Every year, I look back at the previous year and assess all the things I did and didn’t do, and then create a long list of things I want to accomplish this year. It usually winds up with me feeling defeated and as though I haven’t really accomplished anything. I thought about that this New Year and realized that among my list is always a list for my children too. Things like, teach them how to be better stewards of all that they have, i.e. clean your room and put away your toys; teach them how to be grateful, i.e. don’t break your toys and lose your just-purchased gym shoes; show empathy and compassion, i.e. don’t fight with your brother and sister. For my child on the autism spectrum the list is even longer and includes many of those same goals but also things like personal hygiene, doing homework, keeping organized, staying on task, using manners, and so on. When I looked at my list I already felt overwhelmed. No wonder my children feel overwhelmed too!
Let’s take a quick look at making resolutions, creating goals and changing behaviors. First of all, a new year’s resolution is typically the development of a goal. It is something new you want to learn, something positive you want to do or something you want to stop doing. The goals for our children are often similar: something new we want them to try or learn, an improvement to an area of their life, or a “problem” behavior that we want to stop. We are all overwhelmed when we try to do too much at once, so let’s start with the basics. What do you want for your child in 2015?
There might be many goals that you have for your child or several behaviors that you want to change, but it is really important to focus on one goal. You’ve heard the saying, “pick your battles?” Choosing one goal doesn’t mean that you are going to ignore or never work on the other ones; it simply means that you will focus on what’s most important until sufficient success has been made before moving on.
It is also really important to involve your child in the goal setting and change process as much as possible. When your child is involved, he or she can take responsibility for their actions. It builds self-esteem and creates ownership and self-control. Enlist the siblings and the surrounding family and friends in the change effort as well. When you set a behavior goal for one child, their support system needs to be a part of the consistent approach.
How do you decide which goal is most important? First of all, your child needs to be safe. If they are exhibiting unsafe behaviors that could cause harm to themselves or to someone else, you need to seek immediate professional help. Call your local emergency services, 911. Your child’s safety and the safety of the family are always top priority.
However, if your child is struggling with starting his homework, trying a new vegetable, having meltdowns, or constantly whining – these behaviors can be tackled one by one. Think about the impact of the “problem” behavior and its relationship to other events. Let’s say that Johnny’s grades are slipping. You notice that he has trouble starting his homework every night. He also dawdles at bedtime and is hard to wake up, often acting out in the morning. Your first goal should always be to remove any roadblocks to his success. In the situation described above, not getting enough sleep is a roadblock to Johnny’s success and therefore should be the first goal. Sleep is a basic need that impacts many other areas of well-being. Make sure that your child is well rested. There are many tips to help you establish a consistent bedtime routine and good sleep practices. When your child is well rested, he is likely to exhibit better concentration, less acting out and attend to his academics.
As you know, changing your child’s behavior can be very complicated, especially when there are several seemingly interdependent behaviors involved. Rarely are we, as parents, ever dealing with a single issue. Untangling the relationships between behaviors can be tricky. When there are multiple behaviors that you desire to improve or eradicate, you would likely benefit from objective outside help to prioritize your family’s goals. Once the behavior objectives are prioritized, you can begin the change, starting with goal one. The Autism Program (TAP) network provides free family assistance in this area and can provide you with further resources on parenting and changing unwanted behaviors.
Have you heard the term ABA therapy? ABA stands for Applied Behavioral Analysis and is a science strongly rooted in behavioral psychology. It has application in many areas such as health, education, psychotherapy and parenting. What is so exceptional about ABA is the analysis part. The focus of the analysis is on what is prompting the specific behavior, (often referred to as an antecedent in clinical and school settings.) The antecedent many times is something from the environment, but can also be something physical or biological. ABA therapy is extremely effective to encourage positive behaviors and discourage negative behaviors, to teach important life skills, and to effect long-term positive change. ABA therapy is conducted by Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) or Board Certified Associate Behavior Analysts (BCaBA). TAP offers a fact sheet of treatment options for autism, listing ABA therapy as one treatment. Many of our TAP partner sites offer clinical ABA therapy in their centers. To find the site nearest you click here.
Remember that any change takes time. Be patient with yourself and your child. If you find you or your child falling off the change wagon, get back on and get going again. But be aware of your behaviors, your body language, your words, and your interactions; they all communicate your dedication to the change effort. Whatever method of improvement you choose, it’s so very important to be consistent and follow-through. Children thrive on consistency. It helps them feel safe and in control. Would you want to work for a boss who kept changing the rules or said one thing but did another? Think about how your children perceive your behaviors. Make sure that your behavior aligns with the goal you have in mind and that it is consistent.
How do you identify success? Well, that depends on what behavior you want to change and to what extent you want to change it. It also depends on your child’s cognitive and developmental abilities. A word of caution to all the perfectionist parents out there (myself included); let’s not shoot for perfect, let’s aspire to positive improvement. An example might be that you have difficulty with a child bathing regularly. To set a goal of showering every day might set him up for failure. Perhaps the goal could be to shower five out of the seven days per week. Some behaviors need to be changed 100%, or need to be stopped altogether. For other behaviors perhaps you can live with the incremental improvements. Your child won’t die from not bathing two days per week. Would we parents prefer our child bathes every day? You bet! But I can live with a modest attainable improvement for sure.
We all know that parenting is no easy task and improving behaviors or changing unwanted behaviors is one of the hardest parts of parenting. But you can achieve behavioral success for your child and your family. Remember, you don’t have to accomplish it all at once, and seek professional help or advice when you feel overwhelmed. Follow these goal-setting steps to avoid burn-out and feelings of defeat.
- Concentrate on one goal at a time. Decide if the goal is to stop an unwanted behavior altogether or to create improvement.
- Enlist your child, his/her siblings and the family support system in the goal setting and the behavior change.
- Get professional help with changing behaviors when you feel you need it. Reach out to your local TAP center, join a parent support group, or attend a workshop or training. Remember to get immediate attention if your child’s behavior could cause harm to himself or someone else. Call your local emergency response team, 911.
- Be consistent and remember that it takes time to change behaviors.
- Vision success. What would success in this area look like? Reward the positive steps along the way.
The Autism Program is available to help connect parents and families to resources to help their children thrive. Our network offers clinical services, parent and sibling supports, materials, and trainings throughout the state. All of our TAP centers have a Family and Community Resource Room (FCRR) that is available for use by parents free of charge. The FCRR has materials such as handouts, books, videos and other support aids for parents, families and community members. Click here to find the location nearest you. If you have a specific need or request, you can contact us by filling out the contact form.
Happy New Year to you and yours. Remember to enjoy the journey of parenting with all its challenges and rewards!
Mary Pelich, M.S.
TAP Network Coordinator
Mary is the mother of four, including an 11 year old son with ASD. This is the first blog post in our new series “Family Focus First Friday.” Each first Friday of the month the TAP blog will feature a post written by Mary, or another parent or sibling of a person with ASD. If you are a parent or family member of a person with ASD and would like to write a blog post, email Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org .