November 18, 2017

The Punishment Spiral (and how to get out of it)

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courtesy of freedigitalphoto.com

How it starts… a familiar story?

Your child does something you’ve told him not to do. In fact, you’ve him not to do this thing many times before.  Frustrated, you snap at your child “how many times do I have to tell you?!  Cut that out!!”  Maybe you ground them for a year… because time out and losing video game privileges hasn’t helped.  Maybe you start ranting like a crazy person about how the child is irresponsible, disrespectful, etc.  Maybe you even engage in corporal punishment with a spanking.  Then, you look at yourself and how you are acting.  You realize that should things go any further, there’s going to be a visit from child protective services in your near future.  Your kid is in all likelihood experiencing a full on meltdown by this stage.  You are too.  You feel helpless to get your child to listen and you don’t know what else to do.

Welcome to the punishment spiral.  As a parent, I’ve been there…. more than once.  In fact, it’s at this stage that many parents seek out my counseling services.  They’ve gotten stuck in a repeating cycle of punishing “bad behaviors”, the child getting “used” to the punishment, and then having to escalate the punishments to maintain their effectiveness.  The end result, like those Bugs Bunny cartoons where he and Marvin Martian get bigger and bigger weapons until they are ready to blow up the moon with their planet busting bombs, is that things get quickly out of control.  Thankfully, with a little knowledge and planning, this situation can be changed for the better.

Punishment vs reinforcement

First off, it’s important to note the difference between punishment and reinforcement.  From a technical point of view, punishment is anything that happens after a behavior that decreases the chances of seeing that behavior in the future.  Reinforcement is anything that happens after a behavior that increases the chances of seeing that behavior in the future.  Thus, for practical purposes, when you deliver a consequence with the goal of trying to get your child to stop or decrease a behavior you are technically punishing him.  This also means that your intent is less important than the outcome.  You might intend something to be reinforcing or but unless it increases the behavior it is not a reinforce.  Also, if it goes so far as to decrease a behavior, your reinforcer is actually a punisher.

Here’s the thing bout punishment.

  • It works, and it tends to work fast.
  •  It’s also the cultural norm in western society.

However, there is a cost to using punishers.

  • They tend to leave both the person delivering the punishment and the person receiving it feeling poorly.
  • Over use of punishers strains and damages relationships.
  • They only teach a child what not to do in a specific situation…. thus you need to punish every possible behavior that you don’t want to see if you go strictly with punishment as a consequence.
  • Punishment only works when the threat of punishment is imminent (the child knows they will get caught right then).
  •  Finally, kids tend to get used to punishment so they lose effectiveness over time.  This leads to the need to escalate punishments. Over time, this can quickly get out of hand, leading to a punishment spiral.

Personally, I tend to prefer using reinforcement strategies when I deliver consequences.

  • Reinforcers really teach your child what you want them to do and thus eliminate most other possible outcomes you don’t want to see.
  •  For example, I can punish my child every time he hits.  He might stop hitting, but he can kick,he can bite, etc.  If I teach my child to use gentle hands and feet or something along those lines…I’m focusing on rewarding the behavior I want to see and this basically gives no incentive to engage in all those other negative behaviors.
  •  Giving rewards ends to make the recipients feel more kindly and connected to you.
  • The downside with reinforcement strategies is that they often take a little bit longer and require a little more finesse.  You might have to teach a behavior or skill as you start to reinforce it.
  • You have to stop reinforcing the negative behaviors… and this might mean changing parenting tactics.

 

Also, a lot of parents often feel that reinforcement strategies look a lot like bribery.  The thing is, bribery is a money given to someone as an incentive to engage in illegal or illicit behavior.  It’s given BEFORE the behavior (so is not reinforcement) and I don’t know about you, but I’m not rewarding my kids for doing illegal and illicit things. Just keep the big picture in mind.  We want our kids to learn how to behave “properly.”  If a system of rewards will help them be motivated to behave, then that’s a good thing.  Over time, extrinsic rewards (money, toys, food, etc.) give way to intrinsic rewards (praise, doing it because it’s the right thing to do and it feels good) as the child grows and matures.

Break the cycle… Competency Based Parenting

What to do if you find yourself in a punishment spiral with your kids?  How do you get them to listen without killing a child?  First, take a deep breath.  Second, it’s simply time for a reset.  Look at the behavior and try to figure out what your child is getting from it.  Whatever that is, we need to provide that to your child, but only for displaying the behavior you want to see.  Once you’ve figured that out, you need to set the stage to elicit and reward those desired behaviors.

There are some assumptions that go along with this.

  • First, if your child is struggling with behaviors around certain items or activities (I often hear this in reference to computers and video games) then he is not competent or ready to handle the responsibility and privilege for access to that item or activity.  Access needs to be eliminated or cut back to something more manageable until your child has demonstrated the skills and competency to handle that situation.

 

  • The next assumption is that you, as a parent, have everything that the child wants and the child has absolutely nothing you want (thank you to Terry Levy and Michael Orlans for that concept!).  This means that everything you child takes as a given (video games, TV, etc..) is a privilege you ALLOW them.  That xbox isn’t your child’s…you paid for it.  You paid for the electricity to run it.  You pay for the wifi for it to connect to the internet.  When your child gets to play it… it’s because you are choosing to let them do it.

 

  • Your child should only have access to privileges that they have demonstrated the ability to manage.  So, if your child won’t do their chores because they are busy playing video games or get irritable or angry and act out around access to video games, then they are clearly not ready to handle the responsibility of video games.

 

So, to avoid going into a punishment spiral (which often starts with taking away “stuff” after kid acts out), we simply restrict access to activities to only those things the child can manage.  Give the child access to a limited number of activities and then as the child demonstrates responsible behavior over time (weeks and months… not hours and days), gradually add more privileges.

  • Add privileges slowly.  For example, don’t just give free access to the video games.  Maybe give them 10 minutes a day to a select few games (if they do their chores and get homework done).
  • Do not add privileges until you, as a parent, are dead certain your child will be able to manage it responsibly.
  • Don’t let your child guilt you with the “my friends get to do it” card. Your child is not his or her friends.
  • Your child will hate this at first, but will generally show improved behaviors very quickly under these boundaries.
  • By focusing on earning privileges for demonstrating positive behaviors and adding privileges slowly… you focus on looking for positive behaviors, rewarding instead of punishing, and you are teaching your child what to do (rather than what not to do).

I hope these tips help you live more harmoniously with your kids.  If you have further questions or would like to schedule a consultation, please feel free to contact me at erikyounglpc@verizon.net or call me at 484-693-0582.

Copyright 2014 Erik Young, M.Ed., LPC

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A Love Letter to my Autistic Boys

A Love Letter to my Autistic Boys

I remember when a colleague, a psychiatrist no less, asked me if  loved my autistic foster boys as much as my biological children.  When I said, “absolutely!” he looked at me skeptically and said “there’s no way…it’s got to be different.”  At that moment, two things happened, I lost a little respect for this guy and I KNEW deep into my soul that I loved you both with all my heart.

It’s a love that some people struggle to understand.  Some look at us and say “Erik, what you do for those boys…you’re a saint!”  I hate that.  I’m no saint.  Don’t put what we have up on some pedestal.  It’s just farther for us to fall.  I’m just being a Dad.  A Dad loves his kids. Kids love their Dad.  It really is that simple.  Nothing saintly about it.  Others just shake their heads and wonder why I would take on the stress and craziness that can come with parenting autistic boys.  Again, they just don’t get it.  Why WOULDN’T I?  Sure, it gets crazy…but is wonderful too.  Jeremy and his belly laughs and shares his secret smile. Julian with his hugs and giggle fits.  These are the gifts that make it all worth it.

As much as people say I’ve done for you boys…you’ve done so much more for me.  Every day you teach me.  Every day you help me to grow even as I help you.  When I look upon my success both personally and professionally, you two are very much at the heart of it.  I’m the luckiest Dad ever.

 

Happy Valentines Day Jeremy and Julian.

 

Love,

Your Dad

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Want your child to listen better? Try the prompting hierarchy

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       I.            Does this sound familiar?

“Johnny, put on your shoes.”

“Put on your shoes Johnny.”

“Johnny!  Pay attention!  Put on our shoes!”

“Put on your shoes!”

“ARRRGGGHHH!!!”  (parent loses mind… Johnny is still shoeless)

If you have kids then you’ve probably had this interaction (or one like it).  Repeating the same command over and over as your child blissfully ignores you until you lose your mind.  Why does this happen?  They say that the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over expecting the same results.  So, parents MUST be crazy because we insist on repeating ourselves to our kids ad nauseum hoping they will suddenly listen to us.

Ok, so we aren’t crazy even if our kids sometimes make us look that way.  There must be a solution to though to what to do to get kids to listen when we want them to do something.  One answer is using prompts.  Prompts are assists that help someone to display a behavior we want to see. For example, demonstrating a behavior for your child and then having them copy you would be an example of a modeling prompt (you modeled the behavior).  If you make your prompts progressively more assistive, you can ultimately guarantee your child will do what you want.  More importantly, this makes sure that the child receives praise and reinforcement  from you for displaying the behaviors YOU want to see.

     II.            The different kinds of basic prompts

There are four basic kinds of prompts I like to use with my kids:

Gesture – some sort of non-verbal movement that will elicit the desired behavior. In the above shoe example, pointing the shoes could be a gesture prompt.

Verbal – a brief verbal statement meant to bring about the behavior. That’s all that was used in he above example.

Model – demonstrating the desired behavior.  In the above example, I might pick up the shoe and then put it down while saying “Like this, now you try.”

Physical – helping the child to physically do the behavior. So, hand over hand helping the child pick up his shoes and put them on.

  III.            Putting the prompts to use

Putting everything together is pretty simple.  After the child is told to do something, you wait a bit for them to process and comply.  Then, if they don’t do what you want, you give them a prompt.  Personally,  like to start with the gesture prompt as it is the least intrusive.  Wait a bit, then go to the next level of prompt (verbal) if the behavior doesn’t happen.  Keep working up the hierarchy until you get the behavior you were looking for.  As soon as the behavior occurs, make sure to deliver reinforcement in the form of praise.  With this system, you guarantee you don’t repeat yourself forever trying to get your child to listen,  Also, you guarantee that the child gets praised for doing the behavior.  Finally, you only give as much help as the child needs to do what you want.  So, you might start out having to physically assist but over time that will naturally fade to verbal, gesture and hopefully with no prompts (child does the behavior when first directed to do so).

If you wish to learn more about prompting strategies or to schedule a free consultation with me, call 484-693-0582 email erikyounglpc@verizon.net or press the schedule appointment button to the right.

©Erik Young, M.Ed., LPC

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ADHD: Disorder or Super Power? Part Four

       I.            Succeed from your strengths!

Partially because I didn’t receive formal therapy, but also because I needed to grow up, I did not get a handle on my ADHD until I was in my 20’s.  What happened is that I became a father.  All of a sudden I was motivated.  I looked at my son and thought “he deserves better than a slacker parent.”  I enrolled in college and started to apply all the study and organizational strategies I’d been taught but stubbornly refused to use in high school.  A funny thing happened, I started getting straight A’s.  In fact, I maintained a 4. GPA for 6 straight semesters in my undergraduate program.  It was hard work at first and I had to be very disciplined, but I didn’t want to let my baby son down.  Over time though, it got easier as I got habituated to doing these things.  Pretty soon I could tap into my super focus whenever I wanted.

Today, I’m still hyperactive (I cannot sit still).  I can be impulsive.  I talk too fast.  I procrastinate.  BUT I can control that when the circumstances call for it.  I run a successful private practice.  I pay the bills.  I have a good life.  As long as I have goals that motivate then my ADHD brain works FOR me rather than against me.

Here’s the bottom line.  If you have ADHD or think you might have ADHD, then here is what you need to do to be successful:

  1. Stop internalizing the bad messages from the world around you.  Stop internalizing the daily little failures as a measure of your self-worth.  It’s not necessary and it just drags you down. You may be forgetful at timesbut so what?  Focus on the positives.  Celebrate your strengths.
  2. Find your passion! Figure what things engage your focus and then work them into as much of your day-to-day life as possible.  This will help make boring activities more engaging.
  3. Always have a goal with firm deadlines.  This will help stave off procrastination.  Don’t just say “I’ll do _____ someday.” Or “I will get to it later.”  Set a day and time and then get it done.  You might do it last-minutethat’s ok as long as you meet your goal.  When you meet your goalset a new goal.  Never be without a goal.
  4. Look for new passions so you can change things up.  Remember, boredom is the enemy!  Keep it fresh.  It’s ok to rotate through interests.  Going through two or three things then returning to the first thing as you feel like it.
  5. Learn how to organize and engage your focus even in low-stim situations.  It’s difficult.  It takes time.  But, sometimes we just have to gut through the boredom.

If you want to schedule a free consultation please call 484-693-0582 or press the “schedule appointment” button to the right.

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ADHD: DISORDER OR SUPER POWER? Part two

       II.            The problems with the diagnosis

The DSM-V is the official manual of mental disorders.  If you have a formal diagnosis of ADHD (or any other mental health disorder), then it should flow from the criteria laid out in that book.  Here is what the DSM-V says about ADHD.

DSM-5 Criteria for ADHD

People with ADHD show a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development:

  1. Inattention: Six or more symptoms of inattention for children up to age 16, or five or more for adolescents 17 and older and adults; symptoms of inattention have been present for at least 6 months, and they are inappropriate for developmental level:
  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities.
  • Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities.
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g., loses focus, side-tracked).
  • Often has trouble organizing tasks and activities.
  • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
  • Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, mobile telephones).
  • Is often easily distracted
  • Is often forgetful in daily activities.
  1. Hyperactivity and Impulsivity: Six or more symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity for children up to age 16, or five or more for adolescents 17 and older and adults; symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity have been present for at least 6 months to an extent that is disruptive and inappropriate for the person’s developmental level:
  • Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.
  • Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected.
  • Often runs about or climbs in situations where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may be limited to feeling restless).
  • Often unable to play or take part in leisure activities quietly.
  • Is often “on the go” acting as if “driven by a motor”.
  • Often talks excessively.
  • Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed.
  • Often has trouble waiting his/her turn.
  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games)

In addition, the following conditions must be met:

  • Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present before age 12 years.
  • Several symptoms are present in two or more setting, (e.g., at home, school or work; with friends or relatives; in other activities).
  • There is clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning.
  • The symptoms do not happen only during the course of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. The symptoms are not better explained by another mental disorder (e.g. Mood Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Dissociative Disorder, or a Personality Disorder).

Just take a look at that.  Pretty dismal huh?  Can’t sit still.  Can’t pay attention.  Can’t control oneself.  Totally out of control.  What a mess!  This is the only picture the mental health community uses to diagnosebut it is a very incomplete picture.  The diagnostic criteria focus on the “negative” aspects of ADHDwhich really revolve around the struggles with school and “typical” work environments (where sitting still and doing seat work are prized).  The definition neglects to look at the positives of being wired for ADHD.  It totally misses the amazing strengths we have.  Thus, we are pathologized and often made to feel inferior when we are simply different.  Allow us to capitalize on our strengths and we can do amazing things and be very successful.

Go to Part Three.

If you would like to schedule a free consultation, please call 484-693-0582 or press the “schedule appointment” button to the right.

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ADHD: DISORDER OR SUPER POWER? Part one

       I.            A confession

My name is Erik and I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  Like many people my age (the “wrong” side of forty) I wasn’t ever diagnosed as a child and never received treatment.  As a child I was always on the go.  I learned to run before I could walk… I even have a small calcium deposit bump on my forehead from falling on my face so much during that time.  I had a terrible anger from being hypersensitive.  The most mild name calling would send me into full-out temper tantrums.  By the time I was in middle school, my straight A grades started to suffer due to poor organization, an overwhelming sense of boredom and my insistence that I read my favorite books rather than what my teachers wanted me to read.  I was the poster boy for “he can do the work…”

It wasn’t until I was well into my adulthood and was struggling to make sense of life, the universe, and everything that I finally figured out what was “wrong” with me.  Soon after, I realized that NOTHING was wrong with meI was simply wired a certain way and as long as I was aware of that and made the appropriate adjustmentslife could be amazing.  As a result, I am well-educated, successful and reasonably happy.  In fact, I attribute much of my success to my ADHD.  For me, today, life IS amazing.  I am so blessed.  Let me tell you why…

Go to Part Two

To schedule a free session, call 484-693-0582 or press the “schedule appointment” button to the right.

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How to Have am Autism-Friendly Halloween

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HOW TO HAVE A HAPPY HALLOWEEN WITH YOUR AUTISTIC CHILD

If your child has autism, then you know how challenging holiday events can be.  With these events, you combine changes in routine with increased sensory stimulation and mix all that up with used-once-a-year social conventions that fly in the face of the day to day rules.  This perfect storm of “wrong” can set the stage for tantrum inducing disasters for many individuals on the spectrum. Despite this, I believe there is no reason that you and your child have to avoid special holiday events, such as Halloween.  It just takes a little planning and preparation for both of you to have a wonderful, candy-filled, spooktacular Halloween.

My Foster Child’s First Halloween

My oldest foster child has autism.  In the run-up to his first Halloween with us (when he was twelve), it quickly became apparent to us that he had never been trick or treating.  We really wanted him to go, but were concerned about how he would handle the event.  Like many autistic children, he is very ridged and does not take to change well.  At that time, he was prone to get upset and bite people when things did not go as planned or if anybody had to tell him “no.”  However, despite our concerns, Lorrie (my wife) and I felt it was important for him to have a shot at experiencing a “traditional” Halloween.

First, we had him look the through the costume store circular.  He chose a cow costume (complete with udders).   Cows are his favorite animal on the planet (why this is the case is a story for another post).  Then, Lorrie went out and found the very costume he picked out.  We then tried to explain to him over the days leading up to trick or treat night what he was going to get to do.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but he simply did not get what we were telling him.

“OK, you are going to put on your cow costume.  Then you are going to go up to houses, say trick or treat and then you will get candy!”

“Candy Candy Candy!”  was his typical reply, followed by confusion as to why the candy was not forthcoming right that second.  ( I tell you, I’m a brilliant therapist at times…)

At long last, the night came.  We put our son into his costume and gave him a pillow case to collect his loot.  He immediately became really uncomfortable.  He did not understand what was happening. We went out into the night and started at some neighbor’s houses that knew us and our children.  The first challenge was to get him to say “trick or treat” after ringing the doorbell (but waiting for someone to answer the door)this came out more like “tickatweesh.”  (Our boy has some language…two to three word phrases but his diction is poor and he is hard to understand.)  The next challenge came after he got his candy.  He immediately tried to run home so he could eat his one piece of candy.  My attempt to stop him and go to the next house almost resulted in a tantrum, but we were able to persevere.

After about three houses, my boy gave me a look that, to this day, I will cherish.  Without saying a word, he looked me in the eye.  The look he gave me basically said “So, I go to houses in a costume.  I say tickatweesh.  They give me free candy.  GENIUS!!”  He was into it after this.  I could barely hold him back.  We avoided a couple of houses where they were doing haunted house/scary things.  I checked in every couple of houses and asked him “do you want to keep going or do you want to go home?”  As soon as he said go home, we headed back.  I didn’t push things.  Once home, my boy got to eat himself into a classic Halloween sugar coma.  It was fantastic.

The best part of the tale came the next day.  Our boy came downstairs after school and handed us his cow costume and said “tickatweesh.”  He wanted to go out again.  We tried to explain that Halloween was overhe asked us every night for the rest of the week before giving up efforts to get more free candy.  It was pretty funny.   We ended up saving and re-using that cow costume for 5 years before we had to replace it.

All in all, a successful outing for all concerned.

Tips for an Autism-Friendly Halloween Night

—   Let your child choose his costume.  Avoid costumes with full face masks, lots of makeup or glue-on accessories.  These can be uncomfortable and take the fun out of the night for your child.

 

— Remember the night is supposed to be fun.  This is not the time to push limits with your child.  All the changes in routine and possible overstimulation will be more than enough for him/her to process.

 

 

—   Start small, just go to a few trusted houses and see how things go.  Then, check in with your child frequently.  Gauge how they are holding up.  You want to be at home BEFORE they are over-stimulated.

 

— It might be a good idea to start your trick or treat route at the furthest point from your house and work your way home (as opposed to the more traditional stat at home and work your way out).  This has the benefit of having you closer to home when your child runs out of patience (as opposed to being at the furthest point from home when he was done…as happened to me one yearnot a fun walk back).

 

 

—  If you are unsure as to whether your child can handle the whole trick or treat experience, explore alternatives such as trick or treating at the mall (a more structured, better lit environment), or attending or hosting a small party where you can get treats and dress up for a little bit.

 

— Spend time before trick or treating explaining the expectations and laying out the “rules.”  Even non-verbal children have pretty good receptive language and will get the gist of what you want.  This helps by giving them some idea of what to do that will reduce the “newness” factor of the event.

 

 

—  Don’t be afraid to abort the event if your child shows signs of not being able to handle it.  There have been years where we brought a child back after a few houses because he was getting too upset and needed to calm down.  One year, one of our kids didn’t go out at all because he was just having a bad day.  It is more important to keep everyone safe and happy than to be slaves to “tradition.”  If the candy is an issue, it ALWAYS goes on sale November 1stdeals are there to be had.

 

— Avoid going to houses that do scary things like haunted houses and such.  Keep things on the low-key fun side unless you are DEAD certain your child will enjoy being scared (my kids simply don’t like that stuff).

 

 

—  Praise your child frequently throughout the event for following rules, being brave, etc.  Cheer him/her onthis stuff is new and hard to do at first.

 

—  If your child LOVES his/her costume… demote it to pajamas or weekend-wear until they get tired of it.

 

 

—  If your child is a very picky eater, buy some treats you know he/she will like and slip them into the Halloween bag.

 

I hope this information helps make your Halloween more fun. If you have other stories or tips for making Halloween more Autism-friendly, please leave a comment. Please feel free to email me aterikyounglpc@verizon.net with any questions or suggestions.

 

Remember, BREATH and DON’T PANIC!  You got this…

 

Visit me at www.erikyoungcounseling.com to find out more about myself and to schedule an appointment.

For more parenting tips, check out the SPECIAL NEEDS PARENTING SURVIVAL GUIDE  available at Amazon and all fine book retailers.

Copyright 2013 Erik Young, M.Ed. LPC

 

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