Over the last two weeks, we’ve taken a deep dive into attention-seeking behavior and behavior maintained by escape. If you’ve been following along, I’m hoping these blogs have helped you and you’re starting to see some patterns in your little sweetheart. If you’re new to the blog, welcome! Just click here to take a peek at what you’ve missed.
The world we live in is a beautiful place, full of choice and products. We’re very blessed in this way. Every person spends their lifetime building up preferences and favorite things. Some of this comes from within us (nature), while some of it is from what we’re taught (nurture). But all of it comes from us navigating our environment. This starts as soon as we move from the squishy, wonderful newborn phase into the active baby phase.
How Your Child Develops Preferences
Think about it. You’re a tiny little baby around the ripe age of, say, five months. Your parents are getting ready to give you a big spoonful of your first real food! They anxiously await your reaction to the food they’ve chosen (nurture) and you respond (nature)! For my boys, I’m super into training their pallets to love real food. I made a point to do green veggies at 5 months for both Henry and Declan. Henry downed his broccoli and to this day has not shied away from eating his vegetables first (unless salmon or applesauce make an appearance). Declan was not as impressed. It turns out he really hates puree, is OK with most veggies but does not like the texture of broccoli. He would eat muffins all day if we let him! Now, in giving these examples, no problem behaviors are happening, but I’m hoping it’s giving you a picture of how preferences for tangibles start. We as parents provide the exposure and our children respond with preferences.
From infancy into childhood and beyond, each exposure to something new builds up a list of likes and dislikes. To children, the world is their oyster. While toddlerhood is an extremely hard phase for any parent, it’s also a joyful one, as your little someone begins to build into the person they will become. But this little person, as I’ve said many times, is all limbic system. This means when your toddler decides they either like or don’t like something and you either withhold a preferred item or ask them to use a disliked item, their response is, “fight, flight, freeze.” This goes on all day long for most toddlers from about 18 months to three years of age. Around age three the prefrontal cortex (our logic center) starts to develop and these Big Emotions, while present, are not so intense.
Coping with Your Child’s Preferences and Behavior
So what does this look like for you, for me, and for our children? It looks like our toddlers asserting their preferences very noisily and us learning how not to lose our shit. Honestly, if you are interested in this kind of stuff, you should read “How Not to Lose Your Shit with your Kids,” it’s a lifesaver for this phase!
For the last 8 months at our house Henry (now 2 ½) has been going from passionately happy to emotionally distraught, which is centered around access to items he wants. It starts when he wakes up and wants a drink, but not just any drink. It could be water, juice, a smoothie, or almond milk (he’s lactose intolerant). If he’s allowed to have the requested item, he shows joy. If my husband or I say, “No,” his world crumbles. Fight, flight, freeze. This cycle goes on for the whole day; what bowl he wants to eat from, what fruit he wants for snacking, can he have a treat (usually chocolate), can he watch a show and so on and so forth. In writing all this down, it seems exhausting and it is. But it’s also who Henry is at the age he’s at.
There is a world full of endless choice and reinforcers that await him. Watching Henry show joy toward finding his reinforcers is magical. What isn’t magical is when he’s asking for something and the answer is, “No.” As a parent, it would be easier to say, “yes!” all day to every request because then the tears would stay at bay. However, it’s also my job as his (and his brother’s) mama and to teach them tolerance to disappointment, moderation of fun-but-bad-for-you stuff (sweets, processed foods, and technology at our house), and how to wait. This can suck in the moment because you know that in saying, “No,” a behavior may follow. But what follows much later is a skill set you can be proud of as your little ones grow.
Now, of course there are times we all need to give in. But this need comes from you and not for your child. It’s not about making them happy with a third movie, it’s about giving you a break. We, the parents of toddlers or children with limited verbal ability, like some children with autism, are a tired breed. We get run down too and sometimes that 100th, “No,” is just beyond you or me. It’s OK. Give in. But know when you are giving in and let it serve as a warning sign that you are in need of some self-care and alone time ASAP. Once you get some R&R time, you are recharged and can decide to buckle in and drive back down the road of helping your child navigate their choices with you driving–not them.
Getting Help for Your Child
If your child is very young (or getting older but is not verbal) with autism, this is where Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can help. You see the world is still full of beautiful choices for your child, but they may not have the voice or ability to say what their preferences are. Or they may not have the skill set to wait for their favorite items. Teaching children with autism how to communicate what they want and who they are is by far the most rewarding part of work in ABA. If a child gets access to intensive ABA from two-years to five years of age (think 20-40 clinic hours a week), their chance at full verbal language is tremendous. In teaching speech, we’re opening up their world to tell us everything they love. And who doesn’t love that!