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A How To and Why, on Kids with Behavior Issues

By Mikki Gaffen-Stone | Mikki is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). She works with kids and teens with special needs that present with behaviors parents would rather they didn’t have. I am also mom to two amazing kids on the Autism Spectrum.

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Hello Moms, Dads, and everyone else! I’m Mikki, and I’ve traveled a long way to get here. My sci-fi author, husband and I have lately settled in Southern Colorado with our five dogs and five cats. We also have five kids between us. The number five seems to be a ‘thing’ for us.
I’m a board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) working with kids and teens with special needs that present with behaviors parents would rather they didn’t have. I am also mom to two amazing kids on the Autism Spectrum. One has now graduated from University with a PhD and the other with a Master’s.

Kids with behavioral issues can be perplexing, frustrating, and exhausting to deal with at times. As can their well-meaning grandparents, onlookers in the store and friends who think they can help by telling you what you ‘need to do’ to get the child’s behavior under control. 

Ugh. 

Have you asked yourself the following questions:

“WHY does he have to yell every time we get to the checkout?”

“I’m so tired, so embarrassed and so over it! WHY is she screaming like a limb fell off when all I said was ‘no’?”

“Nothing I have tried is working, should I listen to the advice of those who say I should spank my child?”

Let’s unpack what is likely going on here from the child’s perspective. 

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Scene 1. The Store

Success breeds success. This works for your child’s behavior just as well as it works to motivate you to keep going with that new exercise routine. 

Let’s set the scene. When you go shopping, your child is either following you around, keeping up, or sitting in a cart, looking at things that she can’t have, touch, or do anything with. this outing takes a long time for her, even if you think you are making a quick trip.

So, you have navigated the aisles, put the items back grabbed by your child and have finally reached the checkout. Oh no! There’s a long line up ahead and a very slow cashier! With a deep sigh, you get in line and wait. Things are good for a minute, maybe two… then it starts… “I want candy!” You reply with a mixed feeling of dread and determination “No, we are having dinner when we get home”. But …. deep breath … “I WANT CANDY!!!” then kicking and yelling begins.

People stare, mutter, give you ‘the look’ and the whole embarrassing situation escalates. Why oh why, does this happen every time you go to the store? Finally, as the line moves slowly forward, your fortitude – and patience – snaps. “Fine, ONE candy bar and that’s IT!” Onlookers “tut” their disapproval as your child gets her candy and just like that, stops screaming. You are annoyed, frustrated, and embarrassed, feeling like you ‘lost’, and your child ‘won’.

 Scene 2. What The Heck Just Happened?

On previous trips to the store, your child may have whined and demanded candy, and just maybe you gave it to him, so you didn’t have to hear the ever-louder whining any more. 

“ARRGGH! MAKE IT STOP!” 

As parents, we may hear more than our fair share of that terrible, nerve shredding sound, and we have all given in at some point. I have yet to find a parent that can honestly say otherwise, present company included. It is natural to want the noise to stop – but for the child, getting candy after whining strongly reinforces the whining! Uh oh.

Yay! It worked!! The child just learned a powerful lesson.

So, what’s coming next? For your child, he has learned by experience that the way to get his needs met in the store is by whining. Access to candy! Score! He may want to eat to alleviate boredom as many of us do, or he may want candy because, well, who doesn’t like chocolate? Either way, the path to candy was via Whining Street. 

To be fair, the stores do very helpfully place the candy at child height, right where you are likely to have to stand the longest. Smart move, storekeepers!

On your next foray to the store, your child is ready. She knows how to get candy AND bonus attention. This time, you have decided to ‘tough it out’ and not give in, no matter what. Yup, we all try this, too. The stage is set for a repeat of the last trip with some extra ‘pep’ thrown in.

Scene 3. Oh no, not again!

Your child has established that whining works. However, this time you don’t ‘give in’ when he expects you to. 

Hmmm. Will he realize you mean it this time and calm down? Ahh if only. 

No. Not happening.

The stakes are high, and your child has all day to do this. This is literally his job after all, to get his needs met. The whining gets louder, kicking you, the cart, the person behind you (oh no!), throwing things, wailing, crying… the child’s entire arsenal may be brought to bear as he ‘ups the ante’ to achieve the goal of access to candy, and of getting the response from you that he knows is possible. Eventually, you realize it just isn’t worth the harrowing experience of trying to get out of the store without extra candy. You buy the candy. You are drained, he is tired now and still cranky. Worse yet, the candy goalposts have moved! Your child has learned that trying harder, louder, and longer will still work. It is very possible that next time, he will jump straight to the “big guns” and skip the preliminary whine altogether.

HELP!!

The answer to your conundrum isn’t an easy one, but it is simple. Take heart though, once you know ‘why’ each step is helpful, you are more likely to be successful. So here we go with some quick tips:

Tip #1 – set expectations.

Tell your child what the shopping trip will be like (which store / how long / what you are buying). For example, “we’ll buy food for dinner and then come home”. The idea is to let them know what’s happening as simply as possible. Avoid long explanations and abstract concepts such as time. He/she probably does not know what 20 minutes feels like.

Tip #2 – use a simple timetable.

Using a simple timetable of ‘first / then’ can be helpful for the child to understand what’s happening next, especially very young children. For example, “First we go to the store and buy food for dinner, then we go to see Grandma”.

Tip #3 – set BOTH of you up for success.

Children tend to do better when they know what is expected. “I want you to help put [the items] in the cart. I bet you can do that carefully, too!” Simply tell your child what you expect him/her to do, and in a way that sounds like you fully anticipate his cooperation. Remember to reinforce with lots of specific praise. “Great job putting the tomatoes in the cart! You were so careful!” Chances are, your child will be so proud of themselves, they might even forget about the candy this time.

Tip # 4- Follow through consistently.

This last tip is hugely important for setting and maintaining boundaries, and not just in the store.

Try not to say anything that you won’t or can’t follow through on. Consequences need to be considered carefully. Consequences are a result of the behavior and can be something the child wants, or they can be something you know the child would prefer to avoid. Either way, the chosen consequence needs to be fair, somehow linked to the behavior so that it makes sense to the child, and reliable. Not doing what you said you will do, teaches your child that you don’t mean what you say, and there is no need to listen once he/she has learned that lesson. Consistency from parents and caregivers provides structure for the child, and a sense of security. 

Did the story resonate with you? Hopefully, the tips will too. Let me know what other parenting subjects are important to you. I’d love to tell you how to cure teen whining with Monty Python renditions…

Until next time!


Photo of the author, Mikki Gaffen-Stone, a certified behavior analyst.
Mikki Gaffen-Stone

Mikki Gaffen-Stone, BCBA, Author

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