On Linky Monday a couple of weeks ago I posted about my son, Ben’s, Star Chart, which was part of a reward and sanction scheme devised to help him identify and manage some negative aspects of his behaviour. The targets on the Star Chart were specific to behaviour in school, but obviously the frustrations and stresses implied by Ben’s autism and ADHD were not restricted to school, and neither were the behaviours arising from those frustrations and stresses. Ben was, putting it bluntly, ‘a bit of a handful’, and as a single parent I spent much of my time in a state of total exhaustion, grabbing a few precious hours of sleep in the two-hour windows of opportunity that Ben’s hyperactive into-bed-out-of-bed night-time sleeping patterns afforded me.
Having worked in the care industry for many years supporting learning-disabled adults, many of whom were on the autistic spectrum, and having played a key role in developing strategies and care plans for an autistic nephew I thought I was well qualified to manage my son’s behaviours. As Ben got older, however, and started developing theory of mind – along with all the challenging behaviours accompanying it – it became painfully evident that however confident I felt about my abilities in ‘talking the talk and walking the walk’, Ben wasn’t listening or walking with me. He was mostly, in fact, cocking a deaf ‘un and pulling with all his might in the opposite direction.
Like many parents of children with behavioural issues I struggled with the idea that my parenting could be a factor, and with Ben’s twin diagnosis it was sometimes easy to convince myself that the causes in Ben’s case were unique, and that this was the reason he did not respond to my attempts to calm or control him. I knew that I was good at what I did from my work and from my interactions with other people’s children, and I would argue this whenever I faced a consultant suggesting behavioural management strategies that I had already tried and convinced myself were unworkable for us. I was often at loggerheads with the professionals offering me advice, and over time came to feel that they were blaming me, or Ben, or both of us for things that were beyond our control…
Shortly after Ben’s third Birthday we moved into a new house. This followed years of uncertainty and was our sixth home since Ben’s birth. I was determined that the new home would also mean a new start, and that we would tackle some of the behavioural issues that had marred our first three years. Taking a good, hard look at myself as well as Ben I realised that the one thing I had failed to factor into the equation was the intimacy of our relationship, and the way in which my overwhelming love for him was actually contributing to the problems we were having. Our situation was complex and there were all sorts of additional pressures impacting on our lives that I had no control over, and I realised that I was often guilty of over-compensating for these negatives and allowing Ben to ‘get away’ with behaviours that I wouldn’t normally condone in other children. I was so keen to be Ben’s Best Friend Forever that I was failing to deliver on the other things he needed, like consistency and direction. I was trying to be his moral compass, but failing miserably in offering him any kind of reliable true north.
The move and the fresh start coincided with us starting to attend a new play/support group (Ben’s autism had recently been diagnosed), and it was here that I heard about a behavioural management programme called 1-2-3 Magic. I’ll admit that I was sceptical at first, but the ‘guest speaker’ telling us about the programme was another parent from the group who had bought the book by chance rather than someone with a financial interest in the programme, and this was enough to hold my attention. I heard several things at that meeting that made perfect sense, and they have underpinned every intervention I’ve developed for Ben ever since:
- Small children are not reasonable or rational. It is a waste of breath trying to negotiate, reason or rationalise with them, especially over instructions with which they are determined not to comply.
- Small children lack the emotional understanding and control to act consistently. Parents cannot expect children to behave consistently without offering them clear, consistent and concrete definitions of what is expected of them. Anything less will just add to the child’s confusion.
- Children are children, not little adults. If they were capable of making the ‘right’ choices and taking the ‘right’ decisions for themselves they would not need parents in the first place. They need our guidance, support and love to realise their full potential. This means saying no when necessary as well as saying yes, even when we feel mean and they feel challenged.
1-2-3 Magic has been around for years now and still gets great reviews on Amazon. There’s not really any ‘Magic’ involved at all: once you get into it it’s just good, old-fashioned effective parenting advice – exactly the same stuff you see demonstrated on all the ‘Super Nanny’ shows etc. The 1-2-3 part comes from the fact that you give your child two warnings (Literally, ‘right, this is your first warning…’, ‘…this is your second warning…’) before delivering on a sanction if you reach 3.
- The key is consistency – when you tell your child ‘stop’ or ‘no’ you mean it, and your child knows there will be a consequence if he or she fails to respond to the request.
- Do NOT negotiate. Ever. Do not get drawn into arguments of the ‘so not fair’ variety. Silence is golden.
- Concrete sanctions – whether they be loss of privileges or ‘Time Out’ on the naughty step – are always delivered, and they are always relevant and undesirable to the child (i.e. it is totally pointless ‘punishing’ a child by sending him or her to the bedroom if he or she can just sit there for ten minutes watching telly or reading comics or engaging in some other pleasant activity. If your kid’s really into gaming, loss of console time is an excellent sanction!).
- If the child fights the sanction it becomes extended by whatever time they spend fighting and arguing. If you have, for example, set a sanction of four minutes on the ‘naughty step’ (naughty step rule of thumb is one minute for each birthday), then however much the kid kicks off they will have to sit there for a full four minutes before being allowed off the naughty step. That could take twenty minutes first time round, but the child will be very reluctant to repeat the process once they realise you mean business.
- Don’t ‘reward’ compliance other than with praise. Effectively, giving a child a treat after delivering a sanction is the same as rewarding the negative behaviour that led to the sanction.
Erm… there’s probably loads more, but this blog is already over 1000 words and I’m a bit pushed for time! A couple of final observations:
1-2-3- Magic works. Honestly. It can’t, though, if the boundaries aren’t clear, the sanctions aren’t meaningful or followed through or if they are delivered inconsistently.
The ‘naughty step’ rule of thumb mentioned above is a good one, but it was one I had to bend for Ben initially because he had no concept of time. We didn’t have a naughty step as such, but I would put Ben in the hall and hold the door closed while I loudly counted to sixty (1 minute). Ben would be kicking and pounding on the other side of the door, but every time he did we would start the count again. Once Ben could ‘do’ the minute I increased the sanction to 2 x 60, then 3 x 60… The new sanctions were always explained and discussed with Ben in advance (usually during our ‘Golden Time’) so he knew what the expectations were beforehand.
1-2-3 Magic benefited Ben at least as much as it did me. As I have said, his early years were quite unsettled and this was compounded by his autism, which made negotiating the ‘grey areas’ (inconsistencies, challenges, rules and regulations) of life much harder. 1-2-3 Magic removed many of those greys and replaced them with certainties. He and I were both very much happier for it.
Though it might read like it this is NOT a sponsored post! I, just like the mum who recommended it to me, am just a parent who struggled with a ‘bit-of-a-handful’ kid and was really grateful to find some practical advice that helped. The hardest part in some ways was having to come to terms with the fact that I turned out not to be the great, intuitive parent I always thought I would be…