Tag Archives: routines and limit setting in toddlers

Address A Child’s Defiance Without Crushing Their Spirit

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Kids that defy adult instructions, even instructions that are ultimately for their benefit, often get begged or threatened into compliance.  Pleading with your child to pick up their mess, or threatening your child that those toys on the floor will be given to a charity shop isn’t always going to work.

Why? Probably because your child is waiting you out.  Children are wise observers of what works and what doesn’t, so they know you will eventually clean things up and they are fully aware that toys never disappear after a threat.

If you are tired of pleading and threatening, I have a strategy that could make you less aggravated and even ultimately boost your child’s self-esteem.  It works best with children that have at least a 30-month cognitive and language level.  This means that if you have an older developmentally delayed child that is unable to comprehend a request with a reward attached (“If you give me the shoe, I will get your milk”) then you should try a less complex strategy until they can understand this concept.

The idea is simple:  you make a request and if no response is elicited, you explain that they have a choice.  Not complying will result in a consequence they can see.  After the consequence is imposed, you offer the child another chance to make things right by following a slightly different direction or offering a “re-do”.  There is no “1-2-3” counting, because if you are certain that your child has understood your initial request and the explanation of the consequence, those were already the “one” and the two” of the countdown.  Your execution of the consequence is the “three”.  Good enough for me!

The trickiest parts of this strategy are the maintenance of a warm tone while your beloved child is defying you, and your quick thinking to identify a later task that allows them to save face while complying with your second request.  Do not think I haven’t had to act warm and friendly when inviting a difficult child to give participation another try.  I remind myself that I am the adult in the situation, and my job is to model calmness and teach skills, not get the upper hand on a 4 year-old.

I have also made up some pointless tasks such as rearranging boxes on a shelf, just to have an easy and successful task to offer them after the first consequence is delivered.  The younger the child, the less they will realize that Job #2 was only a chance for them to know that I am not rejecting them in any way.   I could say it, but actions speak louder than words.

Here is what this strategy looks like with a young child:

Adult:  “Please pick up all the cars, and then we can go have our yummy lunch.”

Child:   Looks at you, shakes her head and runs to the fridge. 

Adult:  ” Here is your choice:  pick up your cars and put them in the bin, or they will sit in their bin on top of the fridge until after dinner.”  Adult points to the fridge and/or taps the top to clarify what that means.

Child:   Gets a spoon from a drawer and stands by the fridge, no acknowledgment of your  directions.

Adult:  Uses The Happiest Toddler Kind Ignoring strategy and turns away from the child and waits next to the car pile for about 15 seconds for a positive response.  If the child doesn’t return, the adult puts the cars into the bin without more discussion, and places the bin on top of the fridge.

Child:  Cries, recognizing that a consequence has been delivered.

Adult:  Uses a disappointed but calm tone :  “I am sad too, because now we have to wait to play cars.” Adult’s body language and tone brightens. “Would you like to try listening again?  Please give me the blocks and I will stack them.”  Adult begins to stack very slowly to allow the child to consider her choice, and warmly welcomes the child’s help.

Child:   Begins to hand blocks to the adult.

Adult:  “You did a great job helping me!  Thank you!  Let’s go have our lunch!”

This can go south with strong-willed children, tired children and even some hungry children. I don’t recommend letting kids get super-tired or starving and then setting them up to lose.   Some kids are feeling great, but they draw a line in the sand and decide that they aren’t budging.  They won’t back down.  I express my disappointment in the outcome (no car play) but not in the child.  I don’t tell them I am disappointed in their behavior, because for a young child, they may not always be able to distinguish themselves from their behavior.  They will always be able to see the result: no cars.

I keep calm and impose consequences unless things go from defiance to aggression.  Then I consider a time-out strategy.  Aggression should never be ignored, because that is as good as approving of aggression.  In this age of zero-tolerance in schools, no one is doing any favors to a child by inadvertently teaching them that aggressive behavior is inconsequential.  They will find out soon enough that other people feel very differently about it.

Young kids will defy you.  I guarantee it.  Responding to defiance with limit setting doesn’t have to damage them or your connection with them.   Addressing defiance in this way can build a more positive relationship while making it very clear that there are consequences to not listening to you.

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Self-Regulation in Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder: Boost Skills By Creating Routines and Limits

Occupational therapists are routinely asked to help young children that have poor self-regulation or modulation skills.  What do difficulties regulating alertness and arousal look like in a very little person?  Big shifts in excitement/agitation over seemingly minor events, sleep that isn’t very deep or very long for their age, and difficulty switching between locations/activities.  Often these kids are edgy/easily agitated, but they can also be lethargic and difficult to energize as well.  Poor self-regulation includes both ends of the energy spectrum.  Parents are usually more frustrated with the edgy kids than the lethargic kids, and some children will start the day lethargic but end up too agitated to sleep at night.  Their parents struggle to get even one day a week without tantrums and arguments.  They will say to me “He just falls apart over nothing!”

Big issues like autism and sensory processing disorder will often make self-regulation a daily challenge.  Children with language delays can be so frustrated with communicating that they live “on the edge” every day.  And children who have medical issues like sleep apnea, digestive or respiratory problems, or those who live in physically or emotionally unstable homes often have difficulty with self-calming.  This post’s intent is not to explain the origins or the mechanisms of self-regulation issues (post a comment if you would like to hear more on those aspects!), but to share the value of daily routines and limits for these kids.

Daily routines can be general (breakfast is always followed by brushing teeth and getting dressed) or specific (after you get dressed, you will get a chance to watch your favorite YouTube video once, and then you get milk in the Paw Patrol cup.)  The reason that routines are so helpful is that children for whom communication and calmness are hard-won experiences can have an expectation of what will be happening to them next.  They may be too agitated or too distracted to listen to our words as we explain the day’s events.  Anticipating routines supports improved attention and communication skills.  It doesn’t take the place of better speech skills, it allows them to use the skills they cannot access when upset.  Knowing their daily routines gives them the reassurance of “what” and “why”  in a world that can be confusing.  Calmer and more confident children are able to pay attention, process thought and language, and respond more effectively.

Healthy routines are not burdens, and routines do not stifle a child’s mind or soul unless they are completely rigid.  Think of daily routines as a slightly flexible scaffold to support all the challenges of the day.  A positive routine allows enough calmness for reflective thinking and listening when those little frustrations or changes come along.

Setting limits is equally beneficial for children with modulation issues.  They don’t always  look happy to know that cookies are after a meal, not before, but knowing that there is structure to their existence helps very young children feel safer and actually more in control-of themselves!  The job of children throughout childhood is to test limits and gradually develop an internal set of behaviors and values.  Children need to know what is expected of them and they develop pride in their ability to behave according to their family’s values and goals.

Rigidity and harshness are not the same as limit setting.  Limits on aggression and destructiveness are especially helpful to develop control over impulses without shaming the child.  Being able to express a feeling without acting on that feeling is a big skill, but it gives permission to have those feelings without punishment.  Setting limits may result in consequences for actions but not for emotions.  I won’t be shamed for wanting that truck and not wanting to share mine, but I am not allowed to grab your truck and run away with it without a consequence.

In my professional experience, using routines and setting limits effectively has been at least as effective as all the neuro-sensory techniques I know to address modulation issues.  For the children that do not have developmental delays, they can be very effective on their own.  For the kids with autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, it super-charges every OT treatment I use.  Needing to know how to create healthy routines and set appropriate and effective limits led me to learn The Happiest Toddler on the Block techniques.  Now I teach these techniques to any parent that struggles with these issues, then sit back and watch the peacefulness start to spread in their home!