Discipline – Another Way (Plan B)
The approach to discipline offered in our article “Disciplining Your Child” is quite traditional. It works for most children and families most of the time. However, it is by no means the only right approach, and some parents prefer a different way. Moreover, there are certain children for whom the traditional approach most definitely doesn’t work. These tend to be children who are strong willed enough to defy their parents on a consistent basis. They are sometimes described as “difficult” children. They are kids who seem to have been born with a rigid temperament, who are driven to do whatever they want, for whom punishments/rewards have no meaning. In such a child, tantrums are frequent and severe, and they persist long beyond the typical age of the “terrible twos”. If you have such a child, or if you simply don’t like the “feel” of “Plan A”, you may want to consider “Plan B”.
“Plan A” is based on motivation – it assumes that a child is ABLE to comply, and will if he or she is motivated to do so. It is a consequences-driven approach, which relies heavily on rules backed up by rewards and punishments. “Plan B” is based on negotiation.It assumes that a child is MOTIVATED to be good, and will if he or she is able to do so. The reason it works better for many “difficult” children is that many of them really are having difficulty with the skills – specifically flexibility and frustration tolerance– it takes to comply with rules. Many things can lead to this – including Attention Deficit Disorder, memory or language difficulties, social cognition weaknesses, Depression, anxiety, other emotional problems, or Learning Disabilities. An approach that tries to increase the motivation of such a child to comply misses the point. It just makes him feel misunderstood and more frustrated than before, often leading to a worsening viscous cycle of poor behaviors and repeated “meltdowns”.
The basis of “Plan B” involves ANTICIPATING the situations in which a child might (or often does) come into conflict with his environment and PLANNING for how to make those situations go smoother. It means making it easier for the child to comply, and teaching her the skills she needs to do so. Demands for flexibility and frustration tolerance are reduced. When the child appears to be having difficulty, rather than digging in their heels and becoming more rigid themselves, the adults learn how to show empathy, reduce tension using humor or distraction, and then use support and logical persuasion to show the child a way out of the dilemma. Finally, this approach requires some real prioritizing of desired behaviors by parents:
- There should be one category, containing relatively few things, of non-negotiable rules or expectations. These should be mostly safety-oriented, and MUST be things the child is capable of doing on a consistent basis AND that the parents are willing & able to enforce. When these things come up the child will often end up in a tantrum or meltdown and that’s OK.
- The second category should be behaviors that are high priorities but which are not worth a fight with or tantrum from the child. These things are things you discuss and negotiate with the child over – and ultimately reach a compromise. Parents implementing “Plan B” spend most of their time and energy TEACHING the skills of negotiation and compromise to their child over the things in this category.
- The third category are things which are not worth even discussing. Low priority things that are going to be left up to the child – either because they are not important OR because putting them in category B would be too frustrating, at least at the present time, for the child and it is better to avoid the situation altogether.
When a parent using this approach is faced with a problem-behavior, they think first “Which category is this?” and then act accordingly.
For more detailed discussions of this approach to discipline or “difficult children” in general, please try any of the following books: