Behavioural challenges can pop up from time to time in our children and this is to be expected. But sometimes, even when we read behaviour as communication, are aware of our child’s unique sensory processing profile, are attuned to our child, follow their lead, and have a great relationship, our children can still surprise us with inappropriate behaviour that can be harmful to themselves or others. What is going on? What do we do?
The Situation For many months now, our son playfully kicks and hits his Dad at bedtime. Dad says that he doesn’t do it on the rare occasion when I’m not there. But if I’m home, which is almost every night, he screams, runs away, says he wants Mama, then kicks and hits his father again yelling “Aow” playfully.
A Developmental Approach Using a developmental approach, we understand that our son is doing this for a reason, so we are not going to punish the behaviour or try to reason with him. We are not going to scold him nor ‘teach him a lesson’ nor tell him to ‘stop it’. All of these behavioural actions are not only developmentally inappropriate, but they ignore our child’s intentions and communication. They also ignore that our child, although capable of not ‘acting out’ under many circumstances, might struggle to organize himself when so much is happening and his nervous system gets too upregulated.
The Why Our son does not yet have the capacities to fully negotiate with emotional signalling and back-and-forth communication. All he knows is that he doesn’t want to go to bed, and he doesn’t want Dad to do bedtime, because Dad is more strict than Mom is. He gets upregulated, and he goes into what Dr. Shanker called, ‘red brain’, which causes him to lose his cognitive control.
A pattern has also been established with Dad for some time where our son experiments with cause and effect by doing something inappropriate and watching Dad’s emotional response. This has almost become a game for him because Dad’s natural affect tends to be so flat and Dad is quite introverted and quiet. When Dad reacts, like any person would have a natural tendency to do, to being hit in the face, licked, kicked, or spit at, our son is completely absorbed and intrigued by Dad’s affective reaction.
What to do? Jackie Bartell points out that Dad says he doesn’t act this way when Mom is out of the house. That gives us some information. Our son could have that one memory of one time when he kicked Dada and Dada reacted, so Mama stepped in and stayed with him, so he is trying for that again. Similar to guidance in the last blog post, Jackie suggests that we be much clearer for him about what the expectation is by saying what we are going to do, while not mentioning what we are not going to do.
She also suggests making a schedule such as Monday and Tuesday it’s Dada; Wednesday and Thursday it’s Mama, etc. We all have our phones with our schedules on them. It is fine for him to have one too because he might find it challenging to hold it all in his brain. In addition, right now it’s bribing him to say “Tonight is Dada, tomorrow is Mama…” because it is random and could be construed as being a consequence of his behaviour, which is not how we want to preserve the Relationship. The schedule makes it more predictable for him.
We have here a created habit of our son’s to automatically go into this ’cause-and-effect play’ drama with his father every time he doesn’t want to do something, and this is difficult to break because Dad obviously gets quite frustrated with being the target of aggression, even if it isn’t intentionally harmful and would really like our son to listen to his direction. But every time he reacts with this negative emotional response, it fuels our son’s desire for more reaction out of his father.
So Jackie suggests that we also want to make it a calm, matter-of-fact and brief discussion about expectations since we know the emotional charge incites his upregulation. This may seem to contradict our use of affect in Floortime but it’s more about the focus. When we put the focus on a negative affective reaction such as getting quite angry with being hit, we are reacting and in ‘red brain’ ourselves, rather than meeting our child where he is at developmentally while respecting his profile and chasing the ‘why’.
In red brain, Dad won’t be able to see his son’s innocent, playful intentions or involuntary emotional reactions due to immaturity, so it only becomes about directing and managing our son’s behaviour to seek compliance. Our son in red brain is simply emotionally reacting rather than using his emotional signalling to co-regulate with Dad and find a more socially appropriate way to express his disagreement with brushing teeth and bedtime.
The Situation Our son has entered a phase where he is asking what is happening. We will answer and he will ask, “What’s after that?” When we respond, he continues, “What’s after that?” and this can go on indefinitely. I’ll find myself listing every single event happening throughout the entire week. Once that is done, it immediately starts over again after about only one minute. I started saying, “What? You forgot already?” then he will list the event that is next. It’s quite endearing, actually, if you have the patience to go through it all.
A Developmental Approach This approach has us appreciating our son’s perspective rather than forcing ours on him. Sure, it can be grating on the nerves to have to answer the same question over and over, and it can be frustrating to think that our son isn’t listening or doesn’t get it. But instead, we can look at it from his point of view and realize that he is truly trying to sequence and understand what is going to happen so that he can have more of a sense of control and feel less anxious about the near future. By sympathizing with our son, we co-regulate and guide him through grasping an understanding of what is to come.
The Why This approach gets us excited about new explorations our son is experiencing and DIR expert, Maude Le Roux, tells us that this is our son exploring the concept of time and sequencing of events. This is one of the more advanced concepts that begins to form prior to and into the sixth functional emotional developmental capacity, which of course gets us very excited as we watch this growth unfold! DIR expert Jackie Bartell suggests that he is asking because he’s dysregulated. If he doesn’t have a true concept of the passage of time and is finally gaining an awareness of it, it indeed must be quite overwhelming for him!
What to do? Our DIR expert, Jackie Bartell suggests that using a calendar as an aid could prove useful. We can say “Hmm, I don’t know. Let’s go check.” and go to a calendar that he can look at. He will become more actively involved in his life and time. This becomes a problem-solving activity. Right now, as it is, it’s stop-start: “What’s after that?” followed by an answer, then repeat. She also suggests scaffolding his learning by keeping it simple to begin with. We can have a picture for each day and one word. In addition, it begins to make reading useful for him, which he will like. Stay tuned for our next early literacy update, coming next time…
I asked Jackie what to do in the car because this is when he often asks about what happens next. She said, in true Floortime fashion, that we can inspire relating, communicating and thinking by opening up opportunities for communication and discussion: “Oh no! Did we leave the schedule at home? What can we do about it?”
The Situation Frequently we will notice our son behaving in ways not characteristic of himself. We quickly tend to realize he is imitating the behaviours of other kids from his school because we’ve witnessed them in his peers. These behaviours may or may not be undesirable, but they might be disruptive on some level from time-to-time. Two examples include screaming at full volume when we suggest something he doesn’t want to do, and repeating stims such as “Na-na-na-na-naaaa“.
A Developmental Approach Again, we understand that our son is doing this for a reason, so we are not going to just focus on the behaviour. We understand that it is an important and essential part of social and emotional development to imitate our peers and experiment with different behaviours while we figure them out. We also understand that our son really is not being defiant, but in fact is being quite playful in many of these cases. In the case of screaming, he is using a new tool that he saw another child use, in an effective way as a defense, even if developmentally immature and not socially appropriate.
The Why Our expert reminds us that our son is being intentional to get us to interact with him. As he is still quite young, developmentally, he is still experimenting with how to interact and how to control his environment. Certainly with the screaming, as mentioned in Scenario 1 above, he has not yet developed the capacity to reliably and confidently use emotional and affective signalling to negotiate with others. The screaming offers him a quick and effective way to get his point across.
What to do? Our expert tells us that we always want to open the door to co-regulate, socially problem-solve, and think symbolically. So for the times when he breaks into a verbal stim of his friend’s such as “Na-na-na-na-naaa“, we can join him with “Ba-ba-ba-ba-baaaa“. We follow his lead and can add in a new element. In the case of an undesirable behaviour, we could also say something like, “Hmm… that seems a lot like (your friend). Did you invite (his friend)? I didn’t. Did you, Dad? Hmm… Let’s get him out of here. I want (our son) back.” Notice how this is moving away from directing our son to stop screaming or comply with us and moving towards having him think.
Dr. Stanley Greenspan who created the DIR model, suggested that having more daily Floortime sessions will provide your child with more opportunities to connect and problem-solve with you. By increasing the amount of quality time you spend with your child in Floortime, you improve the child’s connection with you and you are showing empathy to your child so your child can, in turn, develop their own empathy. Using Floortime to supplement how we set limits and lay out expectations is a way to help your child develop and mature with empathy and respect for others.
Especially for the first scenario, Dad and son can play out hitting and kicking in play with trains or characters. This will allow Dad to feel that he is teaching our son about the consequences of being physically aggressive while allowing our son to act out these impulses to be physically aggressive. Dad can also use this opportunity daily to engage in affective interactions with our son so our son doesn’t have to force the emotional response our of his father in a negative way. As psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, fill your child up with attachment, or in our case with emotional connection, before they crave it.
Thank you, again, to Jackie Bartell for her insights and guidance with this blog post. If you found these suggestions helpful, please consider sharing this post via Facebook or Twitter, and please feel free to offer your own comments, insights, or experiences in the Comments section below. Coming in the next few posts, two new podcasts and an early literacy update! Stay tuned!
Until next time, here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!