Prevention Works Better than Consequences

We have a five year old son who, up until recently, has been a rather quiet and reserved boy. We have always thought of him as gentle and sensitive. Recently he has become quite aggressive. Primarily this is directed at his brother who is three. He will hit, pinch, kick his brother for seemingly no reason. We are quite distressed about this as we have tried to emphasize non-violent ways to solve problems etc. When discussing this with our son he is unable to explain his behavior, he says he just does it and can’t help it. I believe that is true in a way. It doesn’t appear that these acts are premeditated. My son will lash out and then instantly realize what he’s done and get a worried look on his face and begin apologizing. However that doesn’t stop him from committing a similar act moments later. My husband and I are at a loss over what to do. What would some appropriate consequences be? We have been using time out but this hasn’t been effective. We end up having a power struggle over getting him to stay in his room and then he gets so wrapped up in that, that he loses what the time-out was all about in the first place. Can you make some suggestions? Please sign me … Troubled

It’s interesting that your immediate thought, like that of most parents, is of what consequences to use. I’m not sure consequences are the answer here. Your son doesn’t know why he lashes out, and it takes him by surprise, so probably when he does it he isn’t thinking about what will happen afterwards. You need to work on the antecedents (triggers, causes) of the behavior rather than the consequences. Then you will prevent the offending behaviors.

The ABC system of behavior analysis gives you an equation : B = A + C. This means : behavior results from its antecedents and its consequences. If you apply negative consequences but don’t do anything about the antecedents, you may be putting the child in the frustrating situation of being unable to help what he does, but getting punished anyway. This is particularly true when you’re dealing with an emotional behavior, and this does sound like an emotional behavior.

Looking at the antecedents means trying to figure out why your son does this. Spend some time just observing the boys’ interactions quietly and carefully without intervening, to see what’s going on. We parents tend not to notice what’s happening until something goes wrong, so we see only the behavior without the antecedents. It appears that something is upsetting your older child, so that he “loses his cool” and lashes out. Try to find out what it is. Does the younger boy provoke him? Does he take his toys, or interfere with what he’s doing? Do adults give the younger boy more attention (for being cute) and ignore the older one, so he’s jealous? Many sibling conflicts are provoked by these things. Do some detective work to figure out what’s going on.

The next thing to do is to help your son recognize when he’s becoming upset. It sounds as if he thinks it’s wrong to get upset. It’s important to let him know that it’s okay to be upset and mad, and to express it, as long as he doesn’t do it violently. If his brother takes his toys, for example, he will naturally be upset, just as you would if your husband took something of yours without asking. Let him know that if he tells you what he’s upset about, you will be able to help him solve the problem.

Then do help him. For example, if the problem is sharing toys, you need to make some rules for both boys about not taking things belonging to the other. Don’t force your older son to share; both boys need to learn about private property. Instead, have some common toys, and others which are private for each child. Teach the boys to ask to use something, and not to take things without permission. If the problem is that the younger boy interrupts him, or “bugs” him, or invades his space, make some simple rules about that which both boys can understand.

Finally, you must teach your older son what to do when he is upset. Teach him to use words to his brother to establish his boundaries, such as “Don’t take my stuff.” Teach him to walk away if his brother is “bugging” him. Teach him to ask for attention if he needs it and feels his brother is getting more than he is. And so forth.

Learning to handle emotions is a challenging task. Kids have to learn (1) to recognize what they are feeling, (2) to hold back the impulsive actions which arise from the feelings, (3) to figure out what’s wrong that is causing the feelings, and (4) to find ways to verbally establish their boundaries and to meet the needs which the emotions represent. Teaching them these things will go a lot farther than just imposing consequences for emotional behavior, and will prevent the behavior from occurring. You have taught him part (2). Now work on the other three.

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