Tag Archives: oppositional behavior

Young Children, Sensory Modulation, and the Automatic “NO!”

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Kids as young as 18 months can express their sensory processing issues with one word: “NO!!”  What appears to be a budding attitude issue or even oppositional defiant disorder can be a sensory modulation issue instead.

How could you possibly tell?

Well, if your child has already been diagnosed with sensory sensitivity or sensory modulation problems, you know that they won’t just make it harder to wear clothes with seams or touch Play-Doh.  These issues affect all aspects of daily living and create emotional regulation and biological over-activation issues as well.  Young children are learning how to express their opinions and separate physically and emotionally from their caregivers.  Saying “NO!” isn’t unusual for young kids (and a lot of older ones too!).  But refusals that make no sense can have a different origin.

So what is the giveaway?

When a child has an almost immediate “NO”, perhaps even before you have finished your sentence, and the reaction is to something you know they have liked or almost certainly would like, you have to suspect that sensory modulation is at play.  You should know when your child is trying to get your attention or get you activated.  This should feel different.

What do I do next?

You also need to respond in a specific way to test your theory.  Your response should be as vocally neutral and emotionally curious as you can manage.   “Oh, really….you said no…” is a good template.  Whether it is “no” to their fave food, show, toy or activity.  You remove all criticism and encouragement from your voice.  You don’t want to fuel the refusal fire; you want to shut it off and see what is left in the embers of “NO”.

Now you need to wait for them to neurologically calm down.  Little brains are like old computers.  They take a while to reboot.  Look at the floor, wipe your hands, etc and wait a minimum of 15 seconds, probably 30, to ask again if they want a cookie, to go out, to play, to eat, or whatever.  The child who needed their primitive part of the brain that responds defensively to go offline and then use their frontal lobes may ask for what they just refused, or respond to your exactly identical request with a cheery “YES”.

Please try to have compassion for them.

It can seem maddening to do this all day long, and in truth, if you are, you need to learn how to work with an OTR to learn sensory treatment strategies that have some power to rewire the brain and get out of this pattern.  But your child isn’t jerking your chain when their behavior fits this pattern.  They are almost a captive of their brain wiring.   Don’t let yourself react as if they are intentionally being difficult.  That day will come…..

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Defiant Kids Can Change With Dr. Kazdin’s Simple Plans

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Dr. Alan Kazdin wrote “The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child” in 2008. His follow-up book, “The Everyday Parent Toolkit” came later.   He is the director of the Yale Parenting Center, and he has seen some hardcore kids.  You do not get the feeling that he has treated a lot of children younger than 2, and based on the techniques he uses, it seems like a child would need more cognition and language than a young toddler to respond well without adaptations.   Not a problem: Dr. Karp created the Happiest Toddler on the Block, and he has done a great job dealing with defiant 18-month-olds.   Read Why Telling Your Child “It’s OK” Doesn’t Calm Him Down (And What To Do Instead) and  Toddler Demands? Give it in Fantasy! for some good strategies that work.  if you r preschool child has already lobbed some hateful statements at you, read What To Say When Your Child Says “I Hate You!” .  But if your kindergartener refuses to go to bed or your teenager won’t do her homework, this Kazdin guy has really helpful ideas for you!

Dr. Alan Kazdin’s books can change the dynamic for families that feel their life is one battle after another.  If you have embraced the idea that you can target defiance through behavioral science, then he is already preaching to your choir. If not, you might be wary. The funny thing is, when you are using the program, it doesn’t feel that much like science.  You feel like you are connecting with your child’s better nature.  He has crafted strategies that really work.  The biggest drawback is that if you make too many beginner mistakes it will seem as if it is never going to work.  I recommend that parents actually read the books and understand the principles he is using to change a child’s behavior.  This is one of those techniques that you can’t learn in a 900-word article in a magazine.  You might be inspired in a short article, but you won’t learn enough to “take it on the road” and really use it.

Bonus:  understanding a child’s behavior helps us understand the impact of rewards and consequences on our bosses, our mates and on ourselves!

I liked his first book, but I don’t think it took off in parenting circles.   I am going to guess that his first book was a little intimidating for some parents, as it does a very thorough job of explaining how behavioral plans work.  Not every parent wants to think of their star chart in terms like “positive reinforcers” and letting go of the chart as “extinction of reinforcers with intermittent rewards”.  His second book, “The Everyday Parent Toolkit” is a little more user-friendly, but still gets his message across.  The truth is that all of our interactions can be viewed through a behavioral lens.  When a child is refusing to do their homework, telling you that you are the worst parent ever, and then breaking the lamp, it might be time to explore a strategy that takes out some of the drama and focuses on how you really want your evening to go.

Dr. Kazdin is very focused on positive interactions and warm exchanges. He is aware that adult stressors make reacting calmly to a screaming child harder, and screaming children create stress for adults.  He has sympathy for everyone, but sees parents as the agent of change in this situation.  He is like the white-coated scientist with a “Mr. Rogers” sweater on underneath!

My suggestion:  read both books and think about how to start out small.  Attack a small problem behavior first, then refine your approach as you address some of the bigger defiant behaviors.  And consider reading “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” if your child has a cognitive age of less than 6.  Many of those techniques will be even easier to implement and work very well to smooth out the waters so that Kazdin’s techniques work better and faster!

Not sure you want to do this alone?  Visit my website tranquil babies and purchase a consultation session.  I do phone sessions with parents to help them craft a plan and provide support along the way.  Being able to ask questions and tell your story can make such a difference in how you see your child and yourself!

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