“But I’ve tried EVERYTHING!” – Rethinking Strategies to Manage Difficult Behaviour

Whether it is tantrums, anxiety, defiance or any other number of problem behaviours, you want to try everything you possibly can to help your child overcome challenges and thrive.

But trying EVERYTHING in a short space of time is often what tends to happen when desperate parents seek advice from other parents, friends, teachers and professionals…

The common story goes something like this:

“Jack was throwing tantrums and becoming easily upset by small things. We have tried reward charts, time-out, getting him to play more sport, arranging playdates with other children, changing his diet, getting him to bed earlier, giving him more time and attention, talking to his teacher…”

And often the outcome is this:

“Some of the things we tried worked a little bit but he can still get really upset and angry. We’re at our wits end!”

Many of the things you are putting in place might be useful but it is important to think things through before deciding to implement changes in your child’s life.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

When did this behaviour start? 

Was there a big change in your child’s life that coincides with the difficulties they’re having? Did they change schools? Have a fight with a friend? Was someone in the household sick? Did something else in the family change, such as a parent getting a new job or the birth of a new baby?

When does this behaviour occur? Can you see a pattern?

It might be worthwhile keeping a diary about each of the times a behaviour occurs. Does the child refuse to do homework only when Mum tells him to do it? Is she happy to do maths homework but hates reading? Does your child get upset after swimming lessons or before a friend’s birthday party? These are perhaps obvious examples and sometimes the pattern might be more subtle but the idea is that being able to predict when a behaviour might occur is going to be very important for you to prepare appropriately and be able to respond with the right kind of strategy.

When is my child happiest? When are they calm and able to deal well with challenging situations (i.e. When does the problematic behaviour NOT occur?)

We can tend to focus so much on the problem behaviour that we forget to also acknowledge our child’s strengths. What is different about the situations in which your child is showing patience, care, resilience and good problem-solving skills?

Okay, so you’ve gathered some information. Perhaps you’ve come up with a hypothesis about the behaviour too – you might be thinking your child has difficulty coping with change, is jealous of their sister, has trouble with being told “no” or is overwhelmed with extracurricular activities. It’s not always so cut and dried, but hypotheses can be good because they give us something to test and it can make it easier to choose the appropriate strategy.

Now, if you are worried about your child’s behaviour, it is often more than one specific thing they are doing that is becoming an issue. You may notice them refusing to get off the computer, becoming rude and insolent after swimming lessons, deliberately antagonising their brother at the dinner table and complaining about schoolwork.

This is important: TRY TO FIX ONE PROBLEM AT A TIME. 

Sometimes miracles do happen and all of your child’s challenging behaviour may be resolved quickly and easily using one strategy. But, starting out with that mindset is likely to lead to disappointment.

Think about how overwhelmed you might be if you try to set yourself too many goals: “This month I’m going to get fit, save money, do better at my job, be a better parent, catch up with my friends, and spend some quality time with my spouse.” Aaaaghh…it’s stressful just talking about it!

The same thing can happen to your child if you suddenly try to get them to reduce their time on the computer, do better at school AND be nice to their siblings.

So, here are some steps to follow as you work out your plan of action:

1. Choose which problem is the most important to you and start there. Be specific. For example, “I would like Jack to sit at the dinner table and finish everything on his plate within 30 minutes” instead of “I want Jack to eat better”.

2. Sit down with your co-parent (and possibly grandparents too) and discuss different ideas for strategies. It is important that everyone is on board and will be consistent in their approach.

It’s okay to choose more than one strategy at a time but have a think about how these ideas will work together. For example, if your child is having trouble getting ready in the morning, it’s okay to start using a reward chart and to also try to get them to bed earlier at nighttime. But, using a reward chart, plus time-out, plus taking away the computer, plus threatening to stop tennis lessons, plus changing the route to school is going to get confusing for everybody.

3. Ensure that the approach needs to be something you can realistically stick to. Ask yourself: Why do we think this idea will work for this particular child and for this particular behaviour? Ask yourself: What will our challenges be in sticking to this?

4. Get yourself prepared. You may need to buy materials for a reward chart, reshuffle your work schedule, create a “time-out” zone or make other environmental changes to the household.

5. Consider monitoring the behaviour. There is no point implementing changes if you are not sure whether they are being effective or not. Changes may be small at first so it may be hard to tell how things are going unless you are watching closely. If you have the time, a diary or spreadsheet can always be useful to refer back to.

Remember to give your strategy or plan of action a decent amount of time to work before re-assessing. If you have been trying for a while and things are still not improving, it’s okay to admit that you are having a temporary setback (but are not defeated!) and to move onto something else.

But look closely at what went wrong before starting something else. Why do you think the strategy didn’t work? Were the expectations too high? Was the strategy too difficult to implement? Or do you think there was something else going on?

If you try too many strategies at once, this planning and assessment process becomes much harder to do.

And, importantly, if you are able to make some significant improvements in your child’s behaviour or mood, it may be tough to figure out what was the thing that helped.

If you can successfully use a reward chart to get Jack to sit at the dinner table and eat all his meal, the same idea might work to encourage him to get ready quickly in the morning.

Although too many strategies can be overwhelming, remember that different strategies may be necessary for different behaviours.

It is often the case that different behaviours can be attributed to different things. Your child may argue about going to bed on time because they are scared of the dark but may come home from swimming classes grumpy and irritable because the teacher doesn’t explain things clearly and they finds it confusing and frustrating.

Each situation may require a very different approach.

So, if you having difficulty with some of your child’s behaviour, try taking a deep breath and doing your best to assess your options.

Many of your friends and family members may give you great advice but it is up to you to decide what you think will work best for your family.

Implementing fewer strategies more effectively not only has the advantage of being more likely to achieve success, it is also more likely to reduce your stress levels and your tendency to become overwhelmed.

When the time comes for you to manage the behaviour, you will know what to do, why you are doing it and that the same approach will be implemented by the other adults in the house.

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