June 14, 2021

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

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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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I GET BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS: THE POWER OF THE “SOCIAL SAFETY NET”

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It’s been crazy at my house lately.  I’m talking off-the-wall chaos.  While I do need to vent a bit, that is not the purpose of this article.  Rather, the experiences of the past couple of weeks have highlighted the importance something I call the social safety net.  So, I wanted to talk both about what we have been going through at “Casa de Chaos” (my house) but also highlight how our “social safety net” allowed us to manage the chaos and deal with stress that would have overwhelmed us at any other time.

I.                   The Social Safety Net Defined

In my new book, The Special Needs Parenting Survival Guide, I discuss ways in which parents of special needs children can manage better and improve their quality of life.  One of the cornerstones of my system is the “Social Safety Net.”

To create a social safety net, parents identify, recruit, train and nurture key people who can provide needed support for them and their child.  The more key people added to the net, the more resources the family has at their disposal.  The more resources at the family’s disposal, the more stress they can manage because the stress gets dispersed throughout the net.  I recently was reminded of just how powerful this can be.

II.                 The crazy 2 weeks at my house

For those of you who don’t know my background, I have five children with special needs.  Two boys with Autism, an adult son with ADHD, a daughter with IDD and another daughter with significant health issues.  About a month ago, my daughter with the health issues had many of her conditions flare up.  We tried everything we knew might work, but to no avail.  Two weeks ago, when she was unable to keep any food down and was losing weight she was admitted to the hospital.

For any family this is a big deal, to have a child in the hospital.  However, with the significant needs of the other 4 children, there are several added degrees of difficulty.  My wife ended up staying at the hospital with my daughter and I stayed home to take care of the kids.  On top of this I had to juggle issues at work, with my practice as well as other medical and school appointments for the other kids.

The situation was terrible.  Each day we figured my daughter would be discharged, but then something else would come up and then stay would get extended.  For a week this happened and then she was discharged.  Unfortunately, after  a couple of days, her symptoms returned worse and she went back in the hospital for another week (this time to get a feeding tube put in).  More juggling of schedules and responsibilities.

With one parent out of the picture (at the hospital) we were unable to engage in our usual parenting teamwork to get things done.  Furthermore, having a parent and a child out of the home added stressors to all the other kids (based on changes in routine and worry).  Let’s face itno matter what‘s gone wronglife goes on.  The laundry needs doing, food needs cooking.  Life doesn’t stop for a crisis (no matter how much you might want it to do so).  If it were just Lorrie and myself, our resources would have been overwhelmed.  I shudder to think what might have happened.

Thankfully, I am a therapist who practices what he preaches.  For years, Lorrie and I have been building our social support network.  When everything went pear-shaped, we were able to draw on the resources of trusted friends and family to help disperse the stress and get things done.  It was still hard… terrible really, but the situation became survivable because of the support of our network.

III.              The key players and why it worked

So, here are some of the people who helped get us through this trying time:

My mom – she helped do laundry (did I mention our washer is broken at this time?  Yeah,when it rains it pours).  With 5 kids, laundry piles up quickly and without Lorrie around, I couldn’t easily get to the laundry mat.  She also was there to just talk and let me vent.  She and my step-father drove supplies or my wife to the hospital (changes of clothes, activities, etc.).  She also wrote some great letters to my daughter to help her deal with her anxiety and worry.

Michele – A good friend of the family and fellow therapist (http://www.michelepaiva.com) not only kept in touch with my daughter through texts and phone calls.  She put together several care packages.  She even gave me a chance to sit and talk, putting the worry aside, for about a half hour in the middle of a particularly bad day which was perhaps he greatest gift of all.  Her thoughtfulness and support were and are outstanding.

Angela – Our foster care social worker.  She helped deal with various scheduling and school issues.  She answered emails and diverted some of the usual BS we have to manage freeing me to focus on what I needed to do.  She came over and sat with the kids when I couldn’t get home in time from work or other obligations. She went above and beyond.

Rand – Another therapist and colleague.  He also let me vent.  He even took over therapy on some of our co-therapy casesfreeing me up to do my parenting thing without guilt.  He was a kind voice of support and reason.

Dr. Chang – Our allergy specialist.  He helped coordinate doctors within various departments to make things run a little smoother at the hospital. He didn’t have to as his specialty wasn’t really needed for what was being done.  Despite that, he stepped up and helped sort things out.

Anthony – A co-worker and friend.  He kept me in the loop with stuff at work and ran some interference as I tried to juggle parenting and work.

My son, Zak – He stepped up and helped with housework and helped keep things stable when I couldn’t be home.  He really stepped up his game and I am grateful.

My sister  — She also let me talk and vent.  When I asked her to run some stuff up to the hospital he immediately said yes. When it turned out she couldn’t do that, she sorted at the situation and arranged for my Mom to do that without involving me (other than letting me know about the change in plans).  She saved  from having to solve yet another problem and helped alleviate a little bit of stress.

These people stepped up and helpedmany without my having to ask.  Why?  Because Lorrie and I have spent time educating them as to our needs and our “reality.” We spend time nurturing and renewing connections with these people (and others) so there is not a sense of “using” them.  They are valued friends.  The work that made things work the past two weeks started years ago and will be on-going (because I am sure there are more crises coming down the pike).

To all the people in my netI am filled with gratitude for all that you do.  Your help and support is invaluable and will be returned someday.

IV.             Make connections and disperse the stress

With “neurotypical” families, the social safety net often naturally develops.  Family, friends, and other people just seem to connect and offer support.  When the family has an exceptional child, these natural supports are often ill-equipped to provide support.  They typically are inexperienced with the child’s needs (much like the new parents).  This can leave the parents isolated and without support when they need it most.

To combat this tendency towards isolation, I counsel my parents to identify their resources and actively train them to be supports.  Once identified and trained, these supports can be nurtured.  The ore people parents can train and nurture, the more help they will have when they need it.

The people with whom you connect, the deeper and sturdier your net.  The effect is when stress hits, bits and pieces of that stress can be sent out into the net for others to manage thus making the load a little lighter on the parents.  More people bring more skills and knowledge to the table allowing for the entire team to be more responsive to a wider variety of situations.

V.                Final Thoughts

If you are the parent of a special needs child and you don’t have a social safety net, then I urge you to start doing the work to create one.  Start fostering those crucial connections. This, more than anything will reduce your stress load and make life more manageable.

Be critical about the people with whom you surround yourself.  Only keep those who will build you up, help you, nurture you.  Distance yourself from users and those who bring you down.

To learn more about how to create a social safety net, check out The Special Needs Parenting Survival Guide. You can also contact me for a free consultation at 484-693-0582 or erikyounglpc@verizon.net

© Erik Young, M.Ed., LPC 2013

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USE DEEP MUSCLE RELAXATION TO MELT AWAY STRESS

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In the last stress busting article, we discussed the power of diaphragmatic breathing to reduce immediate symptoms of stress.  Today, we are going to explore another technique that complements deep breathing to reduce stress symptoms:  Deep Muscle Relaxation

You can’t be tense and relaxed at the same time

It’s true.  When it comes to stress, your body is either in a state or relaxation or a state of tension.  You switch back and forth between these states throughout your day. Stress is typically related to tension.  So, it makes sense that anything that induces relaxation will reduce tension and thus reduce stress.  Slow, deep breathing works because simulates the breathing of a relaxed state.  Similarly, inducing your muscles to release tension and relax will simulate and ultimately BECOME a state of relaxation.

The problem with tension

There are a number of problems with having chronically tense muscles.  Tense muscles use more energy and fatigue our body quicker than relaxed muscles.  Chronically tense muscles get damaged easier.  Tense muscles tend to lose some of their elasticity and thus can inhibit your range of motion and your ability to move quickly and easily.  Tense muscles also tend to ache more.  This then becomes a suck on your mental energy as you have to manage the creaks, groans, aches and pains of tense muscles.  This isn’t to say that tension is bad.  Tension is necessary. Without it we would fall to the ground like so much quivering jelly, unable to move.  The trick is to have just enough, but not too much tension.

When we carry tension in our body for a long period of time, we tend to become blind and unaware of this tension.  The feeling of tensions and achiness becomes normal.  This is the real problem.  We train out body and brain to accept excess tension and then let it inhibit out daily activities. Over time this builds up and can gradually erode our quality of life.

It is important to do things that allow you to get your muscles to relax (and let you re-learn what relaxed, tension-free muscles feel like).  By making a practice of these exercises, you can learn to stay relaxed throughout more of your day.  Your heightened sense of relaxation will also let you activate tension when you need it much more quickly (because your muscles won’t be tired all the time from maintaining a chronic state of tension).  Top athletes are masters of utilizing the power of relaxation and tension and can thus demonstrate incredible feats of speed and power as a result.  For the rest of us, I’m just suggesting master relaxation and tension to give us more control over our stress for a happier, healthier life…if this also give a faster 100 meter dash, all the better. J

Techniques to induce relaxation and retrain our sense of tension

1.      Massage

Without a doubt, one of the best treats you can get for yourself is a good massage. Getting someone who knows what they are doing to knead your muscles is a fantastic way to induce deep muscle relaxation.  Now, I know that this can get pricey.  An alternative is to get a book on massage (such as Massage for Dummies) and convince a significant other to read it and then practice on you.  You could reciprocate.  Also, for parents, learning basic massage techniques can give you another tool to help relax reactive children.

2.      Progressive Relaxation Training

This tried and true technique is generally a part of any good stress/anxiety management protocol.  Here, you sit or lay in a quiet, comfortable place.  You then tense each muscle group in your body and then let it totally relax.  Doing this mindfully and in conjunction with deep breathing can help you learn to distinguish between muscles under tensions and muscles in relaxation.  Purposefully making muscles tense and relaxed highlights the differences between the two states.  Also, tensing the muscles helps wear them out so they are more prone to be relaxed.  Doing this on a regular basis will allow you to learn to quickly get your muscles to relax with but a thought.  Parents can teach this to children by having them practice being like uncooked spaghetti then being cooked spaghetti.  This fun game can help teach them how to induced muscle relaxation on command.

 3.      Sauna/hot shower/hot bath

Long exposure to hot water can also induce deep muscle relaxation.  Taking a long hot shower or bath is great way to sooth and relax sore muscles.  If you have access to a sauna or hot tub, all the better.

 4.      Self-massage/foam roller

Weight lifters have known about the benefits of this for a long time.  They use this technique to recover from strenuous weight training sessions and to speed recovery.  They get foam rollers and then roll their body over the rollers to relax and massage their muscles.  If you google the terms “myofascia release” and “foam rolling” you can find all sorts of videos demonstrating this.  You can use anything from long foam rollers to tennis balls to accomplish this form of self-massage.  It should be noted that this can be uncomfortable at first and may take some getting used to.

 5.      Neuro-feedback training

Also called “biofeedback.”  This method will involve the help of someone trained in neuro-feedback.  Special sensors are connected to your head and body that then send information about your brainwave patterns and muscle activation to a computer.  This information is displayed graphically.  You can use the graphic display as a means of feedback as you practice relaxation.  As you successfully relax your body and mid, you will be able to see your progress on the computer monitor.  This can be very effective in learning how to induce a deep, relaxed state.  However, it can also be costly.

 

Conclusions

The methods listed above are not in any particular order (other than that’s the order I thought of them).  Any or all of them might be effective to help you learn to induce deep muscle relaxation.  The list is also not all-inclusive.  There are probably many more methods that could be used to learn to relax.   Please share other relaxation methods with me in the comments section below.

At the end of the day, it is important to pick a method or two and practice it.  The more frequently you can practice, the better.  Eventually, you will be able to sense when your muscles are getting tense and induce them to relax with a thought.  This, combined with deep breathing will allow you to combat the effects of stress inducing situations much more effectively.

I hope this information proves useful.  Breathe….You got this.

Please leave your tricks for managing stress in the comments section below.  For more information or to make an appointment, go to www.erikyoungtherapy.com or email me at erikyounglpc@verizon.net

Copyright 2013  by Erik Young, M.Ed., LPC

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