The Escape Artist

Posted on: December 26th, 2019 by Jessie Topalov

Last week we dove into attention-maintained behaviors and what to do when your little one is engaging in challenging behaviors to gain your (or others) attention. This week we’re going to jump into talking about what to do when your child is engaging in problem behaviors to access escape. So, in turn, we’re going to talk all about my son, Henry.

To begin let’s remember the recipe for identifying if your child is engaging in problem behavior to escape your demand. First, you, as the parent, ask your child to do something. Next, your child engages in a behavior that is uncomfortable for you. Lastly, you remove the demand to avoid the behavior. Look at the middle part again. “Your child engages in a behavior that is uncomfortable for you.” What this means is your child has figured out what behavior they can use to make you essentially back off. As a mama this is tough. I know this as a clinician, but I’m also living it.

A few weeks ago we talked about making a list of behaviors that are not OK in your home. My list was hitting, spitting, and yelling at an adult. Henry does all three of these things every day at some point to escape my demands. “Now wait a second!” you’re saying. “You are our guide, the ticket out of these behaviors and your son does these things on a daily basis?” Yes, but stay with me!

Raising A Strong-Willed Child

Photo of a toddler walking down a gravel road on a sunny day.Henry, from infancy, has been a strong-willed child. I’m a strong-willed woman and Henry’s Daddy is Bulgarian, so he got a double dose of stubbornness.

I remember writing this in Henry’s baby journal, “I didn’t know babies came out like you.” When we were sleep training Henry at 6 months, he would lay on his belly popping his pacifier in and out of his mouth watching the door then when we walked in he’d flip over and start crying. Smart little guy. Since then it’s been a steep learning curve to stay ahead of Henry. He is a bright child, full of love, life, and in his little brain, he knows best.

Henry has strong opinions about how his day should go. When I tell him it’s potty time, or it’s time to get dressed, or he needs to sit to eat, and so on and so forth, he will challenge me. Normally it’s just a vocal comment and an attempt to negotiate with us (negotiating with a two-year-old is tougher than it sounds!) to which I stand my ground most days. When it comes time to follow through with a task I need him to do (normally dressing, potty, buckle to eat), however, Henry will yell, hit, and even spit at times.

These behaviors first started to ramp up around the time we welcomed Henry’s brother, Declan into our lives. I wasn’t capable of finding the function, making a plan, or teaching a new skill when Henry’s new behaviors started. I was barely hanging on at the time and all I could give was showing up to get through the day. Henry’s new behaviors took hold mainly because I was occasionally reinforcing them (“Ok Henry, sit wherever just eat”). Henry learned that if he used these three behaviors (yelling/hitting/spitting) I would get pissed and give in from time to time. This was not a fun dance.

Working on Yourself to Help Your Children

Over the past few months, I’ve been working hard at calming down my own nervous system to be a better mama. Two kids under two is hard. I’ve been asking myself what I need to be able to do to take a step back and truly help my son by helping myself. It was in taking this step back and working out more, meditating more, playing more–working on me more–that I could objectively see his pattern. Before this point, I was just putting myself down, telling myself that as a clinician I should know how to fix this, even telling myself that I was a bad mom. This behavior didn’t help anyone and felt awful. When I took a step back, I was able to change the narrative and tell myself, “yes you’ve reinforced some of these behaviors, but that’s OK. You can change it now.” Simply said, I’m taking things day by day. Henry’s undesirable behaviors are not down to zero, mainly because Henry had learned that these behaviors work. It takes time to unteach this.

What this looks like for us now is that I wisely choose the demands I’ll place on Henry and give him a choice where a choice is available. I believe every child should have this balance. Henry can choose to open one toy bin (we play by theme so I can dump a bin and clean a bin up vs. having toys everywhere), what fruit or veggie he wants, what shirt he wants to wear, what movie to watch on movie night–all the fun stuff.

My husband, Martin, and I choose care routines and values. When it comes to following through with routines and values, we move forward regardless of Henry’s response. This look likes; “Henry, we’re eating. You don’t have to finish, but you have to try before you can get up,” or “It’s time to sit on the potty. When the timer goes off, you can get up,” and so on. This routine has lowered how often Henry engages in undesirable behaviors, but they still happen from time to time.

It’s going to take time for Henry to completely stop with these behaviors because he’s 2 and all limbic system. He also can’t tell me how these demands make him feel, so I model this for him. “I’m mad about potty!” It’s OK for him to not like something or not want to do it, but we all have to learn over time that there are things that just have to be done.

Working with Differently-Abled Children

If your child is differently-abled, they may be using certain behaviors to tell you a lot and you may need help to find out. For children with autism who are non-verbal or with limited verbal abilities, these behaviors are what they use to speak up! Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can help you find out what it is that your child is trying to escape, why, and how to build up language so that you, the parent, can then choose what demands are non-negotiable and what are your child’s choice within your home.

I hope this message serves you well and am wishing you all a Happy Holiday Season.

Xoxo,
Jessie

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