Saturday, August 10, 2013

Naughty Kid or Necessary Skill?

It’s Saturday night, and you and your loved one are having dinner in an upscale local restaurant. The steak is cooked to perfection, the salad crisp and well chilled, the conversation pleasant. You take a bite of tender succulent beef, and begin to quietly chew all the while thinking to yourself the night could not be more perfect. Suddenly, at the table next to you, a young child begins to act out. You hear the parents say “no” several times, and then the volume of the outburst begins to increase. It is at this point you realize the child is in the beginning of a full blown tantrum. Your stomach begins to sink, as the parents attempt to calm the child, because the harder they try the louder the child yells. The next thing you know, you hear the sound of skin hitting skin, as the parents begin yelling at the child to “Stop it!” It is at this point you find yourself loosing your appetite and wondering what is wrong with the child, the parents, or both?
 Throughout the ordeal you find yourself vacillating between wondering how the parents could both hit and yell at there child in public, why they would dare to bring an ill behaved child to a restaurant, and why they haven’t taken the child out to the car.  As the child continues to kick, bite, yell, and scream you realize the horrific spectacle playing out next to you is far more than the anger of a petulant child; frustrated and dismayed, you begin accept that date night is well and truly over and that you may have witnessed inappropriate discipline of a minor ( CA law states corporal punishment is only legal when it is involves an open hand on a child’s bottom and does not leave a mark.) 
We've all been there, and witnessing such a display it is never pleasant. The important thing to remember is
the child in this scenario deserves compassion, not scorn. Keep in mind, the inappropriate behavior is not the child’s fault. All behavior is learned through a combination of repetition and reinforcement. The question then becomes, where did they learn to use such extreme and inappropriate behavior to get their needs met, and why was it necessary?   
In replaying the above scenario, what was truly witnessed between the parents and the child?  You observed the child “acting out”, the parents saying “no”, the child not accepting the answer, the parents hitting the child while yelling “stop it”, and the child escalating to full tantrum with kicking, biting, and screaming. When reviewing the incident, it becomes clear the child has learned to “turn up the heat” to get needs met and as such is unable to accept limits due to negative reinforcement of needs only met when escalated. Therefore, the child demonstrates resilience in learning how to get daily needs met. Although unpleasant to experience, the child’s naughty behavior is clearly a necessary survival skill.
However, the parents’ behavior demonstrates a lack stress management, displaced anger, inappropriate corporal discipline, a lack of emotional intelligence, and poor parenting skills. How then could the situation have been handled to generate a positive outcome? The National Parenting Education Network recommends the following steps as a more appropriate response to a child’s defiance, tantrums, angry outbursts, or disruptive behavior when at home or in public:

     1.  State the rule (Ex. in our family we don’t hit each other).
  1. 2. Time-out when a child chooses not to follow a rule. (One minute per year of age).
  2. 3. Use positive reinforcement when a child follows a rule.
  3. 4. Apply consequences in a consistent way (to make it easier use a prompt paired with a count of 3, and then move on with a time out when a child is not following a stated rule). A child eventually will expect to have negative consequences for negative behaviors. As parents, striving to teach good habits and values is a must.
  4. 5. Whenever parent can, he/she should celebrate positive behaviors to encourage and support desired changes (very important).
  5. 6. Make a plan with your child to celebrate when progress, so the child has something positive to look forward.