Dr. James MacDonald 332 Mimring Columbus, Ohio 43202 Phone/Fax 614 447-0768 macdonaldj86@gmail.com

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How to Communicate when my child is acting: Physically or Socially verbally abusive, Overly negative or Inappropriate

The problems: Many children show more negative behavior when they get your attention for it.

Many parents feel they need to talk to a child who acts badly, either to punish them, or reason with them or teach them how to behave.

These parents often do not realize that their talking is a powerful reinforcer (reward) that will increase the child's undesirable behaviors.

Remember: Talking to a child after he misbehaves is much like:

  1. Giving him a $20 dollar bill for each misbehavior.
  2. Giving candy to a diabetic child.
  3. Teaching him to expect the world to reward his bad behaviors.

So, when you think you are getting rid of the behavior, you may be doing just what will increase it and make it worse.

Example: John is a 5-year-old boy who began to talk at 3 ½ years of age. His parents worried he would never talk. Now, they attend to everything he says, and at this point most of his talk is loud demands, abusive criticisms, and angry resistances, along with hitting, spitting, and destroying things.

John's mother reported the following dialog at the Zoo recently:

"I want to see the elephants."
"Okay; we're on our way."
"I want the elephants (louder)."
"That's where we're going."
(Even louder), "Elephants--I want to see the elephants!"
"Honey, I told you that's where we're going--just be patient."
(Yelling), "Elephants--where are the elephants--screams."
"There's no need to scream, we're almost there."
"I can't see the elephants." (Starts hitting mom and screaming)."
"We won't get there any faster if you get mad."
"Elephants, elephants, where are they?"
"Stop, I've got a headache."
"Where are the elephants?"
We're almost there.
I don't see them
Over there -- don't you see them?
I can't see them. (Drops to ground crying.)
Stop crying or we'll go home.
(Screams more.)
(Picks John up and carries him to the elephants)
No, I want to see the monkeys

When John's mother related this story, 1 asked why she kept responding to him. She said she thought she should always respond so he would keep talking. She didn't want to discourage him since they waited so long for him to talk. She also thought she needed to explain that, indeed, he was going to get what he wanted. Then she began talking to him to threaten him. Finally, she gave in entirely and took him to the elephants, at which time he was in such a negative state that he demanded something else.John's mother also said that everything was becoming a fight; getting dressed, eating, brushing teeth, going to bed, shopping, and playing with his baby brother. She admitted that she, her husband, and their parents, who lived close, all felt they had an obligation to respond to anything John said, however offensive it was.

I told John's mother that many parents I knew have had considerable success by ignoring their child's negative behaviors. She responded by saying "I can’t ignore it--he just keeps it up." But she had to admit that she had not tried to ignore the boy. I realized that after worrying so long about John's learning to talk, she could not emotionally allow herself to not respond to him. She deeply believed that ignoring him would hurt him and perhaps even make him not talk again.

I demonstrated how to ignore and turn away from John when he was abusive, and his mother saw that John cut down his negative behaviors with me, but that he also came back to me to talk in positive, appropriate ways. I showed her that when I attended to his positive talk, he did more of it and that my ignoring his negative talk did not drive him away from me. In fact, he kept coming back to play and talk with me in increasingly appropriate and playful ways.

Realizing that ignoring John was going to be very hard for her, we discussed her belief that "ignoring was bad for John," and that she could successfully talk him out of being bad. Then, I asked her to make a couple pictures in her mind when John was nasty, negative, or inappropriate. The first image was that every word she said was a $20 dollar bill, and that the more she talked, the richer John got. Another image I encouraged was to pretend John was a severe diabetic when he was nasty, and that every word was a piece of candy. Then she could see that talking to him when he was nasty was like paying him money for it and like giving candy to make a sick child sicker.

Follow-up: John's mother, Jody, called me to say she and her husband, Andy, tried the suggestions--the first day was rough, then John got the idea that certain behaviors would lose just the attention he craved. After four days of sticking to it, Jody called to say John's most common phrase now was: "Don't ignore me, talk to me. "We hope he keeps getting the idea. What is it? Adults who use a directive, controlling style with their child may inhibit the child from learning to control himself and encourage the child to be passive and expect others to do his life work for him. While every child must learn to do as others do, children must also learn how to direct and control their own behavior. Many children with delayed language have good ideas, yet they rarely get to show what they know because adults over-manage them. Next time you think about using commands or questions with a child, consider watching him and waiting to see what he might do. You might be surprised at what you find out. Ask yourself "Is the way I am talking showing my child how next to communicate?"

Whenever possible, comment more than you question or command. Avoid corrections or discour- do about it aging feedback. Avoid using questions to test the child. Instead, do and say something which you think will interest the child. Then, wait and see what he does. Give the child the freedom to do or say what he wants on his turn and then decide if he needs direction from you.


Dr. James MacDonald 332 Mimring Columbus, Ohio 43202 Phone/Fax (614)447-0768 macdonaldj86@gmail.com