Sometimes when a child misbehaves, she’s trying to get attention from a parent. Other times, she wants a particular object, like a toy. Even though the tantrums may be the same, the difference in the reasons behind the tantrums are very important. A child who acts out to obtain something tangible should be dealt with differently than a child who acts out to get your attention.
(Incidentally, the official classification of this behavior is called “socially mediated positive reinforcement.” We’ve written before about the different functions of behavior in this post here.)
Let’s explore what parents can do to handle these situations.
Preventing the Meltdown
The good news is that problem behavior from a child trying to gain a tangible object is usually more predictable than other types of misbehavior. For example, if you take your child to the toy store to buy a gift for a friend, you know your child’s going to want a toy, too. In the checkout aisle at the grocery store, chances are pretty darn good your child will ask for candy.
This gives you an advantage because you can treat the behavior preventively. Before you enter the toy store, tell your child ahead of time that he can pick out one small toy from the counter, which are often lower priced. Or consider making the trip to the toy store without your child altogether. In the checkout aisle at the grocery store, distract your child by making funny faces, let him listen to music on headphones, or give him your smartphone to watch videos.
Establishing consistent rules and clear expectations is important. And also remember that fair is fair. In the checkout aisle, don’t grab a candy bar for yourself but refuse one for your child. If your child can’t use electronic devices at the dinner table, then you need to put your phone away, too.
Tips on Saying No
Misbehavior to gain tangible objects has a lot do with the way you say no. After all, hearing “No” from you is often what triggers the behavior in the first place.
As much as you might wish you could stop tantrums by never saying no again, this is an important part of your role as a parent. And sometimes “no” just means a different choice. Your child might not have the language and skills to grasp this at first, so it’s up to you and your child’s caregivers and educators to gently but consistently teach this.
Here are three ways to constructively say no:
1. Give a time frame. Try saying, “It’s not time for [object] now, but you can have it when the clock says 2:00.”
2. Present an alternative. “You can’t have that, but you can have X or Y.” Limit the choice to two items only to keep the decision simple.
3. Make it contingent. “You can’t have that now, but you can have it after you clear your dishes from the table.”
Just as with any skill, practice makes perfect. It’s helpful to start with low-stakes situations. You and your child won’t get it right every time, but with practice, you’ll both improve the way you deal with no.
Don’t Forget Yes!
Just as “no” is important, you also need chances to say yes – otherwise you risk falling into a series of power struggles.
Look for situations where it’s easier to say yes, and make sure you include them in your regular routine: for example, a trip to the dollar store, a walk along the river where your child can gather as many rocks as she can hold, or making healthy snacks together.
Reacting to Misbehavior
Even the most proactive strategies won’t prevent all of your child’s meltdowns. When this happens (and it will), your response must be immediate and you must follow-through. Long-term consequences, such as saying, “No dessert tonight,” simply won’t provide the impact that your child needs to curtail his behavior in the future.
For example, if your child has a tantrum because he wants his toys, the toy room is locked immediately. If your child melts down over candy at the convenience store, you both must leave the store immediately.
We understand that swift and impactful consequences can be heartbreaking. They can also be terribly inconvenient. But stick with it! Clear consequences and consistent follow-through are critical.
Interested in learning additional strategies for parenting a child with autism? Read these blog posts on dealing with challenging behavior.