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I have three children, and all are distinctly different from one another. They have totally different personalities, social styles, and interests. And lucky me, they also need completely different approaches to discipline.
Positive and Negative Consequences
One of my kids craves attention and positive feedback. If I want to eliminate a negative behavior, all I have to do is start praising the heck out of the behavior I’m looking for: I just LOVE how all of your dirty clothes are in the laundry bin! You are such a great helper.
And like magic, I stop finding dirty clothes all over her rug.
One of my other children needs a lot of alone time and places a high value on a few specific possessions. If he’s struggling to make good decisions, all it takes is a quick reminder: I would hate for you to lose electronic time this weekend. You need to use kind words or the Nintendo will be put away.
If I take away a favorite item of my daughter’s, she could care less! If I tried to get my son to clean his room by offering praise or positive incentives, he would be living in a trash pile. They have different motivators, but those motivators are pretty easy to spot.
The term “behavioral currency” is simply what motivates someone to change a behavior in order to receive or avoid consequences. As I mentioned earlier, my daughter’s main currency is praise, and her secondary is popsicles. My middle son loves his electronic time, and he holds more space in his heart for his Nintendo Switch than me.
One kid reacts best to positive consequences, and the other is more motivated by negative consequences. So I use their currency in different ways.
But wait, I have three kids! Yet, I’ve only talked about two! Oh, the third child . . . he doesn’t respond to either! Positive consequences don’t result in real change, and negative consequences mean nothing to him.
Praise makes him feel good, but he doesn’t connect it to his actions. At his age, there’s nothing on this earth you could take away that would motivate him to change his behavior. He could have fun sitting in an empty room playing with something he found stuck in the carpet. Seriously. I’ve seen it.
So, what do you do when you struggle to find your child’s currency AND he or she doesn’t respond to positive or negative consequences?
The Method Ceiling
Some of you may be old-fashioned, and you’re thinking: Ha! You just need to make the negative consequence SO bad that he eventually complies. Or like me, you may have thought at one point in time: That kid just needs his butt whooped!
But here’s the thing: If you find yourself repeatedly using a consequence and the undesired behavior does not improve, don’t do it. It’s not working. You have reached a method ceiling.
The disciplinary method you are using has reached its limit. It was either never successful to begin with, or your child has matured passed it.
At this point, many parents will choose to double down on their method because they lack other viable options, but you’re walking into dangerous territory there. If your method was spanking, you may cross the line to abuse. If your method was isolation or loss of possessions, you might achieve compliance, but you have not allowed your child to choose obedience.
Back to the Drawing Board
My third child is attention deficit hyperactive. Kids with ADHD often don’t respond to traditional discipline methods. When we are really struggling, I have to start back at zero. I ask myself:
- Have I made my expectations clear? Does my child understand there are absolutely zero reasons for him to ever hit one of his siblings? The expectation is he uses gentle hands at all times.
- Does my child possess the skills he or she needs to perform the desired behavior? Have I taught my child alternative techniques to avoid using negative behavior? Does he know how to take deep breaths, count to 10, reach out to a parent for help, take a break, and use a distraction activity? Does he know any other way to deal with his emotions other than physical aggression? If not, it is on me as the parent to teach the skill, not my child to instinctually know what to do.
- Rome wasn’t built in a day, so what is the behavior most important for me to work on at this moment? You can do it all, but you can’t do it all right now. If we’re working hard on not hitting, I have to let other issues slide for a while.
Finding the Right Currency
After I address those three questions, and I’m still not seeing improvement, chances are I am using the wrong currency. Maybe every other little boy on earth wants to complete a star chart to earn a new bike, or shapes right up when you threaten to cancel the birthday party, but not my kid.
When typical currency doesn’t motivate your child, look at the behavior. What’s your kid doing when he or she is well-behaved? What types of things trigger bad behavior? Dr. Ross Green, author of The Explosive Child tells parents to look before, during, and after problem behavior to see what’s driving the behavior. If you have an older child, you can make him or her part of the conversation and ask to help create solutions.
When I took time to observe, I found my son demonstrated the most negative behavior when he felt unheard and lacked control. At his age, working in more choices, asking for input when making decisions, and putting him “in charge” of certain household jobs fit his need for control perfectly. Suddenly, behaviors that didn’t seem to relate to control improved. And that’s because at the root they were about control.
I also noticed while my son is not motivated by stuff and is not yet great at long-term goals, he is motivated by surprise. I had assumed a star chart didn’t work, but it turns out I had the wrong motivator. I implemented a treasure box and — WOW — a new currency was found!
The treasure box is a great way to create the element of surprise. The items inside can be small enough to earn daily, or big enough to earn weekly. And speaking of weekly, I had been handing out one star a day to earn a reward at seven stars, but that was too far in the future for my son. I switched to a point system instead, and I can hand out points as many times a day as they are earned. Continuously moving towards the surprise helps my son stay focused on his behavioral goals.
When it comes down to it, we all do what we do for a reason. We all have behavioral currencies. The challenge as a parent is to find that currency and use it to create positive change.