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Discipline in the world of special needs

I once heard that discipline for children, in essence. is the fear of removal of love!! Quite a scary thought. Discipline is a complex matter in all families, let alone families with children who have difficulties. No one is an expert when it comes to discipline, even the so-called experts that know all the “rules” and what to do, also get it wrong. I am no discipline expert but for me the important thing about discipline is recognising when I am getting it wrong and changing what I am doing. I believe a negative behaviour or pattern can be changed – it just may take longer than expected and consistency is key.

I have included much information from the “experts” in this post and have tried to divide the content into sections.

Structuring discipline tenets is a bit like building a house:

The Foundation – What is Discipline?

  • Discipline is not punishment.
  • Discipline is supposed to teach children how to act.
  • It should make sense to a child.
  • It should give a child the chance to make mistakes and correct their mistakes, take action and responsibility.
  • It is one of the many tools in a parent’s armada to give children the ability to solve future problems.
  • It is different from punishment, which is punitive and does not teach children how to behave and which usually makes a child feel that they are bad. Punishment is mostly used to gain some kind of control or in a power-play situation.

The Structure – Some Discipline Basics

In order for discipline to be effective there needs to be a structure in place; these are the rules and boundaries. Without rules and boundaries in place a child will not know what is expected of them.

In all homes some rules are tacit and other explicit. In some homes, especially where there is a child with difficulties, these tacit rules may not always be apparent and therefore these rules may need to be explained and talked about.

It is fundamental that parents are unified in the rules otherwise children will play parents off against each other, making discipline impossible.

The Walls – Discipline Techniques

  • Discipline techniques are essentially the consequences of behaviour.
    We all know about the word consequences and many of us may have had the experience our own parents, laughing at our new age parenting approach. but consequences are all about teaching a child cause and effect; every action has a reaction.
  • There are positive consequences – these encourage the repetition of a sought after behaviour. For example: The first time a baby walks and the parent claps – this encourages the behaviour again.
  • There are negative consequences – this is used in times of discouraging a negative behaviour. Negative consequences should be time sensitive and make sense. These are often involve a time-out or the removal of something.
  • There are logical consequences – best described by the new age adage “the consequence should fit the crime.” For example if a child refuses to eat their supper, the logical consequence may be to remove the privilege of a treat, not their television time
  • Lastly there are natural consequences – this is to help teach children to make safe choices. This would entail not intervening when a child does something so they can learn the lesson of their behaviour. For example if a child does not want to wear their shin pads when playing soccer, they may get mildly hurt and will learn the consequences of not wearing the pads. Natural consequences are not appropriate for small children who do not understand the rules of cause and effect and even for some children with difficulties. Make sure these lessons are safe, for example do not let your child go play cricket, without wearing a box – rather have the fight.

The Roof – The More Complex Details

With discipline one is trying to create positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement motivates behaviour and is done through positive consequences already spoken about. It is important to make children feel good through positive reinforcement. This does not always have to be done by giving them treats, or buying them things. Making children feel special can also be achieved through; attention, praise and spending quality time together. Yet, not all-positive behaviour needs to be rewarded, as this could lead to other issues. But it is important for a child to know their good behaviour is seen, noticed, approved of, and praised.

Unfortunately positive behaviour often goes unnoticed and this can lead to negative attention seeking behaviour which is often reinforced. As parents it is so easy to reinforce negative behaviours – this is negative reinforcement. For example; nagging a picky eater, spending hours of time with them at supper, reinforces the behaviour. Negative reinforcement often comes from a good place but as parents we should rather try ignore this behaviour. This can be hard as parents want to empower their children and often the negative behaviour is given attention because of our worry or concern for our children. Fortunately as soon as a parent becomes aware of reinforcing negative behaviour and the fact they are promoting the behaviour, it can be changed.

Lastly, a consequence plan in any home should be balanced. Practising all types of consequences leads to a balanced discipline approach and balanced children.

The finishing touches– How to give consequences

  • Try not yell! – Be calm before handing out consequences. This is sometimes easier said than done.
  • Consequences should be immediate.
  • Consequences should be age, context, situation and personality appropriate. Different children in the same family may need different rules. For example my middle son has very strict rules and time limits when it comes to screen time as he often watches too much tv or plays too long on the computer. I am less strict on my other two as I know if they have too much on one day, for them it is normally a once off.
  • Some children need a warning so as to remind them of the rule.
  • Don’t make idle threats or consequences you cannot stick to. For example if your child pushes someone in the pool on holiday, don’t say if I see you do that again you will not swim for the rest of the holiday.
  • Choose your battles. This makes parenting and disciplining less exhausting.
  • The golden rule – be consistent. No is no! A personal strategy I use sometimes if I am not yet sure but learning towards no, is I ask my children to give me some time to think about the request.
  • Do not only address negative behaviours some of the time. If it is a behaviour you have chosen to address then you need to be consistent otherwise children will take chances.
  • It is important for children to also understand different families have different rules and so does school. My kids often ask why other children can drink fizzy coldrinks – I let them know that that family’s rules are different to ours.
  • Once again make sure you as parents are unified in your discipline plan.

In conclusion – what have we built?

If we look at the opening statement, that discipline for children in essence is the fear of removal of love, the basics of discipline discussed here is not scary or punitive or unloving. If discipline is about teaching a set of behaviours to make children more functional then it can in fact make a child feel loved.

What I think is hard for many parents with children that have difficulties is often there are many behaviours that need to be addressed. By picking the top 3 and first dealing with these, the task is less overwhelming for all and often the other behaviours start improving as a result of a modelling or positive carry-over.

For some children, their behaviours are a symptom or manifestation of their condition. With this comes a certain amount of guilt perhaps in addressing the behaviour. In this case and based on my own personal experience, I do still think the behaviour can be addressed and should be.

It is unfair for a child to feel so different and then also not know how to behave or how to control their behaviour. I think the techniques above can still be used. In such situations though, family rules may need to be modified, as well as a parent’s or family’s expectation. It also may take longer to achieve the desired behaviour.

Our son used to battle to sit and eat. We had to implement many strategies at home like some ABA principles and visual schedules. We had to modify our rules and started off expecting him to sit for only10 minutes and slowly build up to a full meal time We have had to change our expectations and dinners out occur very seldom and only if we have pre-ordered.

Lastly I think it gets confusing what is normal and what is manipulative. It is challenging to know yet encouraging knowing that our children can be manipulative. Challenging, as it is a hard thing to deal with manipulative behaviour and, encouraging because is shows cognitive strengths. Manipulative behaviours are often negatively reinforced by parents, but remember once you recognise this – it can be changed.

A year of recovery

Naturally having a child with special needs is very stressful. In truth everything about it is stressful.

It impacts on my abilities as a parent and it highlights my deficits as a parent. Not to mention the impact it has on me as a person. These deficits make me constantly reassess my life and my self.

It impacts my other children and family in general. Many psychologists are of the opinion that siblings of children with special needs themselves have special needs. This is due to what they are exposed to, the lack of attention they may receive, how special needs in the family affects siblings’ emotions and anxiety, the family environment that ensues as a result of a special needs child. The effect of special needs on siblings cannot be underestimated, some siblings develop close bonds with their special needs siblings and others cannot wait to break ties and get away from them and all they represent. There are interesting research papers done on how many children with special needs siblings end up working as doctors, nurses or in a general industry of helping others. As a parent I have to be aware of what my neuro-typical children see, and sense, hear and feel and what the long-term impacts of our situation and how we deal with it daily, impacts them as well.

Then of course there is the worry about my special needs child. The list is endless. In the short- term; will he be okay today, be well behaved today, have no meltdowns today. The medium term; will he manage, cope, make friends, what school will he go to, what is best for him. The long term sometimes holds scary thoughts for me. Will he be on medication forever, what other issues will we be faced with, will he deteriorate, will he feel like an outcast, the list is endless and I try not go there. I rather try to keep positive and keep it limited to will he succeed at school, will he succeed in life.

Of course there are the tangible concerns of financial pressures, medication and diet. Some days it feels like a constant worry. There is often heaviness in my heart and even in good times and upward periods, I find it hard to totally let go, as I know there will be a downward swing and I can never anticipate what the trigger will be.

As women gain more equality in the world, they tend to take more on themselves. This increases the amount of things they have to get done on a daily basis not only for themselves, but their jobs, their families, their husbands and their homes. Naturally life can be stressful and living with special needs is fraught with additional daily stresses. We all handle stress differently and I know myself, I am A-type personality and I put pressure on myself. I also want to do more and more and my limitations frustrate me. When it comes to my stress, I do also not handle all life throws at me with a breezy and carefree attitude. Even though I have all this tension in my life I think even with my A-type personality I handle it (these two sentences seem contradictory). I eat well, which keeps me healthier from the inside and helps my moods. I exercise frequently, which is a huge stress reliever for me. My husband and I get to spend some really great and quality time together. I have created a support structure, which is pivotal to my sanity.

Yet stress impacts my health. I thought it did not but the last few years have had an effect on me. I run into health problems. Doctor’s comment on what stress is doing to me and tell me I need to get a handle on my stress. My blood counts and stress hormones are in trouble. Yet getting a handle on my stress seems to compound it.. The kind of stress I have in my life cannot simply be walked away from; it is not a job I can go and resign from. I am working on myself to change how things affect me. I have learnt to say No! I have lessened the load. I am following my husband’s advice and where possible only doing, what only I can do. I am trying to make this year the year of recovery for myself and working on improving my blood levels and stress hormones. I also know life, my family, my home, my special needs child and the stress that comes with that are here to stay. As is the person I am. In spite of all this stress I would not change this for the world.

So all I can do is to continue to try my best to manage the situation I have. Focus on my year of recovery. Pray for a break from the chaos and stressful experiences from the last few years. Remember many others have been in the same situation before. And hope it all comes together.