This can be really difficult for parents- in my experience, parents have a very black-and-white view of their children’s behaviour:
They either met the expectations, or they didn’t.
What I’ve noticed is that this tendency to see behaviour as either good or bad with no grey area in between causes a lot of parents to abandon strategies that are actually working really well for them, and their children simply because they aren’t recognizing the progress within that grey area.
Why recognizing your child’s progress can be difficult?
I often liken it to how you don’t really notice the changes in your child’s physical growth day to day.
We’re with them so frequently that it’s not until we measure them or weigh them or compare a photo of them now to a photo of them 6 months ago that we notice oh my they’ve slimmed out, they’ve grown an inch, their hair has gotten darker or lighter, etc.
This is why so many parents post first and last day of school photos because it’s not till you put those photos side by side that you notice the differences!
The same is true of behaviour gains.
We’re with them day in and day out and if your child is hitting and you’ve been working on getting rid of hitting for a long time.
It’s very easy to not see that a month ago they were hitting 4-5 times a day, and now they’re down to once a day because you’re still dealing with the problem.
If we look at it objectively that’s massive progress!
That’s ¼ of the frequency of before.
In any other context that would be celebrated if you got your budget down to ¼ of your previous spending you’d be rejoicing.
If you reduced the amount of time you had to work to ¼ of what you currently work, you’d be overjoyed but when it comes to our children’s behaviour we’ve got this really rigid idea that if we haven’t completely eliminated the behaviour, it’s not working.
At which point they pivot into another strategy which often eliminates your progress and royally confuses the child, making it even harder to get back to where you were.
Recently, the Occuplaytion Therapist on Facebook made a neat post about how new *bad* behaviours are often actually developmentally based, and it got me thinking about this again.
She pointed out that- for instance- blood-curdling screaming when something happens that they don’t like is actually a child realizing that vocalizations can be just as good a defence mechanism as actions are: like hitting or pushing.
This exact scenario comes up frequently in ParentAbility clients will often post that okay, they aren’t being aggressive anymore.
Now they’re yelling, or whining, or crying instead and I have to point out that 1- we need to stop and celebrate that they aren’t physically attacking anyone anymore.
Do you know that Kevin Hart sound that pops up on Instagram and TikTok frequently?
The one where he’s going “wait a minute, you’re not going to speed past that like you didn’t just say what you just said.”
That’s what runs through my brain every time a parent completely throws their achievement under the bus like that. Hold up.
First: let’s give some attention to not hitting anymore!
That’s a huge accomplishment!
For some reason this seems to happen the most with the families whose kids were like, hitting 20-30 times a day.
They’re like yeah, that’s great, but there’s this new thing.
No no, celebrate that win because it is not easy to eliminate physical aggression.
It serves a very specific and important purpose and to reduce or eliminate it is a big DEAL!!!
Then 2- Yelling, whining, crying, those are all much lower-level stress behaviours.
Those are behaviours that aren’t actually impacting anyone other than the child and to go from behaviour that puts others at risk to behaviour that is really just escalated emoting is NO SMALL FEAT and it’s MUCH more manageable.
I had a client ask a question about her son clenching his fists and jaw and kind of hyperventilating through his teeth whenever he got upset.
She said “It’s extremely threatening and scary for me, let alone his siblings or his peers at school and I just feel like nothing we’ve tried has worked and I’m about ready to give up.”
Before answering her I took a little scroll back in her post history and realized that a few months before, we’d be discussing him physically tackling his siblings to the ground, sitting on their torso, and punching them in the head.
Before I answered her I asked is that still happening or has that resolved?
Mom said oh yeah, he hasn’t done that in a few months now. To be fair, when he stopped and switched to this teeth breathing fist clenching thing he does this like maybe a few times a week whereas the tackling was happening multiple times a day. So I guess he is getting better at managing his anger!
YOU THINK?! ABSOLUTELY!
Are you at the end game yet? No, but to go from tackling siblings to the floor to taking deep breaths and clenching his fists in the space of a couple of months is nothing to sniff at!
Yes, we still have some work to do, but first let’s celebrate the progress you’ve already made.
It’s not that nothing is working, it’s just working slowly.
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This should be expected.
I know that parents want quick fixes because these issues are causing you emotional and often physical pain, and you want to end that as quickly as possible.
Modifying behaviour is literally rewiring a brain.
Behaviours are expressions of inner experiences.
It’s how we communicate what we’re feeling and experiencing to those around us.
To change a behaviour, you have to change the experience a child is having, which in turn changes how their brain processes that information.
Think of how long it took for your child to learn to eat solid food, or walk, or speak.
All of that was brain architecture that had to develop and solidify and the same is true of behaviours.
Children develop these maladaptive behaviours because they solve an internal problem in the most straightforward way they can figure out at the time.
It’s only natural that, when we try to modify those behaviours, it’s going to take a while for it to take hold and actually see that progress.
They have to re-learn a new way to solve that problem and for it to become their default habit, vs the old reliable maladaptive behaviour.
It’s going to take time! Generally much more time than you expect it to.
What do I suggest you do if you’re working on specific behaviour and the progress is really slow?
You can use your family calendar, your planner, a frequency counter app on your phone, or whatever feels more natural to you.
Every time the behaviour happens, just put a tick.
When I’m working with children I’ll often create a legend so blue is hitting, red is bolting, green is biting.
Every time it happens I can just put a tick in my planner or on my family calendar in that colour, and at the end of every month it’s easy to sit down and count them up or visually see the progress throughout the month.
Look, the week of the first he was hitting up to 12 times a day.
By the third week of the month that was down to two a day, and here as we enter the new month, he’s having multiple days a week where he’s only hit once.
We’re moving in the right direction!
If there hasn’t been any change over a period of a month, okay we need to revisit this strategy and see what needs to be tweaked to start moving us towards our goal.
Either way, having that frequency data is incredibly helpful and it’s so easy to do!
If you’re in that space where you’ve been addressing a behaviour the same way for a while and you’re not seeing a reduction, and you don’t know what to try next that’s when it’s time to seek some outside support that can look at it objectively and give you suggestions for what to try next.
That’s a BIG part of what we do in ParentAbility.
Everyone in ParentAbility is working on the same things in completely different ways because every child and family is different!
By using this frequency data that I ask my clients to keep, we’re able to see if we’re making progress or not, and therefore whether it’s just slow going or if we need to tweak or troubleshoot something.
Of course, if you’re not ready to jump into ParentAbility with two feet come and join us in the Parenting Posse. We have a great group of mods and a community of over 10 thousand parents ready to talk it through with you.