Time to Form New Habits

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

If a child has had the habit of behaving in a certain way, it takes time to form a new habit.  It takes time to learn a new behavior and unlearn the old one.  Some parents hear about a new method, try it for a couple of days, and give up prematurely, falsely concluding that the technique doesn't work.  When you try a new technique, keep these rules in mind:

1.  Give a new technique at least a couple of weeks, instead of a couple of days.  Be patient.  Habits don't change overnight.  Be positive and hopeful about what you are trying to do.  Don't tell a child negatives such as, "This is the last thing I am trying."  "I don't think it will work.  "I don't know what I'll do with you"  "You are out of control, you won't ever change."  That gives enormous power to children to hear that they are controlling parents rather than the parents controlling the children    

2.  Draw a baseline before you start a new program, that is, how many times a day, or a week, or a month, a problem behavior occurs before you try the new technique?  The baseline will tell you exactly how much progress you and your child make.  I have seen parents giving up a technique, under the impression that the program has failed them, while in reality, the child may have made 40%, 50% progress , or even more.   To take an example, if they had kept a baseline, they could clearly see that prior to their implementing a technique, the child acted a problem behavior ten times a day, and now it's only five times a day.  This happens because ordinarily, we don't count the number of episodes.  We simply notice problems in terms of their presence or absence.  If a behavior is still present, though considerably reduced, we wrongly conclude that the problem is unchanged. Therefore, a baseline will give you a more objective assessment of the progress.        

3.  Prioritize a child's problem behaviors and select "target behaviors" for change.    Parents can't change everything all at one time and there is no sense of scattering your forces to fight at ten different fronts .  Decide what you want to change first.  Rest can be slated for the future.  Target just a few behaviors.  Target "high-risk behaviors" first, such as an assaultive behavior or other forms of destructive behaviors.  When you've tackled that, then target the "low-risk " behaviors, also called "annoying behaviors" such as, making the annoying sounds, talking back, gesticulating, etc.       

 Techniques to Decrease Problem Behaviors:  !.  Ignoring.  2.  Time-out 3.  Charging penalty or "response cost."  4.  Short-term grounding  5.  Suspension of privileges.  6.  Repetitive practice   7. Restitution.          

Ignoring:  Once in a while I meet a parent who is befuddled by the concept of ignoring a behavior, "Ignore it?  That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.  How can I ignore it?  That child drives me nuts. "   Hey! Nobody has become ignorant by ignoring something.  Children do these "antics" to force parent's attention, tire them out, annoy them or, to punish them for earlier saying "No" for something they wanted to do.  Ignore such behaviors.  Ignoring an annoying but harmless behavior may be the smart thing to do.  

 Obviously, you can't ignore everything.  So, ignore some behaviors that you can afford to ignore.  Ignoring makes it possible for parents to choose their battles wisely.  For example, a child may have a wide range of problem behaviors, some of which may be annoying but harmless and others may be high-risk behaviors.  In such a situation, a parent may select high risk behaviors as the target behaviors for application of techniques such as, time-out, grounding, behavior penalty, etc. and choose to ignore other behaviors.  

 For small children, common and frequently occurring situations in which ignoring technique is very useful and appropriate are whining, crying, and temper tantrums.  Children perform those behaviors because they are not getting what they want.  . Example:  A five year old cries and frets to get in the parent's bed.  The parent ignores the crying and fretting.  Crying and fretting to begin with, perhaps, increases for a couple of nights, and then begins to taper off.    Eventually, in just a few days, the child sleeps through a night in his or her own bed.  How long it takes, depends on how strong a habit is and how strong-willed a child is.  

 When you sre ignoring, make sure your child is safe.  In case of doubt, watch the child from where the child can't watch you.  Look away, get away, turn, get busy in some activity so you can impress on your child that you're just not interested.  To maintain a good control of yourself, keep reminding yourself, "I am choosing to ignore it."  When the child quits the problem behavior, pay attention to the child.  Play or talk with the child.  Some behaviors feed on attention,  once you withdraw your attention those behaviors become extinct

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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