much a part of your parenting toolkit. If you're on the verge of disciplining your child, consider whether you could turn the behavior around with the right incentive, leaving both you and your child with an experience of success. Read more.

Do I spend as much time praising as I do disciplining?

What does it take for your child to get your full and passionate attention? If the answer is, "act up," you're going to see a lot of that. Try engaging your child with positive comments and praise more than negative comments and criticism. It may be too late to head off bad behavior this time around, but try to find something good to say to or do with your child within the next half-hour. And again. And again. Read more.

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