"I Can't Predict My Kid's Behavior!" Yes You Can. Here's How
Can't figure out what drives his behavior? Here's how to make sense of it all.
Posted Aug 16, 2019
"It’s like living in a house with a monster in the closet," Ely says. He’s talking about his brother Alexander. "You have to tiptoe all the time, just in case you wake up the monster, and then the whole day is ruined." Their mother, Deborah, sighs. "It’s a good analogy. Problem is, you never know just what will wake up the monster. Some days, Alexander can be flexible. Other days, the tiniest thing triggers him. It’s the not knowing that’s the hardest part."
Some parents try to keep the peace, walking on eggshells to avoid waking up that monster. Whether a child is explosive—acting out, having temper tantrums or public meltdowns—or implosive—becoming withdrawn, moody, and shut-down—living with unpredictability is hard.
Our goal is to make the diagnosed child’s behavior much more predictable, so the entire family can function. The first step is to create a unified theory of why the child behaves this way, and how to respond. (Read more about how to create a unified parenting theory here.)
In the second step of the TARGET system, we use Antecedent Analysis to help us make sense of just what will “wake up the monster.” Put simply, antecedents are events that occur prior to behavior, that set the stage for that behavior to occur. An icy road, sleet, and poor visibility might be antecedents for a car accident, for instance.
Here’s where I’m going to separate myself somewhat from the pure behaviorist camp. I believe parents can view antecedents much more widely than a behavior analyst would. In my parenting classes, I view anything that sets off behavior as an antecedent, including a child’s neurodevelopmental style, his temperament style, his mood at the moment, and even his thoughts. I think it’s too complex for parents to think about concepts such as “private events” or “setting events.”
If you want to use a behavioral approach towards parenting your diagnosed child, and you're put off by all the jargon, don’t worry about it. Ignore the terminology and just look at all triggers as antecedents to the behavior.
We must consider the child’s profile as one of the antecedents. What’s the child’s diagnosis? What are the underlying problems that led to that diagnosis? Is the child irritable, moody, intense, or anxious by nature? When I help parents create a profile for their child, I start with early temperament.
Dr. Sandee McClowry calls a child’s temperament a consistent reaction style. It’s the inborn template for how the child tends to react to stressful situations. That template can be an antecedent for your child’s behavior.
Say you have a scale of discomfort from one to ten. Does the child react to situations that most people would rate as a “2” as a 10++++++?
"It’s the difference between Alexander and Ely that is so frustrating," Deborah says. "I don’t know how to balance their needs. I’ll tell Ely it’s time for homework. He’ll grumble a bit as he shuts his phone, but he comes to the table. Sometimes, I say the same thing to Alexander, and boy, will that monster in the closet wake up! There’s damage all over my house to attest to what happens next."
Ely and Alexander have different temperaments. When Ely hears, “Turn off your devices and start homework,” he’s mildly uncomfortable. On a scale of 1-10, his discomfort is around a 2. So, it’s easy for him to handle. When Alexander hears the same direction, his discomfort level is 10+++++. It’s much more challenging for him to obey.
That internal profile—Alexander’s reactivity—is a behavioral antecedent. Of course, with Alexander, we’re not just dealing with temperament. He also carries a diagnosis of ADHD. Those aspects of his profile—his difficulty attending to the probable consequences of behavior, and his poor self-regulation—are part of the antecedents.
I get why this approach makes it easy to look at our challenging children as problems. After all, we’re analyzing triggers that lead to pretty problematic behaviors! Resist that temptation. I firmly believe that children like Alexander aren’t problems. They’re superheroes in disguise. (See more about hacking a diagnosis into a superpower here.) It’s our job to help them learn the skills they need to manage their triggers.
Internal Environment As Antecedents
Consider the child’s internal environment. Is this child angry today? Overwhelmed because of something that’s about to happen? Is she upset about an incident from the day before? Is the child hungry, tired, or overheated? One patient of mine consistently had a behavioral explosion when he came home from school. After analyzing antecedents, we realized he was starving, and people with low blood sugar aren’t known for their tolerance. We began insisting that he eat a small snack as soon as he came home, and the explosions stopped.
Problem Behaviors As Data Points
To figure out your child’s antecedents, all you need is somewhere to record information. Record the time of day, what was going on right before, and what happened. If you have some guesses about the child’s internal environment, record them, too! For example, if he stomped off the bus, muttering under his breath, it’s a fair guess that something happened in school or on the bus to tick him off! If she seems preoccupied and can’t stop talking about her big test tomorrow, we can speculate she might be feeling somewhat anxious.
Record information and start to develop a hypothesis about what your child’s antecedents are. Once you’ve done this for a while, you’ll begin to see a pattern. If you can’t see the pattern, it can be helpful to ask for help or feedback—sometimes, an objective person can see the pattern more clearly.
This also fundamentally changes your relationship to your child’s challenging behavior. Instead of seeing it as a problem, you see it as a data point. It’s just another piece of information, helping us to refine our theory and understand the child’s antecedents. Don’t fear problem behavior—learn from it!
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2019
Camp EM, Iwata BA, Hammond JL, Bloom SE. Antecedent versus consequent events as predictors of problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 2009;Camp EM, Iwata BA, Hammond JL, Bloom SE. Antecedent versus consequent events as predictors of problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 2009;42:469–483.42:469–483.
McClowry SG. Your child’s unique temperament: Insights and strategies for responsive parenting. Champaign, IL: Research Press; 2003.
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