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Managing Temperament




Excerpted from
The Difficult Child: Expanded and Revised Edition
By Stanley Turecki, M.D., Leslie Tonner

Rewarding for a Routine: The Star System

As already noted, most difficult children do well with routines, especially when large blocks of unplanned time are involved. With some, simply establishing the routine will be enough, but others will need a reward system to help them get started.

This method can be applied to children as young as three.

If your child completes the routine once, use a minireward. This can be a sticker or a star. Help your child pick out colorful stickers or stars and a pretty book or chart to paste them in. For most children the star system alone won't be enough of an inducement. Tell the child he is to get a big reward, a present, when the routine is completed a certain number of times, but not necessarily in a row. A rough guide, for example, is to ask a four-year-old to complete an evening routine five or six times. If the child misses a day you can say, "Bad luck. You didn't earn your star tonight (or this morning), but maybe tomorrow." The present should be decided on by you and the child when you set up the system, but should be left in the store until lies earned the required number of stars.

The star system works as follows:

1. Choose a routine you want to establish.

2. Decide, with the child, on the sequence of events. Never vary the sequence. 3. With the child, make an attractive chart of the activities.

4. Tell the child that every time he completes the routine he earns a star or a sticker (he can choose which it is).

5. Every time he accumulates five stars (or whatever other number you decide on), he gets a reward (he should participate in choosing the present).

6. Make it fun, but don't fudge the expectations. He either earns a star or he doesn't. Be sure he knows what he has to do.

7. The only "punishment" in this system is the withholding of the star plus a brief statement such as "Better luck tomorrow."

Ideally, the system should result in the child's routine becoming so much a part of daily life that you no longer have to monitor it closely. Once this happens the child is unlikely to regress, even when you stop the rewards. In the final analysis, it is the sense of mastery and the approval of the parents that are the true rewards. And if you have a bit of trouble, you can always go back to the system for a short while. The children, however, don't want to go back. They like the calmer atmosphere and feel a sense of accomplishment. On the average, the star system for a routine is no longer needed after a few weeks.

Neutrality: Thinking, Not Feeling

Before you can deal with your child's behavior effectively, you have to adopt an objective attitude. The key issue for you here is neutrality. Therefore, whenever your child misbehaves:

  • Don't respond emotionally or instinctively. Remember, your response must come from your thinking, not your feelings.

  • Stand back and become as neutral as possible.

  • Don't take it personally. Any time you say to yourself, "Why is he doing this to me?" your feelings are automatically involved and you are on the wrong track.

  • Focus on your child's behavior and not on Iris motives or mood.

You are trying here to interfere with your customary gut responses to your child. Therefore, stop to think, mid hold back from your previous automatic responses to his behavior: the immediate "no," the threats, the feeling of being victimized. Try to disengage your feelings from this process and replace them with the attitude of a professor studying his subject. Aim for as cool an attitude of detachment as you can manage.

Does this mean that you have to become an automaton of a parent who responds to his child only in calculated ways? Not at all! When you feel easier with your child and more sure of your authority, spontaneity can return. But you must remember that in a well-entrenched vicious cycle, the instinctive reactions are negative for both the child and the parent. Furthermore, as I have emphasized repeatedly, they are ineffective. The bottom line in asking you to change your response is very simple: What you are doing isn't working! To learn a new spontaneity, you have to pull back first.

If you can respond to one unpleasant situation out of three in this way, you're on the road to success. Don't get discouraged if it doesn't work every time. Unlearning old habits doesn't happen overnight.

Ask Yourself: Is It Temperament?

Any time you can relate a behavior to a temperamental issue, you will be in a much better position to know what to do about it. If a behavior stems from temperament, the child in a sense can't help himself." Try to recognize these situations. If you can see this linkage of the difficult temperament to the trying behavior, your attitude will automatically become more sympathetic.

During your study period, you focused on behavior, temperament, and the link between the two. Continue to practice looking for this link and to add any new observations.

For now, whenever your child does something annoying or irritating, ask yourself whether the behavior could relate to temperament. Your child has a temper tantrum. What set it off? A new piece of clothing? A crowded department store? Don't overlook the smallest factors. Does your daughter tantrum when you ask her to change her underwear? Ask yourself what the new underwear is like. Is it purple instead of white? Your child may be extremely sensitive to color as part of her low sensory threshold. And she will express that sensitivity vigorously.

You should also be looking for transitional situations, because they can precipitate problem behavior in children with poor adaptability. Simply calling your child in for lunch when he's been playing outside may provoke a stormy protest. So when your child gets upset, step back and try to see if there is a change involved: A breaking away from routine, a shift in activities, an alteration of pace can make the child resistant.

Ask Yourself: Is It Relevant?

As you have already seen, overpunishing is ineffective and simply acts to perpetuate the vicious cycle. You want to punish much less, but much more effectively.

As you identify the "can't help it" (clearly temperamentally related) behavior, you will learn to deal with it differently-through management rather than punishment. You will also be able to see much more clearly the behavior your child can help. And if he has been clearly told that it isn't allowed, he needs to learn that there is a consequence if he deliberately misbehaves. Deal clearly with the obvious situations, and you will see that the gray areas become more clear.

Punish Only For Behavior

If your child behaves in a way that you have made clear to him is unacceptable, he certainly should be punished. However, you don't want him to feel worthless just because he misbehaved. Try to avoid terms like "bad boy" or "bad girl." You want to convey that you disapprove of a specific behavior, not that you don't like your child.

It is in this context also that you should avoid looking for motives. This can be hard to do, but there is a reason for this suggestion. Of course all children, including difficult ones, have motives for some of their actions. The problem in the case of a really difficult child, however, is that the behavior is often so hard to understand that parents assign motives that may have nothing to do with the child. Therefore, especially in the early stages of applying the program, you will do best to suspend this process of looking for motives. Also, punish only when you are there and can see for yourself what happened. If two children fight or argue a for and one comes running to you to complain about the other, and if you then try to be the referee, you will soon have a three-way vicious cycle. So explain to your children (at a calm rime) that you will no longer react to tattle-telling by punishing the supposed offender.

Finally, don't confuse "bad mood" with bad behavior. I know that a sulky child can drive parents crazy, but try your best to stay focused only on his behavior, not his mood.



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