The table shakes and I watch my iced-coffee slop over the side of the glass. I briefly consider lapping up the spilled coffee (it’s that good) from the table when I hear my friend Lisa cooing to her angelic (looking) 14 month-old baby, Jax. She contorts her beautiful, expressive face into an exaggerated grimace and tickles Jax while sing-songing, “We don’t hit Mommy! That’s not OK!” Jax giggles, looking up into his mother’s loving eyes and whacks her, for the 97 millionth time, right in the face.
I am grateful for my pile of breakfast potatoes that I dig right into, as it is inappropriate for me to dive into “work mode” and begin giving advice to my friend. We are having a casual brunch, not a parent consultation. Even though I have only been a mom for 5 months, I imagine my reaction to someone jumping in to criticize my behavior as it relates to my baby. It probably involves a sweet Pollyanna-ish, “Thanks for your feedback!” followed by the swift deployment of an Amazon blow dart right between the eyes…Pfffft. How’s this for feedback?
“There is a part of me that believes he is not going to do it again,” she says, looking defeated. She repeats the grimace/tickle routine, adding in an exaggerated, “Ouch, we don’t hurt people.” Jax shoots me a look that I read clearly as, “Durrr. Yeah we do! It’s awesome to hit people!” She then shows Jax how she would like him to touch her and she moves his little hand in gentle strokes on her arm and shoulder. Whack. Lisa, also in the mental health field (but not a behaviorist) asks me if there is anything she can do differently, as he is hitting all the time. There are some aspects of her strategy that she should keep, some that she should ditch right away, and some new ones that I encourage her to incorporate:
- I love that Lisa is taking the time to calmly model how she wants to be touched—modeling is a really great way to communicate, especially with young children who are not yet verbal (Jax has a few words but is very communicative). However, I ask her to experiment with refraining from modeling after he hits but making a point of doing it multiple times during the day before he hits. I also advise her to praise him extensively when he follows her model of nice touching and does it on his own spontaneously. He needs a clearer message about what she wants to see, as her affect when correcting him is too similar to her affect when they are playing and enjoying time together.
- If Jax does hit, I ask her to keep her face neutral and to turn away from him without using verbal language—I showed her my award-winning poker face. It’s kind of a combination of someone listening to Jimmy Buffet (after her 3rd margarita) and an Amtrak ticket-taker. The take-home message? “I’m not available, and I am not amused.” I tell her that it is a clearer and more consistent message if he loses her attention, rather than gains it, as a consequence for hitting.
- I also tell her to write down the number of times that he does hit during the day. She can keep track on her phone (with a fancy App like Behavior Tracker Pro) or just keep a post-it and a pencil nearby. As long as she notes a decline in the number of times that Jax is hitting her, she can be sure that her actions before and after his hitting are changing the rate of his behavior. In order to understand a child’s behavior, we have to be able to define it and to track it to see how it changes when the environment changes. In this case, the “environment” is Lisa’s response to hitting along with her consistent modeling and praise of desired behavior. Without this information, it will be hard for Lisa to really know what is happening with the hitting—our memories are surprisingly fallible and those numbers don’t lie (just like keeping a food diary…).
- Lisa’s tendency, as an awesome mom and a great communicator herself, is to “fill-in” language for Jax and to over-explain why hitting is not OK. I like to use the “n+1” rule for communicating with young children when they are in need of clear information. This rule states that the speaker can use “n” (the number of words that the child spontaneously says) plus one extra word to communicate. As Jax only uses one word at a time, Lisa can adjust her language so that she uses two words at a time, hopefully increasing his understanding of her language. Sometimes the talking that we do following behavior simply becomes part of the child’s expectation of “what happens after.” We want to avoid chaining these behaviors together.
- It would never be my intention to advise any parent to keep the “poker-face” affect up all the time…I encourage and practice the warmest, most squishy and connected parenting that is possible…just not immediately following something that parents don’t want their child to do. Lisa needs to transfer the energy and effort that she is using to correct the behavior to trying to prevent it.
- I never expect behavior to change right away, and I tell Lisa that it will probably take some time to see a real difference. I suggest that she share the strategies with Jax’s dad and nanny as well. I hear from her a week later and she tells me that Jax’s hitting has gone from 50 (ouch!) times per day to 5, and everyone is being consistent and using the new strategies.– Liz Schwandt