This blog post is Part 4 in the Map for Success for Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a guide is for parents and teachers, to help them understand how children with ODD are built differently, and the techniques that work best to guide them.
Previously in this series:
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder: What it is, and what it is NOT
- What makes a child with ODD and ADHD go (and stop)? The gas and the brakes
- Parents of children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder: it’s not just you
When your child has a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, or has similar defiant behaviour, life can be full of battles. It usually starts with a little disagreement over a daily routine, and quickly blows up into a loud, high-stakes conflict.
To avoid major obstacles and get safely through the day, parents need to know how to give the right kind of feedback. Without positive feedback, children may lose motivation and take off in another direction. Without a quick correction or re-direction, a small mistake can have big consequences.
In this blog post, you will learn how to avoid the kinds of feedback that make a conflict worse, and communicate in a way that helps your child stay on the right track.
Rumble strips and road signs
Navigating life with your child is a little like driving a car… there are road signs and rumble strips to keep us on track. Road signs are like positive feedback, and rumble strips are like corrections.
If you’ve ever taken a long road trip down rural highways, you know what a relief it is to see a sign that lets you know you are going the right way. When you drive for too long without seeing a sign, you follow the very slight curves of the road, and you start to wonder: Am I going the right way? Am I lost? Am I going to miss dinner? Am I going to have to waste an hour going east when I should be going north? Did I miss the turn-off? Should I try this side-road?
Positive feedback: a good sign
Just like a driver on a long trip, your child needs encouraging words to keep them heading in the right direction.
A road sign tells you that you’re going the right way. It can also tell you when you’re close to your destination. This helps to give you a little extra push. You wouldn’t pull over for a coffee and a donut just 30 minutes from home. Those road signs give you the determination to carry on and finish strong.
Positive reinforcement sends a message: whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!
The importance of positive reinforcement cannot be overstated. There are mountains of evidence pointing toward the positive effects of encouraging words, affection, and rewarding consequences.
Without positive reinforcement, your child will be tempted to explore other directions, like whatever gets the most attention, freedom or relief. Without consistent and encouraging feedback, you might see extreme or unpredictable behaviour that gets worse over time, because your child is testing to see what pays off most.
Corrective feedback: giving helpful alerts
Of course, every child will explore and experiment, no matter what, and sometimes your child’s behaviour will start veering off into the wrong direction. In those moments, you send out a quick message to alert them to danger. These alerts are like rumble strips, acting like a quick reminder to help a highway driver steer away before going into the ditch.
If you’ve never experience a rumble strip on the highway, here’s how they work:
After a few hours at the wheel, your tummy rumbles and you lean over to grab a granola bar from the passenger seat. As you reach, you accidentally pull the steering wheel too far to the right. The whole car vibrates suddenly and you hear a loud growling sound. Whoops! You realize you’ve driven far enough to reach the “rumble strip” along the side of the highway, and you pull back into the centre of your lane before the car plunges into the ditch. Thank goodness, disaster has been avoided. The rumble strip helps you catch a small error before it turns into something major.
How can you let a child know it’s time to make a course correction, without starting a fight or worse yet, getting completely ignored?
Here’s what doesn’t work:
HONK HONK! KNOCK IT OFF!
How do you feel when you are driving and another car honks at you? You probably jump out of your skin a little, and maybe feel the prickle of sweat on your neck. It’s stressful, and unless the other car has just saved your life, you’re probably going to drive off muttering some pretty unpleasant words.
Sudden, unpleasant feedback can backfire in unexpected ways. What would you do if your car sent you a mild electric shock every time you made a wrong turn or drove too close to the curb? Would it make you a better driver? Probably not! The sudden buzzing feeling might stop you from turning, or it might create a complete panic and you could stop trying to steer the car altogether.
When you see your child making a mistake, and you use a loud “HEY!” or “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” you may be having a similar effect on your child. That kind of noisy, shocking input might stop from for a split-second, but you might notice some other reactions too. Some children get used to the “zap” and start to ignore it. Some children will honk back in protest! This kind of reaction is especially common with children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, because they struggle to self-regulate after a stressful moment. As far as communication goes, you quickly end up in the ditch.
NO NO NO. Just no.
What if you were driving your car, and you passed a sign that said only WRONG WAY? What if it said “NO ACCESS”? What would you do? You might look around for a place to turn around, or you might wonder whether the sign even applied to you. You could try heading in another direction, but could you be sure it was the right way?
Similarly, a simple “NO” isn’t enough information. Your child might hear you saying “NO” but they are missing some key information, such as:
- “Why not?”
- “What should I do instead?”
As a parent, you might be able to look ahead and see the dangerous consequences of the behaviour, but children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or ADHD often have difficulty thinking ahead, or slowing down. If you are saying “no” a lot during the day, your child is likely to ignoring your warnings and look for shortcuts instead.
Okay, so what actually works?
How do I get my child’s attention quickly and safely?
How do I help my child stay on track without ending up in a fiery wreck?
BEEP BEEP! Getting your child’s attention FAST
The first step to making a correction to your child’s behaviour is getting his attention in the first place. This can be a challenge all on its own! When you say his name, does he stop and look, does he ignore, or does he hit the gas pedal instead?
If your child isn’t tuning in, your pattern of communication might need a tune-up. When you say your childs name, what usually comes next? If you’re giving your child an instruction or a warning most of the time, you may find that she starts to tune out.
This can be hard to avoid, especially if your child is highly impulsive or easily distracted. Fortunately, there’s a fix for this: add more positive, funny, and surprising comments to your everyday conversation, and try to cut back on unnecessary scolding. This blog post is all about how to tweak your communication so your children actually listen.
Caution: danger ahead!
Sometimes you need to help your child stop right away. You see your child headed down the wrong path, and you want to prevent a collision. You’re trying your best not to just yell a name or simply holler “Stop it!” so what can you say instead?
Your goal is to give your child a reason to stop and think for a moment, and get their brain in gear. You’re using a gentle heads-up, so your child can swerve away from danger. Here are some options:
Ask your child to make a prediction:
- “What will the cat do if you pour that water on him?”
- “How can we fix the table if you scratch it with that fork?”
Point in another direction:
- “If you want to jump on something, the trampoline is available!”
- “When you’ve got pyjamas on, then we can read some bedtime stories together!”
Describe what you see.
- “I see that there is a paintbrush in your hand and some paint on the wall.”
- “I hear crying and I see a stick in your hand.”
Something completely different:
- If your child has trouble switching attention from one thing to another, try something unexpected, like “CHEESEBURGER!” or “TRANSFORMERS!” (This actually works!)
- If your child is old enough, try asking what he or she should would like to hear! If you come up with a code-word together together, you can agree only to use it when it’s very important.
With the encouraging signs to guide your child along the smoothest path, and useful alerts to avoid a collision, you and your family will be able to cruise through more of the day together!
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