Jayden has been struggling to sit still at the table. Each time he gets antsy he gets a warning. “If you keep that up you’ll get a time out!”
He settles down for a moment and dinner carries on. But the stimulation of a busy family meal with all its sights, noises, smells, and tastes are overwhelming to his nervous system. No memory of past consequences can override this barrage of input. Rational thinking gives way to overstimulation every time.
Jayden can either use his own movement to make his body feel a little more comfortable in the midst of the craziness, or he can look for a big dose of attention to override the chaos. He has a valid need for both movement and attention. Lucky for Jayden, he knows how to get a “two for one.” So he squirms again.
“That’s the last straw! If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, it is NOT OK to fidget and squirm at the table. You get down and set the timer for five minutes, and don’t come back until you can sit still and eat!”
It’s the same punishment as last time…and it won’t prevent the next time.
The cycle seems to be on auto-repeat. Jayden scratches the “fidget itch” and when he does, he also gets a big dose of negative attention. But these strong doses of negative attention leave both parent and child feeling exasperated. This way of discipline is bound to repeatedly backfire. Does it have to be this hard?
In a simple word, no.
Is there a better way? Yes.
Attention is like fertilizer. Whatever you fertilize grows. When parents give all their attention to undesired behavior, that behavior is almost certain to increase. Why? Because negative attention is better than no attention at all.
So next time you and your “Jayden” sit down to another potentially squirmy dinner, try “fertilizing” with a little positive attention:
- Squeeze in some affirmation BEFORE the fidgeting. Estimate how long your child might be able to sit reasonably still. Then before the inevitable squirming starts proactively give positive attention: “I notice how hard you are working to sit still in your chair. Sitting still really helps our dinner be peaceful, and it also keeps you and the chairs safe. It’s good you’re working so hard at it.” With this affirmation, you just fertilized the sprouts of helpful behavior and built your child’s wisdom about how his behavior affects others.
- Give him a break — and some attention! Next, if you know your child truly struggles with sitting still, you can offer one (or several) mid-dinner breaks to get down and do a minute of big muscle movement. “You’ve done a great job so far. Now you can get down for one minute and hop with both feet together out to the living room and back. That will help you sit well for the rest of the meal!” In this way, you meet your kiddo’s valid need to move, while keeping him functioning under your authority. You also create another opportunity for positive attention as he finishes his hopping (or bear walking, or crab walking…) break. “Nice job. Glad to have you back again!”
Try asking yourself these questions:
- What is the “attention payoff” you are giving your child in a persistent behavior challenge you are facing?
- Is there a valid need (i.e. physical/sensory) that may also be complicating the problem?
- How could you set up your child to meet their valid need in a way that gets positive attention, not negative?