How to Reduce Inappropriate Behavior
All too often distraught parents ask, “But Doctor, what do I do when . . .?”
. . . three-year-old Justine has a tantrum every time I insist she take my hand while walking in a parking lot?
. . . six-year-old Kaleb grabs for things off shelves in the supermarket and then whines loudly when I don’t let him keep what he takes?
As common as they are, such situations and concerns require more than simple advice to take specific steps. Because of that, I have stressed here the development of an overall approach to proactively teaching children to assume responsibility for their own behavior.
As you know all too well, while that long-term maturational process is taking effect there are times when behaviors are so unacceptable they simply cannot be ignored and adults must intervene at once.
A word of caution: the title of this chapter may directly attract the attention of parents with children whose behavior is especially distressing. While the manner of dealing with challenging children discussed below is powerful, it can be fully effective only when accompanied by consistent positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior and by the withholding of parental response to inappropriate behavior.
Misconceptions about A Powerful Tool
Time-out is a widely used and almost as widely abused tool of discipline that serves as a powerful tool when used properly. Even if you personally have had or have observed poor results with time-out, I hope that you will read on with an open mind, since here you are likely to find concepts that are quite different from those you have heard or read before. You will learn how to bring the full power of time-out to bear on your overall efforts to teach your child responsible behavior.
Time-out is a decades-old technique that has been applied in a variety of settings by parents, teachers, and many others. While the evidence is strong that it is the most effective tool available to interrupt and eliminate inappropriate behavior, not all applications have proven successful. In fact, time-out has been so widely misused that it often has been turned into just another form of punishment with all those unfortunate implications.
In the 1960’s, investigative reporters discovered that the staff of a facility for mentally retarded individuals had cut flaps for doors in large packing crates and used them to isolate uncooperative patients, sometimes for hours at a stretch, justifying this abuse as “time-out.”
Such reports tainted the whole concept, but with new guidelines to curtail abuse, the approach prevailed and remains in everyday use. Still, it is common to hear parents and other child-care workers threaten children with remarks like, “If you don’t stop that and behave, you’re going to time-out!” Such threats by their nature distort the time-out approach and throw the whole notion into a punitive context. Here I will discuss what it takes to get the best from this very important tool.