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The Angry and Aggressive Child - Anger and Aggression

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Introduction

 
Though few pursuits are as rewarding as being a parent, raising children in the 21st Century is pretty hard work. Today’s children and youth know more than their parents did at the same age, they’re exposed to more information, good and bad, on TV and the internet, and they are more likely to argue with their parents, teachers and other adults. That’s not to say they’re worse than kids used to be. They’re simply different - perhaps a little more sophisticated - and raising them is more complicated.

As well, the world is a different place than the one today’s parents grew up in. Aside from the information revolution, more of the population live in cities now, and those cities are larger, less intimate, and less supportive of families. In fact it often seems that families are viewed by politicians as just another “special interest group”.
 
As well, neighbours don’t seem to know each other all that well today, since people move around more than they once did. As a result, parents are less likely to live near extended family members, so don’t have family support when child-rearing problems come up. Previous generations of parents had a lot more help, and learned how to handle child-rearing problems partly from the advice and support of their parents, grandparents, extended family and even close friends and neighbours. Few parents have that “village” to help raise their kids today.
 
The point is that parents should not feel bad if they need to seek help now and then in dealing with the misbehaviour of their children and teens. Whether they read parenting books (there are lots of them out there and many are very good), consult local school support staff, take a parenting course, watch a TV show on parenting or visit a local social service agency for counselling, getting help just makes sense if you feel overwhelmed.
 
And some of the behaviour that seems overwhelming to parents is often rooted in anger and aggression.

In discussing anger and aggression, it’s important to clarify a couple of things. First of all, anger is an emotion and therefore can’t be directly observed. What can be observed are the physical changes and behaviours that tell us someone is angry. Examples of these signs we can observe include:
 
  1. Facial expressions and other body language
  2. Changes in complexion such as flushing or blanching (i.e. going white with anger)
  3. Outbursts of yelling and/or swearing
  4. Throwing things
  5. Destroying property
  6. Verbalizing or writing threats
  7. Physical assault (hitting, kicking, biting, etc.)
  8. Fighting
  9. Cruelty to animals
  10. Fire-setting
 
 
On the other hand, aggression is a behaviour and can be observed. It can be subtle, such as implied threats (e.g., “You’re going to be sorry.”), or it can be obvious, such as direct challenges to anything from a friend’s opinions to parental authority. It also is a behaviour rooted in the need for “dominance”, that is to be the boss or be in control. Aggression might be directed at getting things others value or simply at demonstrating superiority or power over others.
 
 
What’s more, aggression is both an inherited personality trait or tendency, and a learned behaviour that the child can pick up through observing aggressive people, modelling or copying them, and practicing over time. But for aggression to really take hold as a learned behaviour, it also has to have worked to get the child some kind of pay-off or reward such as attention, control of the environment, or power over others. Psychologists refer to these rewards as “reinforcers” because they reinforce or strengthen the behaviour they follow.
 
 
Aggression is usually an easily observed characteristic of the child that parents and teachers will be well aware of.
 

Anger and Aggression in Young Children

Virtually all children display angry and aggressive behaviour at various times during their development, even during infancy. By the time they start school, as young as age three, both types of behaviour are fairly common, though obviously children vary widely in this area.
 
Anger is often expressed by young children in outbursts of emotion such as temper tantrums triggered by frustration. Aggression might be directly due to this type of angry emotionality, or the child might appear calm and purposeful. All of these observed actions are part of the normal variation one sees in young school aged children.
 

Anger and Aggression in Older Children

As children get older, they might return to the angry behaviour (e.g. temper tantrums) typical of younger ages, particularly when emotions or stress levels are running high. However, by age 10 and throughout early adolescence, the nature of normal angry behaviour changes, usually becoming more controlled and more likely to be expressed in socially appropriate ways. Similarly, in older children aggressive confrontations may occur most often in subtle ways, such as questioning the fairness or necessity of rules and requests from teachers and parents. Often referred to as "power struggles", these confrontations are actually attempts to assert oneself, wrest control from authority figures and be independent. They are a normal part of early adolescent development, and are seen by some experts as merely part of the process of growing into an independent adult.
 

Effects on Adults and Peers

An angry or aggressive child causes adults to feel threatened because their authority is being challenged. The teacher may fear that control of the class is at risk, and consequently feel anger, frustration or helplessness. Parents might feel that they are constantly giving in to the child in order to calm him or her down and avoid “a scene”.
 
The peer group is also affected by angry or aggressive behaviour. Research shows that overly aggressive children are very likely to be rejected by peers and often have fewer friends than non-aggressive children. These youngsters are also at greater risk of slipping into bullying behaviour, which further complicates their relationships with other children and has been shown to increase the risk of significant social problems in adolescence and adulthood.

Crossing the Line

There is nothing unusual about children's anger or aggression, so long as it doesn't "cross the line" into inappropriate or worrisome activity. Where these behaviours cross that line is usually judged by their intensity, frequency and duration. Unfortunately, there is no handy set of guidelines that can pinpoint exactly when angry or aggressive behaviour is "normal" (what we’re calling “in the green light zone") and when it suddenly is not. But below we’ll discuss signs to look for that suggest movement in that direction (i.e., into the "yellow light zone").
 
When behaviour becomes even more serious in its intensity and impact on others, it crosses into the "red light zone". At this point a referral to a mental health professional is warranted.
 
Approximately 5 to 10 percent of children and teens exhibit this very serious behaviour, and at least half of those will show other serious mental health or learning problems. For example, many children with frequent angry or aggressive behaviour also have difficulty academically. As well, they show weakness in both paying attention and in self-control, often behaving impulsively rather than thinking things through before acting. This tendency for misbehaviour and mental health problems to occur together can make it complicated for parents to cope at home, for teachers to cope in the classroom, and for professionals to treat the child or teen.
 
However, angry or aggressive children do not always have these additional problems, and the other problems probably don’t cause the anger or aggression in most cases.
 
For parents of these difficult children the challenge is to manage the behaviour at home as best they can, with whatever supports they can find, including resources like this one. When they find that their children’s unique needs go beyond what can be done at home, it’s time to seek help outside the home. What’s at stake is each child’s chance to be successful, especially socially, so that they can be contributing members of society and enjoy productive, warm relationships with othersin school, at home and someday in the work environment.


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When at home it’s not unusual for young children to occasionally display anger or aggression. Typical behaviours you might see in children aged 4 to 6 include:
 
1.      Yelling
2.      Angry outbursts
3.      Temper tantrums
4.      Drawing angry or aggressive pictures
5.      Confrontations with peers, parents or even other adults
6.      Throwing things
7.      Damaging or destroying property
8.      Threatening or intimidating others
9.      Hitting, kicking, biting, fighting

Aggression is sometimes directed at parents, but in the green light zone peers and siblings are the more usual
targets of this behaviour. As well, in young children the aggression is typically goal directed. That is, young children normally act aggressively when they want something, or are protecting something they possess, or are trying to either avoid or dominate a situation or person.
 
For example, these behaviours might often be motivated by a concrete desire, such as the child wanting a particular toy or object. Or he/she may be trying to avoid having to do something unpleasant, like clean up a mess. But keep in mind that these behaviours are more common in children whose temperaments are more demanding or aggressive.

As such, they tend to be consistent with what the parents already know about their child – it’s not a surprise.
Anger and aggression might also be a reaction to a person or event in the environment that the child sees as threatening. And at this age such perceptions are often mistaken. That is, very young children often misinterpret the actions or intentions of others and react with anger or aggression that is really inappropriate. Be aware that this is a very important learning process at this age level, and these situations provide opportunities to teach kids to become more skilled at reading other people’s motivations and viewpoints.
 
Sometimes young children’s anger or aggression is motivated by a need for attention, often from the parents. Peer or sibling attention can also motivate misbehaviour of this type, but it is seldom planned, deliberate or mean spirited at this age.
 
Expressing anger toward adults is also relatively common in this age group. Sometimes it's a learned behaviour resulting from parents frequently giving in to the children when they react angrily or throw a tantrum to avoid things such as bedtime, eating vegetables, or doing chores. This kind of parenting, by the way, makes these children quite prepared to engage their teachers in similar angry arguments or bargaining, as a normal way to get what they want or at least get a compromise (e.g., a few more minutes to work on their art project before having to get out the math book). Again, however, the child's temperament plays a significant role, in combination with parental practices at home.
 
Boys and girls are equally subject to angry or aggressive behaviour, but girls learn to suppress it as they get older. In most cultures, we still tend to reward girls for "pleasant" or "feminine" behaviour, while anger and aggression are deemed inappropriate. Boys, however, tend to be rewarded for behaviour that is aggressive, and their anger is often accepted as normal.
 
Temper tantrums or emotional outbursts do occur at this age level, often emerging out of frustration. But at green light levels these crises are usually short lived and fairly easily handled with soothing discussions or by distracting the child, or by using a warm but firm form of discipline.
 


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At any age level, what moves a behaviour from the normal range or green light zone, into the yellow light zone, which is worrisome and bears watching, is its intensity, frequency and/or duration.

For example, an angry outburst where a child confronts a parent and refuses to do what he or she is told is not necessarily worrisome. But it needs to be watched under certain conditions, such as:

  1. If an angry outburst is so intense that the entire family is disrupted, siblings are upset, or the child is exhausted by the event, then the behaviour is worrisome. Parents need to at least monitor how often events of this intensity occur.
  2. If the child’s aggression toward other children is resulting in rejection and difficulty finding playmates, some closer scrutiny is indicated.
  3. If aggressive incidents happen as much as once a month or more (frequency), it definitely needs to be tracked and monitored.
  4. The length of time an angry or aggressive episode lasts (duration) can also indicate the seriousness of the behaviour. Young children usually have short attention spans and are easily distracted. Therefore, if an instance of anger or aggression goes on for more than a few minutes, and the child cannot be distracted, parents will need to respond. 

In summary, a variety of angry or aggressive behaviour is quite common among today's young children. However, when these occur weekly, and/or with disturbing intensity, and/or when incidents seem to go on for too long, there is reason to be concerned. Adults and other children in the family will likely be affected by the duration, frequency and intensity of such misbehaviour, and this can create an atmosphere of stress in the home. In fact, when this results in parents feeling frustrated, angry or helpless, it signals a need to move into a phase of tracking, documenting and planning action to solve the problem.


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Behaviours strongly suggest a mental health problem when they interfere to a significant extent with the child's normal functioning at home, in school, socially or in day to day pursuits.

Behaviours at this serious level of concern are rare before age 5, especially in girls. Therefore, overly frequent, intense or long-lasting anger and/or aggression signal the need for referral to a mental health specialist. This is especially important if there are also problems with peer relationships or if concerns are expressed by teachers or other school officials.
 
At this age level, indicators of a serious degree of concern include:
  1. A pattern of ongoing aggressive behaviour, whether obvious or subtle
  2. Frequent threats or intimidation
  3. Frequent temper tantrums severe enough to disrupt the environment at home or at school
  4. A strong need for power and control (often displayed in arguments or power struggles)
  5. A strong need to dominate others (e.g., always has to be the boss, or always needs to win even in trivial games or contests, “sore loser”)
  6. Frequently damaging or destroying property either in anger or in a vindictive way
  7. Frequent fighting or physically assaulting others
  8. Any evidence of cruelty toward younger children or animals
  9. Any fire-setting, especially if it may have been on purpose
When confronted with regular tantrum behaviour, parents and teachers may drastically reduce demands on these children so as not to "set them off". These children are quick to anger and may be easily moved to tears. Anger and aggression will occur regularly or even daily. These children can say spiteful, mean things and seldom show remorse or evidence of empathy. Bullying and teasing behaviour might also be a problem.
 
Teachers may report feeling threatened and angry at the fact that the student is attempting to control events in the classroom and be the centre of attention. Concern for the safety of the other students and/or the angry student himself or herself are likely to further affect the teacher's emotions.

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This broad age range is a period of considerable change and growth. In general, normal misbehaviour such as breaking rules, disobedience, angry behaviour or aggression occurs less in the early part of this range than later when the children are approaching the teen years.
 
Throughout this period, misbehaviours are relatively mild and predictable, such as yelling, "fooling around", rough play, not doing as you are told. Anger and aggression do occur, but are relatively uncommon and seldom serious. Instead, anger usually results from frustration at not getting one’s way, e.g., arguing that the parent’s requests, directions or rules are either not fair or not consistent ("How come 'he' doesn't have to do it?"). Aggressive behaviour is usually directed at siblings, though most children will instinctively “try out” being aggressive with peers just to see how it is received. Many children who show anger and aggression more often than their peers are quite "in character" with their temperament and the parents are seldom surprised at the behaviour.
 
During this stage of development, children grow steadily more focused on their peers. By around age 10, more and more misbehaviour is aimed at getting peer attention, rather than adult attention. Because peer attention will somehow be involved in most daily discipline issues, parents must be aware of the child's concerns with the social group. Failure to consider these concerns such as saving face, embarrassment in front of friends and self-esteem, can lead to increasing tension, acting out and alienation.
 
Also around age 10, many children will become focused on concepts related to rights such as fairness and equality. At this stage, arguing with adults and flashes of anger might increase as these youngsters grapple with newly discovered feelings of passion related to their own growth in independence and the early stirrings of identity-building.


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Watch for:
  1. Intensity
  2. Frequency
  3. Duration
 
What moves a behaviour from the normal range into a category that is worrisome and bears watching is its intensity, frequency and/or duration. An angry outburst where a child confronts the parent and refuses to behave is not necessarily worrisome. But it bears watching under certain conditions:
 
If it happens once a month or more (frequency), it definitely needs to be tracked and monitored.
 
If a single instance of anger or aggression is of such intensity that the entire family or peer group is disrupted, or the child himself/herself is shaken by the event, then close monitoring is indicated.
 
The length of time an angry or aggressive episode lasts (duration) is also an indicator of the seriousness of a misbehaviour.
 
Note that judging the seriousness of an incident based on its duration must take age differences into account. Youngsters in middle childhood are growing quickly, and their attention spans are constantly changing. At age 6, attention spans are short and powers of concentration quite limited. A serious angry outburst that lasts for some time, perhaps even going into a subsequent day, would be outside the normal range for 6 and 7 year olds. By the end of this age range however, attention and concentration powers are very well developed and easily focused, and a prolonged incident of anger or aggression would not be all that unusual for a 12 year old with a difficult temperament.
 
Expressing anger at a parent is quite common among middle school children throughout the age range, but if this occurs weekly, and/or with disturbing intensity, and/or persists for too long, there is reason for concern. Be particularly concerned at the younger end of the range.
 
Children aged 6 to 12 will engage in a variety of inappropriate behaviours on occasion, but would not be expected to misbehave severely enough to significantly interfere with the routine daily activities of the family. If the frequency, intensity or duration of the misbehaviour leads to interference or disruption of family life, and parents feel frustrated, angry or helpless, this signals a need to move into a phase of tracking, documenting and planning remedial action.


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Early in this age range, "red light" behaviours are clearly disruptive to daily living and highly disturbing to the parents and to other children. Slightly more males are involved than females. Angry behaviour and aggression will be common and red light levels might include:
  1. Excessive yelling
  2. Angry outbursts
  3. Temper tantrums
  4. Excessive swearing
  5. Spiteful or vindictive behaviour
  6. Drawing or writing with aggressive themes
  7. Throwing things
  8. Damaging property
  9. Threatening or intimidating others (including persistent bullying)
  10. Physical assault including hitting, kicking or biting other children or even adults
  11. Fighting (perhaps with a weapon)
  12. Fire setting
  13. Cruelty to animals or smaller children.
 
The child will lack empathy and be a constant disruptive force in the home, school and community - an ever-present, distracting, centre of attention. At school, both the teacher and other students will feel uncomfortable and "on edge" whenever the child is around and especially if he or she looks agitated.
 
The older part of this age range is the beginning of the most common stage of development for the onset of serious behaviour and mental health problems involving aggression, serious conduct problems or even criminal activity. Misbehaviour of this degree is seldom observed prior to age 10, but when it is, the problem is typically even more serious.
 
In the "red light" zone at ages 10 to 12 parents might observe a repetitive and persistent pattern of behaviour that violates both the rights of others and age-appropriate social expectations.
 
With these children, especially over age 10, who exhibit these red light behaviours, the parent may feel concern for the safety of other children. In fact, parents may sometimes even feel uneasy about their own safety in the face of serious anger and aggression in older middle school children.


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This age range is a period of considerable and often abrupt change. One aspect of development at this age is that there is acceleration in the process of children building a unique identity. That is, they need to become separate individuals, different from their parents. As a result, these young people become intensely focused on their peers, and almost as self-centered as when they were two. Normal misbehaviour such as breaking rules, disobedience, or arguing often increase noticeably in frequency, duration and intensity, particularly in children with a difficult temperament. Depending on the temperament of the child, anger and aggression might also become more common as these youngsters try to establish their independence. Arguing with adults becomes more frequent, angry and intense. These youngsters often display a strong conviction that they are right and maybe even that they know more than the adults they engage in debate.
 
In this stage of development, a great deal of misbehaviour is aimed at getting the attention of the peer group. The goal of the misbehaviour is either to get peers' attention, to impress them, or to display admirable qualities such as courage, independence or nonconformity. More than ever, parents must consider their children’s social concerns, such as saving face and avoiding embarrassment in front of friends. Failure to consider these concerns, especially when disciplining your child, will almost certainly lead to increasing tension, acting out and alienation.
 
Normal levels of misbehaviour in this age range do not usually disrupt the flow of daily life in the family. Although parents may get frustrated at times, there shouldn’t be an ongoing feeling of anxiety or a sense of losing control if the anger and aggression are within the green light zone.


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Watch for:
 
  1. Intensity
  2. Frequency
  3. Duration
 
In early adolescence, it is still intensity, frequency and duration that differentiate normal from worrisome behaviour. This is particularly the case with:
  1. Yelling
  2. Angry outbursts
  3. Aggression
  4. Temper tantrums
  5. Swearing
  6. Spiteful, vindictive behaviour
  7. Throwing things
  8. Fighting
 
And just as with younger children, two main indicators of worrisome behaviour are:
 
  1. Frequent disruption of daily life
  2. A parent who is constantly battling feelings of anxiety, frustration, outrage and loss of control
 
Peer Group Dynamics
 
During early adolescence, distinguishing normal from worrisome behaviour simply on the basis of intensity, frequency and/or duration becomes more complicated. The nature of misbehaviour among teens is also heavily influenced by the peer group. In fact, parents may feel that they have less influence on their child than his/her friends. As a result, it is very worthwhile for parents to get to know their child’s close friends, and even their families, so that they can better understand the world in which their child operates.


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This age range is part of the most common period for the onset of seriously maladjusted behaviour involving defiance, aggression, anger or even criminal activity. Although both are at risk, slightly more boys are affected than girls.
 
Repetitive and persistent patterns of behaviour that violates both the rights of others and age-appropriate social norms are observed. This can include:
  1. Frequent bullying or teasing
  2. Fighting (perhaps with a weapon)
  3. Physical cruelty to people or animals
  4. Damage or destruction of property (including fire setting)
  5. Spiteful, vindictive behaviour
  6. Assaultive behaviour (hitting, kicking, etc.)
  7. Frequent and/or intense loss of temper
  8. Threatening, intimidating behaviour
 
The misbehaviour occurs at both home and school, and usually also in the community.
 
The parents usually feel more than just frustrated or threatened in terms of controlling their child. Confronted by red light misbehaviour in this age range, the parents might feel concern or fear for the safety of other children, and of themselves. Very often with this red light level of anger or aggression, the home situation feels intolerable.


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The high school years can be a chaotic period of development. They begin when students are in the thick of Early Adolescence, normally thought to range from 13 to 15 years, they end with students in the stage known here as Adolescence, encompassing ages 15 to 18, and they are frequently filled with the sound and fury of transitioning between the two. And “transition” is the key words since youngsters, of course, don’t suddenly move from one “stage” to the next. For that reason, much of the information contained in the previous section on Early Adolescence is applicable to some young people in Late Adolescence or perhaps to all of them some of the time. As a result, the divisions presented here are somewhat artificial. Nonetheless, the information presented below is usually more typical of the older adolescent.



Throughout their development children and youth have to complete certain phases of maturing that are referred to as “tasks”. The tasks that adolescents face during the high school years include becoming independent, building an identity separate from that of their parents, selecting a value system of their own, and establishing a supportive social group that will respect that identity, independence and value system. Obviously this is a pretty intense period of development. And it is also obvious that these young people will continue to display the intense peer focus and self-centeredness first exhibited around age 12. In the later adolescent years, however, a subtle shift begins toward a wider social view. Normal misbehaviours such as breaking rules, disobedience, and arguing still occur, but they begin to diminish in frequency, duration and intensity, except perhaps in those with difficult temperaments. Again, however, because this is still a transitional time, behaviour in general tends to be unstable, with young people frequently moving from dependence and confusion to independence and adult-like poise and back again all within a matter of moments. This helps account for the tendency to characterize teens as moodyand self-absorbed.
 
Anger and aggression, often rooted in frustration, can be fairly common in the early High School years, and can be confrontational as these youngsters try to establish their independence. Because of their need to explore, question and challenge, anger with adults can be more frequent and intense than in younger kids. Younger teens often display a strong conviction that they are right and maybe even know more than the adults they engage in debate. But around age 16 most teens, especially girls, become noticeably more mature and begin to demonstrate more restraint and self-control.
 
By ages 17 and 18, most young people show a marked reduction in the tendency to display serious anger or aggression, and often relate to adults on a surprisingly mature level. This transition that occurs around the age of 16 or 17 is sometimes gradual, but is equally likely to appear to be abrupt or sudden. This is not to say that 17 and 18 year olds won’t exhibit angry or aggressive behaviour, but for most young people such events become less frequent, less intense and more easily and quickly resolved.
 
During the teen years a great deal of misbehaviour is triggered by or aimed at the peer group,possibly due to peer pressure.  The goal of the misbehaviour is either to get their peers’ attention, to impress them, or to display admirable qualities such as courage, independence or nonconformity. More than ever, when dealing with misbehaviour, parents should be mindful of their child’s socially driven concerns such as saving face and avoiding embarrassment in front of friends. Failure to consider these concerns will almost certainly lead to increasing tension, anger and alienation, even among older teens where you might not expect it.
 
Despite the above, normal levels of anger and aggression in this age range do not usually disrupt the flow of activity in the family, particularly in the later adolescent years. Furthermore, while parents may get frustrated at times, there isn’t an ongoing feeling of anxiety or a sense of losing control if the behaviour is within the green light zone.


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All through the teen years, distinguishing between normal behaviour and worrisome behaviour on the basis of intensity, frequency and/or duration becomes more difficult. For one thing, among teens the nature of their misbehaviour is heavily influenced by the peer group. In fact, especially in older teens, parents need to realize that they are likely to share the job of teaching and guiding their children with the more influential or charismatic of their children’s friends. Therefore, getting to know your child’s friends, and their attitudes and value systems, can be very important.
 
This means that sometimes parents can only fully understand any anger and aggression they see in their teens by being aware of the social context the kids are immersed in.
 
Nonetheless, with older adolescents it is still intensity, frequency and duration that differentiate normal from worrisome behaviours such as:
1.      Angry outbursts, including yelling, swearing or temper tantrums
2.      Angry confrontations with parents, teachers or other adults
3.      Drawing or writing with angry or aggressive themes
4.      Spiteful or vindictive behaviour
5.      Aggression, including threats or intimidation
6.      Throwing things
7.      Damaging or destroying property
8.      Fighting
9.      Bullying others
 
There are two additional indicators that the behaviour has reached a worrisome level:
 
1.      The anger and aggression disrupts normal family activities or family functioning
2.      Parents are left with feelings of anxiety, frustration, outrage and loss of control.
 
More specifically, your older teen’s behaviour should be considered worrisome if he or she:
 
  • Disrupts family functioning once a week or more (frequency), and/or
  • Disrupts family functioning for more than just a few minutes (duration), and/or
  • Disrupts family functioning to such an extent as to interfere with the family’s normal day to day activities, their sense of safety,or their enjoyment of life (intensity).

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Adolescence, particularly the last few teen years, is the most common period for the beginning of seriously maladjusted behaviour involving defiance, aggression, significant conduct problems or even criminal activity. Although both are at risk, slightly more boys than girls are affected.
 
In this “red light” zone we see a repetitive and persistent pattern of behaviour that violates both the rights of others and age-appropriate expectations. Misbehaviour can include:
 
1.      Serious bullying or harassment 
2.      Threats or intimidation, including extortion
3.      Assault
4.      Fighting (perhaps with a weapon)
5.      Physical cruelty to people or animals
6.      Destruction of property (including fire setting)
7.      Hanging out with antisocial peers (including gang membership)
8.      Serious property damage or destruction
 
 
Less serious, but still within the “red light” zone for this age level, are behaviours that show a pattern of hostile, antisocial behaviour such as:
 
1.      Yelling and angry outbursts
2.      Spiteful or vindictive behaviour
3.      Temper outbursts
4.      Throwing things
5.      Excessive swearing
 
The misbehaviour can occur in both school and community, and usually also in the home.
 
Such behaviours are considered “red light” when:
 
  • They occur more than once each week, sometimes even daily, and/or
  • They are of such an intensity as to upset the family and disrupt the normal flow of family functioning, and/or
  • Their duration is considerable, taking up a good deal of time or casting a negative tone over the entire day for parents and other family members.
 
Parents will usually feel more than just frustrated or threatened by their teen. Confronted by red light misbehaviour in this age range, the parents often feel concern or fear for the safety of the other family members, sometimes including themselves. The home situation very often feels intolerable. Skipping school and dropping out are both frequent outcomes for these young people, who often appear to be at war with school staff and even fellow students.

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The factors that underlie anger and aggression can be really complex. Parents need to resist the temptation to look for one-dimensional, simplistic explanations. It is important to remember the following general points about the factors that influence behaviour in childrenand youth:
 
  • Most of the children who live with identified "risk factors" actually perform just fine in school and live lives that are quite average, without disordered behaviour and its consequences.
  • Children who exhibit the most challenging behaviour often live with more than one of these risk factors, and it's the cumulative effect that becomes the major problem.
  • These risk factors are seldom constant over time, but are dynamic and change as situations change and as the child develops.
 
Each of the factors discussed below has been shown to have an influence on the way children behave. When that influence is negative, it moves the child toward "Yellow Light" or even "Red Light" behaviours.

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While most parents might not be aware of this, health and biology have clearly been shown to contribute to children’s angry, aggressive behaviour. Some of the more important connections are described here.
 
 
Biological/congenital factors
 
Inherited factors such as personality or temperament can make a child prone to angry, aggressive and argumentative behaviour. Traits such as aggressiveness,high activity level,low tolerance for frustration, need for power and dominance, and even leadership ability, are just a few examples of the many characteristics inherited from our parents that can result in this kind of behaviour.
 
 
These characteristics won’t necessarily appear as a problem with anger or aggression since they will be influenced by different environments, experiences and parenting styles. But in some cases, they will make certain children and adolescents more at risk for this type of behaviour.
 
 
Health factors
 
Some mental and physical health factors can play a very prominent role in triggering angry or aggressive behavior.Even prenatal factors can play a role, and lead to conditions such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome that clearly affect behaviour. Mental health issues are also a factor here, and are dealt with in detail elsewhere (LINK to “The Sad Child”, “The Worried or Anxious Child”, “The Self-Harmful Child”, “The Child with Unusual Behaviours”).
 
 
Examples of physical health issues known to impact on behaviour include:
1.      Hearing or speech problems
2.      Visual impairments
3.      Serious illnesses such as cancer
4.      Cerebral palsy
5.      Degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy or spina bifida
 
It is important to note that none of these directly cause behaviour such as aggression. Rather, the interaction of these conditions with the child’s temperament, the parents’ attitude, school and community environments and so on, will determine the impact on behaviour. So the physical health problems only influence behaviour indirectly.
 
For example, if a child’s health problems cause parents and/or teachers to have very low expectations and demand very little academically or behaviourally, a typical result might be that the child appears “spoiled”, demanding and easily angered.
 
Similarly, any health problem that results in a significant number of missed school days can result in a child falling so far behind academically, and/or feeling so unconnected socially, that depression or discouragement sets in. This almost always causes children and teens to simply tune out and stop trying, but a few will react with negative behaviour such as anger and aggression.
 


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This section includes disabilities that affect everything from mobility, to sensory issues, to learning limitations, as well as differences that might affect a child’s approach to learning, social interaction or support needs. Examples include:
 
1.      Learning disabilities
2.      Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
3.      Autism
4.      Intellectual disabilities
5.      Hearing or speech problems
6.      Visual impairments
7.      Cerebral palsy
8.      Disabilities affecting mobility and/or requiring use of crutches or a wheelchair.
 
 
With the exception of a few rare brain abnormalities, disabilities or differences seldom, directly cause angry or aggressive behaviour. Instead, behaviour problems usually result from the interaction between the disability or difference and other factors such as the child’s temperament, the reactions of others to the disability or difference, the supports available to the child and the family, and the culture of the school. The culture of the school often plays a major role in determining how much peer support and acceptance the child will enjoy.
 
Although all of these factors interact in complex ways, one of the most important is the child’s temperament, since it will influence his or her attitude. For example, children and teens who are optimistic, determined and high in self-esteem are likely to cope better with a disability or difference and exhibit behaviour that is both appropriate and acceptable. In contrast, children and teens who are easily discouraged, aggressive or have low self-esteem will likely be prone to anger and defiance.
 
Children and teens who are frequently angry and aggressive are also likely to have temperaments characterized by low frustration tolerance, weak anger management, a history of tantrum behaviour (usually inadvertently reinforced by parents and teachers), and a tendency to blame the disability or difference for every problem.
 
The important point here is that the child’s behaviour is a learned reaction to the way the child and others view that child’s challenges, and not an inevitable result of the challenges themselves.


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In a multicultural nation it is important to understand the role of religious and cultural factors in influencing behavior, but not to blame them for the behaviour. No cultural or religious factor would directly cause angry or aggressive behaviour. Instead it is circumstances that surround these factors, and the reaction to them, that can move a child or teen toward worrisome behaviour.
 
For example, when children or youth have recently arrived in the country and are not yet comfortable with the language and customs, they may encounter a school culture that is not welcoming or accommodating. The potential for behaviour problems in this situation is high. The children might find themselves taken advantage of, bullied or ignored by the other children in the school, and react by aggressively lashing out and/or disrupting the class and/or by bringing their anger home and lashing out aggressively at family members. Obviously, these behaviours are set off by the reaction to the child’s culture or religion and not by the culture or religion itself.
 
In other cases, gender role differences may underlie angry or aggressive behaviour. For example some children, especially boys, may have a negative reaction to female teachers if in their home country only men were teachers and/or authority figures.
 
Children whose families were persecuted for their religious beliefs in their home country might be particularly sensitive to any references to their religion, no matter how innocent. Comments made by others at school or in the neighbourhood may make the child or teen feel threatened, and depending upon age, temperament, gender and so on, he/she might react with fear, outrage, anger, threats or fighting.
 
In a small number of cases, angry, aggressive behaviour could be a result of being raised in a country of origin that is gripped by lawlessness, anarchy and corruption. Immigrants who have experienced such environments sometimes take time to adjust to a culture where the rule of law is paramount, and social order, mutual consideration and even politeness are valued. It is easy to underestimate the impact of moving virtually overnight from a culture focused on survival of oneself and family, to one of relative peace and prosperity. Children or teens caught up in that transition may continue to distrust others, especially officials in positions of authority, and continue to challenge rules and use other inappropriate means, such as aggression, to meet their immediate needs.
 
Alternatively, there is also some evidence of cases where aggressive behaviour might result from a “culture of affluence”, regardless of whether the families are immigrants or not. Children and teens who have a sense of superiority or entitlement due to extreme family wealth or power can also display aggression or anger out of a misguided notion that they are somehow exempt from the normal rules of society.


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Trauma in home country
 
Often, children and teens coming from very turbulent or violent circumstances in their home country have been traumatized in the course of their relocation, and may exhibit post-trauma symptoms. Trauma often occurs in children or teens who have been abused, or even witnessed others being abused. The longer they endured the traumatic experience, the more severe the reaction and the harder it becomes to recover and develop a more positive and trustful view of the world.
 
Some of the warning signs here include anxiety, fear of new or ambiguous situations,poor concentration, easily triggered startle responses, fear of leaving home and what appears to be daydreaming (actually a sudden re-experiencing of traumatic events). All of these could elicit negative reactions from teachers or other children and lead to angry, argumentative or aggressive defensive reactions from the child.
 
Trauma at home
 
Related to the above, research has found a surprisingly large number of children and teens who exhibit signs of trauma, but only a small proportion of them are children who experienced violence in their home country. Instead, the evidence suggests that most children with trauma-induced behaviour problems have either been abused (physically or sexually), or have witnessed the abuse of their mother. This is a major traumatizing factor affecting behaviour, and the results often include significant anger or aggressive acting out.
 
Canadian research has found that serious emotional and behavioural problems are 10 to 17 times more common in children from violent homes than in children from nonviolent homes.Both American and European research has found similarly large effects of family violence. The most commonly reported behaviour problems in these children are:
 
1.      Aggression toward peers (and sometimes toward female teachers)
2.      Noncompliance
3.      Anger and defiance
4.      Destructive behaviour
5.      Depression
6.      Anxiety
7.      School phobia
8.      Low self-esteem
9.      Social problems
 
According to some studies, approximately 60% of children who witness or experience a traumatic eventwill develop post-trauma symptoms. These might include:
 
1.      Hyperarousal (“deer in headlights” effect)
2.      Fearfulness
3.      Anxiety
4.      Irritability
5.      Difficulty concentrating
6.      Daydreaming
7.      Angry outbursts
8.      Recurrent distressing dreams about traumatic events
9.      Feelings of detachment from people and activities
 
In general, sustained and/or repeated exposure to traumatic events, results in more frequent or intense reactions.
 
Post traumatic behaviour is seldom recognized and is most often misidentified as some form of attention problem. Clearly this factor should be considered a major potential cause for the kind of angry aggressive behaviours addressed here.
 
Loss
 
Some children and teens who have suffered a significant loss might also display some of these behavioural issues. For example, children who have been relocated experience loss: the loss of friends, a familiar school and neighbourhood, and adults they relied on such as teachers and after-school caregivers. But of course, the loss most of us think of first is a death.
 
There has been a good deal of research on children who have experienced the death of a friend or loved one. Much of their behaviour following such a significant event is what we might expect – sadness, depression, concern about the future - it is important to remember that anger is also a very normal part of the grieving process, and can lead to some aggressive behaviour as well.


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Why should parents do something about angry and aggressive behaviour?
 
Dealing with anger or aggression should be a high priority for parents because this type of behaviour, even at normal or "Green Light" levels, is disruptive to the smooth functioning of the family, affects everyone’s mood, can affect the child’s behaviour out of the home, and undermines parental authority.
From the standpoint of the child’s welfare action should be taken because this kind of misbehaviour can be a warning sign of worse to come. Anger and aggression at a young age is often a precursor to significant academic, social and behaviour problems in subsequent years. In fact, it has been shown that children identified as “hard to manage” at age 4 have a 50/50 chance of experiencing serious behaviour problems in adolescence.

Some General Tips

Show respect. Always let your child know that you care about and respect him or her. Try to show that it’s the behaviour you dislike and not the child. Being respectful means listening, being polite, and refraining from yelling, nagging, name calling or harping on past problems. In other words, treat your child the way you would like him or her to treat you.
Be positive. Try to convey optimism that your child can improve. Model confidence, calmness and patience, and try to control your own anger.
Don’t make excuses for your child’s behaviour. When your child is aggressive or displays tantrum behaviour, resist the temptation to “explain it away” as understandable or justified, or simply due to frustration or lack of sleep. Kids need to learn at an early age that they are accountable for their behaviour and are expected to control themselves.
Perspective taking. Help your child learn to automatically consider other people’s points of view. Angry aggressive children often have trouble considering other people’s feelings or even what they might be thinking, and therefore often misinterpret other people’s behaviour.
 

Underlying beliefs about dealing with anger and aggression

 
As much as everyone agrees on the need to deal with this behaviour, there is considerable disagreement among experts over the question of how parents might best approach it. Countless books and articles have been written on this topic, and they offer a boatload of philosophies, theories and practical applications. The ideas and suggestions that follow include much of this information, but are framed according to these clear underlying beliefs:
 
  1. First of all, behaviour is heavily influenced by its antecedents (what happens just before) and especially by its consequences (what happens just after). However, the emotional and mental state of the child is also important. For example, parents wouldn't respond in the same way to two seemingly identical temper tantrums, if in one instance the child was merely trying to get out of putting away his toys, while in the other he was acting out angry feelings due to the death of a deeply loved pet. Thoughts and feelings do count.
     
  2. Secondly, adults can't control the behaviour of children, teens or anyone else. We can only control our own behaviour and certain aspects of the environment. Luckily that's usually enough, because the actions of adults, especially parents, are remarkably important to children, even teenaged children. While that's good news, it does mean that we need to be aware of our own behaviour around children so that we don't unintentionally influence their behaviour in a negative way. In fact that's a common problem; parents often unwittingly play a role in maintaining the very behaviour that's bothering them.
 

Basic Behavioural Principles

 
I. Focus on Prevention

  • Because behaviour is significantly influenced by its antecedents, or what has come before, the general day-to-day environment plays an important role in determining how children will behave. The guidelines below are based on parenting practices that are known to reduce opportunities or triggers for misbehaviour.
  • Create a home environment that is warm and loving, with ample opportunity for your children to experience feelings of being valued for who they are.
  • All kids want to be “good” and to feel their parents love them and are proud of them. No matter how disruptive they might be on any given day, keep this fact in mind.
  • As parents we assume that our children know we love them, even if we often forget to show it in the way we act, or the things we say. Try to remember to show your affection for your children every day, even when their behaviour is challenging. That bumper sticker that asks “Have you hugged your child today?” is more than just folk wisdom. It has a lot of good science behind it.
  • Some of the misbehaviour we deal with as parents is directed at getting our attention. Anticipate this by finding time every day to give each child a blast of individual, focused, positive attention as a bit of preventative medicine.
  • Try to treat instances of misbehaviour as “teachable moments”.
  • That means that part of the time you spend reacting to, correcting or punishing misbehaviour should be devoted to teaching your kids exactly what you expect of them. Don’t assume that they already know.
  • All expectations need to be taught to children at one time or another, and things we think they have learned need to be retaught now and then just to refresh their memories. It is also wise to allow kids, especially teens, to have input and discuss and debate the household rules now and then as they get older and circumstances change. Children should never have to guess or learn through trial and error when it comes to their parents’ expectations around behaviour.
 
  • Be consistent, not perfect, since obviously that's impossible.
  • If you spend time teaching your rules and expectations, then it would be disastrously unfair to bend them, ignore them or change them unannounced. As well, a rule, routine or expectation related to behaviour has to be applied equally to all the children in ways that are appropriate to their ages and individual needs. Remember that “equal” treatment doesn’t mean “the same” treatment. Also, parents need to work hard at being reliably predictable from day to day, week to week, month to month. Kids don’t like surprises when it comes to behavioural expectations and they all, even teens, thrive on well-established routines. Finally, remember that the children do not need to like or approve of every rule, but when the rules are enforced consistently, they will at least respect your fairness.
  • Create a constant, unwavering climate of mutual respect.

  • Adults often demand respect from children but don’t give it in return. Unfortunately, respect doesn’t work that way, especially where kids are concerned. It’s a two way street, and when children are treated with respect and dignity, they generally return the favour. As we’ll see below, this means treating your kids with respect, even when they are misbehaving. Of course, this also means adults must treat one another with respect, even when they might be upset with one another.
  • As well, remember that parents who rely on disciplinary measures that are overly punitive, demeaning, humiliating or disrespectful, are sure to escalate behavioural issues.
  • Remember that children are curious and exploratory and that's a good thing.
  • This means that parents should not feel offended or defensive when their children test them. In fact, experienced parents expect testing behaviour and are prepared for it, especially when there are changes happening in the home situation. When rules are established, expect that sooner or later at least one of the kids will need to check that you really will enforce them. This is not because kids are "bad" or disobedient, but simply because kids need to know. They’re kids and testing their parents is their job.
  • These testing situations are really quite important. If the childrenfind that the rule is not enforced, that rule will cease to have any power over their behaviour. It’s vital, especially when a rule is new, that you deal with violations promptly, calmly, respectfully, but firmly. Do this consistently, and you'll likely not have to deal with them again very often.

Pay attention to non-verbal communication.

You may not believe that how you say something is more important than what you say, but it has been shown that maintaining good, positive discipline is largely aboutcommunicating effectively and consistently. You need to pay attention to how you give directions, commands or requests. This involves learning how to control your voice and your body language so that your children understand you're serious and you mean what you say.
Tips for "saying it like you mean it":
  • When giving a direct instruction make sure you're telling (e.g. Put your toys away now, please.), rather than asking (e.g. Shall we put our toys away now?).
  • If a child needs to be confronted about misbehaviour, make direct eye contact and use a calm, strong (not loud) voice.
  • Be aware of the message your body language conveys and stand up straight, face your child, be assertive, "own the room", but try not to express anger.
  • Don't accuse children of any evil intentions or interpret their behaviour as having some hidden agenda (e.g. “You’re doing that just to make me mad!”). Just repeat your direction calmly and wait for compliance.
  •  Always sincerely thank a defiant child when he or she finally complies so that the issue ends on a positive note.
II. Behaviour Follows Rules
As complex as human behaviour is, there are still basic rules that govern our actions. It may seem hard to believe, but children’s behaviour is governed by rules and is surprisingly predictable. Most teachers are aware of these rules and have even studied them during their training, but few parents have been trained to take full advantage of these rules to create a home environment that is calm, respectful, orderly and enjoyable. Those who have accomplished this have often done it instinctively because of their own natural abilities and personalities. Below is a brief review of the rules that govern behaviour.

The rule of reinforcement: Behaviour that is followed by a positive result (a reward or reinforcement) is likely to occur frequently.
Your grandmother stated it as "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." And indeed there is a common sense feel to this rule. Professionals who train animals use this rule religiously, yet many people feel that it's far too simplistic to be relevant to human beings. On the contrary, it's the single most powerful determinant of behaviour, and it's used in sports, business and industry to good advantage. It can be a powerful yet simple approach to developing the kind of behaviour that makes not only a well behaved child, but a good citizen.
 
Following the rule of reinforcement
While the concept here is simple, applying it isn’t easy. It takes practice, but basically all you need to do is closely monitor a child’s everyday behaviour, catch him or her in the act of “being good”, and follow that with positive feedback, praise, encouragement, stickers, snacks, smiles, or any other minor reward that kids value. This strategy can be really effective as a measure to prevent misbehaviour, because it fosters the good stuff. Teachers often use this strategy in younger grades but it has been shown to be similarly effective with older students and even adults.
As well, children are highly imitative, and will model behaviour that they see being rewarded. This is why we often hear that misbehaviour is "contagious" but, in truth, any behaviour that results in a public reward is contagious in this way.
 
Consequence of the Rule of Reinforcement: Any behaviour that is frequently repeated must be getting rewarded.
  • This gives us some insight into the most common misbehaviours we deal with around the house such as yelling, poking siblings, breaking rules, etc. Somehow, something or someone must be rewarding these persistent, annoying behaviours. In a disturbingly large number of cases, the "someone" is actually the parent, and the reward is attention.
  • It's very difficult to convince people that attention is such a powerful reward for children that they crave it even when it's negative. But it's true. When parents respond to misbehaviour solely by paying attention to it, even when that attention is in the form of scolding, correcting, or disapproving, the misbehaviour increases in frequency. The result is a frustrated parent who then looks for a way to punish the misbehaviour to make it stop.
  • A better solution in most cases is to change the dynamic. If a child misbehaves, make a mental note that perhaps that child is craving attention. Why that may be is an interesting question but right now let's concentrate on teaching the child a better way to elicit attention from an important adult. Let's ignore the misbehaviour and wait for the child to do something more appropriate, even if it's only sitting quietly for a moment or two. At that point, the parent goes into action. Now the parent can approach the child and give him or her all the attention required.
     
Principle:
If attention is given just for bad behaviour, the child is being taught to misbehave to get rewarded with attention. When attention is given for appropriate behaviour, it's that appropriate behaviour that is reinforced and therefore is more likely to occur again.

In more severe cases of misbehaviour, especially with older children, it may not be parent attention that is maintaining the problem. It could instead be peer or sibling attention or a need for power and control, or some other powerful reward. In such cases, more complex reinforcement systems are required, and that will be dealt with further on in this section.
 
The rule of “extinction”: A behaviour that is occurring frequently will gradually disappear if the reward stops.
Unfortunately, this rule is frequently misunderstood. In fact, simply withdrawing reinforcement and doing nothing else differently might actually make matters worse.
A Simple Example: A girl is annoying her father by constantly swearing to herself while he’s watching hockey on TV. When told to stop, she does, but a few minutes later she's at it again until told to stop once more. This cycle typically continues for some time. Analyzing the situation, dad concludes that the girl is getting a lot of his attention for this behaviour, so he decides to ignore it instead. This appears to work for a while and she seems to stop, but then she begins again, now adding a bit of dancing, giggles and loud yelling. In fact, if all the father does is ignore it, the behaviour is likely to get more and more distracting until he can't ignore it anymore and gets angry. Why didn’t the ignoring work?

The problem here is that the rule of extinction cannot be used by itself. Merely ignoring misbehaviour won't solve the root problem: namely that the child for some reason needs her dad’s attention.
 
Ignoring misbehaviour works only if combined with the reinforcement of an appropriate behaviour that is opposite to or incompatible with that misbehaviour.
 
So in our example, ignoring the annoying behaviour should be just the first step. The second step is to shower the child with attention and positive feedback as soon as she’s sitting quietly. This would reinforce sitting quietly, which is incompatible with the ignored behaviour of yelling and swearing while daddy’s watching the game. It's essential to use these two strategies together, and when you do they are amazingly powerful. Of course you need to be patient and consistent, which brings us to the next rule.

The rule of persistence: Behaviour change takes time and usually involves small steps with frequent setbacks.
Start small, and do not be discouraged if progress is slow and not so steady. For example, teachers know that students who are having difficulty in a subject like math won't catch up overnight. If a child gets 5 out of 100 on a test, we know there’s a lot of work to do and we'll need to be diligent, persistent, patient and optimistic if we're going to get that child caught up. Yet when a child is experiencing behavioural difficulties, teachers and parents seem to expect instant success.
New learning involves the same process whether it's math or appropriate behaviour. Teaching anything new requires an organized plan and good teaching practices. We need to expect plateaus and setbacks, but persevere anyway, and praise any little bit of progress, whether it's a move from 15/100 to 45/100 on a test, or from 15 minutes of good behaviour to 45. Our time working with that child is always well invested.

The rule of prompt delivery: When you reward positive behaviour, you need to do it right away. The longer you wait the less power the reward has to sustain the behaviour.
You have violated this rule if you have ever:
told your kids they can have a reward at dinner time for good behaviour throughout the day
promised your children a reward at lunch time if they have "a good morning"
noticed your child working unusually well on their homework and waited until bedtime to compliment him or her.
There’s a reason that addictive things like video games give you a little prize every time you do something right and not just at the end. Kids are “now people” and don’t learn well when feedback and rewards are delayed.

The rule of partial reinforcement: Once a behaviour seems to be established, we should begin reinforcing it only occasionally, rather than every single time the behaviour occurs.
If we continue to reinforce a behaviour every time it occurs, we actually weaken it, probably because the reinforcement becomes just a part of the background noise instead of something special. So once a behaviour has become reliably established, we gradually move to a "partial reinforcement schedule" where kids get attention, a compliment or a pat on the back every few times you catch them behaving well. The goal is to eventually "fade out” the reinforcer altogether and have the behaviour become self-sustaining.
 
That seems to contradict the Rule of Prompt Delivery, but it doesn't. The key here is that the Rule of Prompt Delivery is important when you're trying to change behaviour or establish a new behaviour. Partial reinforcement is all about maintaining good behaviour once it's established.

III. Using Punishment

The research is clear that positive reinforcement strategies are by far the most powerful way a parent can deal with misbehaviour. However, there are times when positive approaches simply aren't practical and the use of punishment needs to be considered. There are rules for the use of punishment as well, and if you violate those rules the situation will get worse. The misuse or overuse of punishment can also lead to significant side effects such as:
  • Anger
  • Mistrust and/or avoidance of authority figures
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Avoidance behaviours such as lying, sneakiness or blaming others.
Below are the rules for using punishment strategies effectively.
 
The rule of planned punishment: Punishment strategies should only be used as part of an overall behaviour management plan, and applied to achieve certain objectives.
Punishment should never be used in anger, or applied as "a gut reaction" to a child's behaviour. It needs to be carefully thought out.
The rule of no surprises: The first step in using a punishment strategy is to explain it to the child.
If a punishment strategy is to be effective, the child needs to know:
a)       exactly which behaviours will be punished, and why
b)       exactly what the punishment will be

Guidelines for explaining these points:
  • Choose a time when your child is behaving appropriately and approach him or her for a serious talk.
  • Calmly explain that you are worried about his or her behaviour, and that you fear it's creating problems for him or her, and may damage your relationship.
  • Express concern for the happiness and welfare of the child and the whole family.
  • There should be no hint of negative emotions such as spite, revenge or anger.
  • Tell the child that you believe he or she can follow the rules and be successful.
  • Begin with one or two specific behaviours that have been bothering you, and that you can define in a very clear, unambiguous way. One of the ways kids tend to test a strategy like this is to exploit a lack of clarity, e.g. "You said not to touch my sister; you didn't say I couldn't kick her." Again, there should be no surprises. If a legitimate misunderstanding arises, or something occurs that you didn't consider, apologize, redefine the system, and begin again. Although it isn't easy, the ideal situation is where the child really feels it's a partnership aimed at helping him or her do better.

The warning rule: Whenever possible, you should issue a warning before the punishment.
Example: "This is a warning. If you poke your brother again you’ll have go to your room."
The hope is that the warning all by itself will control the behaviour so that:
you don't have to punish the child, and
you create an opportunity to praise him (e.g., "Thank you for stopping. I was really proud of you choosing to stay with the family and watch TV. Good job.").

The rule of "Choice": Whenever possible you should use the word "choice" in your warning.
Example: "You have a choice, stop the shouting or leave the family room."
This little word has tremendous power. It clearly illustrates to the child that he has control of his own behaviour and he makes his own decisions. We want youngsters to realize that inappropriate behaviour is a choice they make, not something that happens to them or that is someone else's fault. That's why we hold them accountable, because they have choices. As well, using that word allows you to be more sympathetic when punishment has to be meted out, e.g., "I was really sorry you made that choice because I know how much you enjoy sitting with the family to watch TV. Maybe next time you can avoid the problem by making a better choice."

The rule of follow-through: When you've given a warning, and given a reasonable time to respond, you must follow through if the child fails to comply.
The quickest way to make your warnings meaningless is to repeat them, or to fail to do what you said you would do. Kids realize immediately that you don't really mean it, and their behaviour will soon be out of control.
The rule of persistence: Be diligent, persistent, patient and optimistic when using punishment strategies to try to change behaviour.
Change takes time and involves small steps with frequent setbacks. Start small and do not be discouraged if progress is slow and not so steady. Don’t give up too soon on strategies that might work in the longer run.

The rule of prompt delivery: When you punish an unacceptable behaviour, you need to do it right away.
Just as in the case of reinforcing good behaviour, the longer you wait, the less power the punishment has in curbing the inappropriate behaviour.
 
The rule of balance: Remember to keep rewarding the good behaviour.
Whenever a punishment strategy is set up, there is always the danger of becoming too focused on it and completely forgetting that punishment by itself is a really poor behaviour change agent. Only when pairing the use of punishment with the continued reinforcement of the behaviour you want to encourage, will you have a viable chance to effect positive change.

The rule of purpose: Remember why you're using punishment.
Loving parents use punishment because it's a tool that can sometimes help to change a child’s behaviour. And you want to change the behaviour because it's interfering with the development of that child into the best human being he or she can be.
Loving parents don't punish their children:
  • because they're angry
  • because they like their other kids better
  • to pay them back for ruining our day
Consequence of the rule of purpose: Always employ punishment while you're calm.
This may not be easy since angry, aggressive misbehaviour can create complex emotions in a parent. But as a loving parent it's imperative that the use of punishment never becomes personal.

Separate the behaver from the behaviour: It's never the child that we find unacceptable or intolerable, it's the behaviour.
The message to all the children always has to be "I love you and I love to have you with me. But that behaviour is unacceptable and I won't tolerate it."
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In the early years occasional anger or aggression, including tantrums, spiteful behaviour, fighting, etc. are not uncommon and not usually too serious. It is tempting to simply ignore the majority of these, and often that’s not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for discouraging this behaviour is likely to result in even more anger and aggression. As a preventative measure, a more targeted approach should be considered.
 
Tips for everyday training to help prevent these behaviours include:
  • From an early age teach acceptable communication skills. Clearly and simply lay out your expectations regarding the appropriate way to speak to other children, parents, teachers or other adults, and especially how to argue respectfully. Refer to these expectations often, especially when problems occur.
  • Establish a few key rules of behaviour and talk about why it is important to follow these rules. Again, repeat the rules often, especially when problems come up.
  • Focus on the rule. Don’t focus too much attention on the child when he/she breaks the rules, since that might inadvertently reinforce angry, aggressive or argumentative behaviour.
  • Frequently note everyday instances of polite behaviour, and reward that behaviour with eye contact, smiles, positive comments (both public and private).
  • Catch your child being good! Frequently point out examples where he/she obeys rules, follow directions promptly, or disagrees with you in an appropriate, polite manner, and mention how much you appreciate it.
  • Children this age learn much of their behaviour through “modeling” or imitating others, especially their parents, so try to be polite and respectful yourself.
  • This combination of ignoring undesirable behaviour while reinforcing desirable behaviour is known to psychologists as “differential reinforcement” and should be an automatic, ongoing, second nature kind of thing. With practice it can be highly effective.

 
Observe, monitor, and encourage
Some children, because of their temperament or stress in their lives, are more prone to hostile behaviour, such as anger, aggression or argumentativeness. Parents need to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring to catch early signs that their child is developing such behaviour, and respond with praise and encouragement whenever he/she shows self control or interacts appropriately. Here, parents are making a conscious decision to alter their behaviour in order to influence the behaviour of their children, by looking extra hard for any opportunities to give positive feedback for being polite and following rules and directions without complaint. The more specific your feedback, the easier it will be for the children to relate it to their behaviour.
 
Gently correct
If angry or aggressive behaviour persists, the initial reaction should be to calmly, and in private, point out the problem to the child. Sometimes these young kids might actually be unaware that their behaviour is offensive, so we need to first ensure that they understand and are capable of the behaviour we expect. This kind of correction strategy can be used once or twice, but if the problem continues then probably it is somehow being rewarded or “reinforced”.
 
Determine what is reinforcing and maintaining the behaviour
Some helpful questions to consider are:
  • Since behaviour is influenced by its “antecedents” (i.e., what comes immediately before), is something triggering the anger, or aggressiveness, such as a particular activity or event? If so, does my child have a problem with these activities?
  • Since behaviour that’s occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these troubling behaviours?
  • Are other children rewarding the behaviour in some way?
  •  Are other children present, and if so is it usually the same ones?
  • “Am I rewarding the behaviour by allowing it to alter the family schedule, the nature of some activities, or the demands on the child?”
  • Am I paying too much attention to these instances of anger and aggression, and missing opportunities to praise my child when he or she is polite and calm?
  • Does the problem tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?
  • Does the behaviour seem to be goal directed? That is, is the child trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particular task? 
Clearly, parents need to “play detective” sometimes, and try to analyze not just the behaviour itself, but also the context of what’s happening just before and just after an instance of angry or aggressive behaviour. Here, the importance of your good observation skills, positive communication skills, and strong self-awareness, can’t be overemphasized.
 
An example
When behaviour “goes off the rails” we first try to discover what’s triggering the behaviour, as well as what reward might be maintaining it, and then somehow alter these factors. For example, a child might begin to get angry whenever you ask him put away his toys and get ready for bedtime. The child refuses and a long, drawn out confrontation ensues, followed by a pleading discussion about the importance of behaving better and getting enough sleep, which in the end results in the child getting loads of focused attention and actually staying up well past his bedtime.
 
In this simple example, we should ideally look for a solution that rewards the child for following directions. That is, we want to encourage him to immediately start picking up his toys. As well, it’s vitally important to ensure that the angry, noncompliant behaviour does not accomplish its goal of getting to stay up later.
 
Specifically, we want to build in structured routines that don’t vary throughout the week. So here’s how it might go. First, the child gets a warning that in say, 10 minutes, he’ll need to begin putting toys away. This usually triggers a well-practiced symphony of whining, pleading and maybe even tears, which a wise parent will ignore, or at most just briefly acknowledge sympathetically (“I know honey, you’d like to stay up.”), and then ignore. At the 10 minute mark, we get the toys picked up promptly, and get the bedtime routines started, praising every single effort he makes to comply. Below there will be much more detail on how to accomplish this, but the essential points here are:
 
  1. Ignore the whining, pleading, etc., as much as you can and ensure they aren’t successful at derailing the bedtime rituals and getting the child in bed on time.
  2. Praise everything he does that is even remotely related to the task at hand.
  3. Don’t get pulled into arguments about the rules, or bargaining about the consequences. Just promise to set a time tomorrow to calmly discuss these things if the child so desires (he likely won’t).

 
Find appropriate negative consequences
Sometimes, manipulating the circumstances surrounding the behaviour makes no difference, or it is too difficult to eliminate whatever is reinforcing the behaviour. At this point a negative consequence (punishment) will need to be considered.
 
In the bedtime example above, an appropriate, logical punishment might be that the child is given say 5 minutes to put the toys away (get yourself a stop watch). Any toys not put away at the end of that time are left where they lie, and later you put them away  hidden in a sealed box, and the child simply loses those toys for a set time, say one or two days. Do all of this in a calm, matter-of-fact way, as if it’s simply a teachable moment (which it is), and keep doing it every day until the child becomes proficient at getting this task done properly.
 
With children this age another common effective consequence involves “time out”, which really means time away from the reinforcement of being a part of the family’s activities. The old-fashioned approach of having a misbehaving child sit alone in the corner for a few minutes actually can be effective with some children, and it is a logical consequence of noncompliant behaviour (If you can’t play nicely with your sister, then you can’t be a part of the activity.). However, with some children, being sent to the corner may not eliminate the reinforcement the child receives from getting parent attention or making his sister cry. In these cases you may have to “up the ante” as described in the yellow light section below.
 
It is important to use punishment in the most appropriate and effective way, so it would be helpful to review the section on Rules for Using Punishment at the beginning of this section before proceeding to use other types of negative consequence.
 
Applying the strategies above will be effective most of the time. But some children might still show a tendency to be loud, angry, aggressive, and generally impolite. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and/or long-lasting, it moves into the Yellow Light Zone and the parent will need to consider more intensive behavioural support.

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A structured approach
 
Some young children exhibit anger or aggression that is serious and does not respond to the simple strategies described above. The next step then, requires a more structured approach to observing and analyzing behaviour, and to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours. Seeking support from an experienced family member or perhaps a teacher or behavioural specialist at the school will increase the chances of success.
 
The steps required to begin a more structured approach to these problems are as follows:
 
1.      Observe the child and collect information.
 
Begin by listing, in your own words, observed behaviours that are frequently troublesome. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. Examples of useful behavioural descriptors might be:
a)     Angrily refuses to put toys away when asked
b)     Fails to comply with a request within 3 seconds after the parent repeats the request
c)     Uses a loud/angry tone of voice when displeased
d)     Says “no” when given a direction
e)     Threatens other kids to get what he wants
f)      Yells when upset
g)     Damages or breaks toys if told to share them
h)     Hits other children if they won’t play the games he wants to play
i)      Starts fights with siblings and other children.
 
It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just by observing.
 
2.       Count how often the behaviours occur.
 
Begin with those behaviours you feel are the most disruptive and the most frequent. List five or six of them on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. A family member or friend could help with this step by being an “unbiased observer”.
 
This counting phase should last for about two weeks to ensure you get a good continuous sample of behaviour over time. It’s not necessary to count every minute of every day. In fact, 4 to 6 observation periods per day, each about 10 minutes long, should do. Make sure to sample as many different time periods as possible (e.g. Mondays, other weekdays, weekends), especially those where problem behaviours seem to be frequent (e.g., dinner time, bedtime).
 

3.        
Pick target behaviours to work on.
 
You can’t work on everything at once, so pick something to start with. Important guidelines for this selection process:
  • Start small - pick only one or two behaviours to work on initially
  • Choose behaviours that are troublesome enough to be worth working on, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences
  • Pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street
  • Choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that they can be easily counted
  • Choose behaviours that occur often, at least several times per day, since the infrequent misbehaviours tend to take longer to overcome.
  • Avoid adding behaviours to work on until improvements are maintained for at least a couple of weeks.
 
4. Think about how appropriate behaviour might be rewarded.
 
In the Green Light Zone, the rewards mentioned have all been informal and social, such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, praise, and so on. But in the yellow light zone, we are likely dealing with children who haven’t responded to these. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. It simply means we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.
 
Common examples that teachers use all the time with this age student include:
a)     Stickers
b)     Computer activities
c)     School supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
d)     Small toys
e)     Time for an activity of his/her choosing
f)      Nutritious treats
 
At home, the same sorts of things can work, as well as such options as:
a)     Extra TV or computer time
b)     An extra bedtime story
c)     Choice of dinner or dessert
d)     Preferred seating at the dinner table or elsewhere in the house
e)     Choice of movie or TV program
f)      Choice of restaurant when the family dines out
 
Another common approach is to use points or checkmarks which can be “cashed in” at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above. Some experts suggest that the best prizes can be determined by either asking the child, or observing what he or she tends to do with free time. The program should be simple, and the opportunity to cash in should occur at least daily.
 
5. Think about negative consequences or punishments.

Examples of common punishments include:
a)     Exclusion (sending the child out of the room or to his or her bedroom)
b)     Loss of privileges for a specific period of time
c)     Loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward

6. Formulate the plan.
 
This requires a written description of how you intend to observe the targeted behaviours, count them, deliver rewards and/or punishments and what those will be, chart results and share the outcomes. It is important to discuss the plan with the child, and this should be done at a stage where the plan is in draft form so that he or she can have input.
 
Involve the child
 
The role of the child at the younger age levels might be minimal, but it’s very important that he or she be involved. Children should understand that this program is being put in place for their benefit, because their behaviours are interfering with their own functioning, and/or the functioning of the family. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the child. If possible he or she should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being “done to”.
 
Perhaps we can’t expect high-level understanding or co-operation at this young age level, but an attempt to make the child part of the solution is well worth the effort. By doing so, even young children learn that they are respected and cared for, and that their parents believe that they can change their behaviour.
 
The child must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished and how the consequences will work, whether it’s removal from the room or accumulating points or checkmarks to get a special lunch. Simple programs are essential at the younger age levels, since complexity will quickly discourage the child.
 
Accentuate the positive
In formulating the plan, it’s important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. If your purpose is to eliminate negative behaviours, the plan should specifically reinforce the opposite or incompatible positive behaviours you would want to encourage. For example, if you’re trying to reduce yelling, don’t just punish yelling. Also, praise the use of lower voice volume whenever it occurs.
 
Important to Note:

  1. Reward doing homework and chores
Doing homework or chores is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering a complete, structured menu of rewards for various degrees of completed “work” is always a good strategy to consider. This assumes however, that the child is capable of doing the work.

  1. Keep it flexible
  2. The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the child’s behaviour improves. Keep in mind that when first training a new behaviour, you need to try to provide at least some reinforcement each and every time an appropriate behaviour is observed. As the behaviour becomes more frequent and ingrained however, it’s more powerful to reward it intermittently. This sounds complex, but in fact is quite a natural flow over time.
     
  3. Use gentle humour
  4. Where possible, try using gentle humour to prevent anger from contaminating the training process. The humour should never be sarcastic, or funny at the child’s expense, but remember that children love to laugh and learn better when they do.
 
7. Implement the plan
 
Be consistent, persistent and vigilant
 
If you can have some help from a friend or family member in the first few days, all the better, since it’s so important that very little is missed and the child gets rewarded a lot. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including whining, testing and bargaining, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly.
 
Do not expect steady, continuous improvement. Behaviour tends to improve in a “choppy” fashion, with two steps forward and one back, so it is important to persist with the program even when there appear to be setbacks.
 
It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as opposite or incompatible behaviours, and if these can be colourfully charted or graphed by or for the child on a daily basis it increases the power of the program.
 
Important to Note: Document everything you can in your own words.
It is often very helpful to record and graph data, or keep a journal or diary when you’re working at improving behaviour in an organized, methodical fashion like this. For one thing, it can be encouraging to track how things change and improve over time, especially when there are temporary setbacks. For another, it helps you to share the experience with friends or family who want to support your efforts. As well, should you eventually want to engage the services of a therapist or family counselor, this kind of record of your efforts can be extremely helpful.

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When young children exhibit anger and aggression that is so severe as to be clearly in our Red Light Zone, parents will almost always require professional help. Acquiring such help can be a long, drawn-out process, however, so in the meantime it will be necessary for the parents to control the misbehaviour as much as possible, and a written management plan will be essential.
 
The plan should include documentation of:
1.      Your specific observations
2.      The exact nature of the child’s angry and aggressive behaviour
3.      Any pattern of the behaviours with regard to time or circumstances
4.      When and where anger or aggression most often occur
5.      Who else is usually present,
6.      The strategies which have been tried (successfully and unsuccessfully)
 
Not only is this a hallmark of good planning, but clear notes describing these factors will be tremendously helpful when working with counselors or therapists.
 
Apply a structured approach
 
1.   Collect data
Begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously disruptive. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. Examples of seriously disruptive behavioural descriptors in young children include:
a.       Loudly and angrily says “no”, “it’s not fair”, “I don’t have to”, “you can’t make me” etc. in response to parent direction
b.       Has volatile temper tantrums
c.       When told to do something, argues with the parent or caregiver
d.       Bullies siblings or other kids
e.       Swears when angry
f.        Is not deterred by warnings of potential punishments
g.       Is spiteful or vindictive
h.       Throws things
i.        Damages or breaks other people’s property when angry
j.        Becomes seriously aggressive with others.
 
2.         Count how often these behaviours occur
Put five or six of the observed behaviours on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. Another adult such as a friend or family member might very helpful in carrying out this step, since these behaviours will usually keep the parent pretty busy.
 
The process of counting behaviours is important, since without this data initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. Unlike yellow light behaviours, red light behaviours are usually not all that frequent during any one day with children so young. As a result, rather than selecting one or two behaviours to work on, you can often work on several behaviours that would be classified as seriously angry or aggressive.
 
3.  Determine how to reward good behaviour
In the Red Light zone, we are dealing with children who haven't responded to social reinforcement such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, praise, and so on. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. But we have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.
Reinforcers for children age 3 to 5 might include:
a)       TV or computer time
b)       Special outings to the park, the beach, etc.
c)        Helping bake a cake
d)       Stickers
e)       Having a friend over
f)        School supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
g)       Small toys
h)       Nutritious treats
i)         One-on-one time with parent on his/her choice of activity
j)         Favourite lunch or dinner
k)       An extra bedtime story
l)         Preferred seating at the dinner table or in the family room
 
Points or checkmarks can also act as a reinforcer because they can be “cashed in” at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above. With these young children the opportunity to cash in should occur at least daily.
 
1.      Think about negative consequences or punishments.
With Red Light behaviour, negative consequences will likely have to be used frequently in the initial stages, so it’s essential to be prepared beforehand with an array of possibilities and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
 
Possibilities at this age level include:
a)      Isolation in the house away from the rest of the family
b)      Loss of privileges such as watching TV or using the computer for fun
c)       Moving bedtime up by 10 minutes
d)      Loss of points or checkmarks being accumulated for a reward
 
NOTE: Attempting to punish a child by yelling, shaming or referring to the child as “bad” have been shown to be ineffective in changing behaviour, as well as having side effects such as causing emotional reactions (especially anger), embarrassment or hurt feelings.As well, some parents feel guilty afterwards and try to compensate by overindulging the child.
 
2.      Formulate the plan.
This is a written description of how you intend to document the targeted behaviours and deliver rewards and/or punishments. It is important to discuss the plan with family or friends who might be supporting you, and with the child.
 
Involve the child
 
The child must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how these consequences will work, whether it is removal from the room or accumulating checkmarks to get a coloured pencil. Simple programs are essential at this age level, since complexity will quickly discourage the child.
 
Accentuate the positive
 
In formulating the plan, it is important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even where the targeted behaviours are serious and unacceptable, the plan should specifically include the reinforcement of acceptable behaviour that you would want to encourage. Equally important, while recording checkmarks the parent is smiling and making positive comments following compliant behaviours.
 
Important to Note:
         i)             Reward doing homework and chores
Doing homework or chores is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering rewards for various degrees of completed “work” is always a good strategy to consider, even if it’s nothing more than praise, attention and a hug. This assumes however, that the child is capable of doing the work.
       ii)             Overlook the small stuff
Given the seriously disruptive nature of the targeted unacceptable behaviours, it will likely be necessary to simply ignore less serious misbehaviour during the initial stages of the program. Otherwise you risk being in a constant disciplinary mode that would quickly discourage the child and you.
 
3.      Implement the plan
 
Be consistent, persistent and vigilant
If possible, you will really benefit from help in the first few days, since it’s so important that very little is missed and the child gets rewarded a lot. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing, temper tantrums and so on, which might well persist for some time.
 
Also bear in mind that behavioural improvement is not steady and continuous, but proceeds in a “choppy” fashion where two steps forward are often followed by one step back. Therefore, it is important to persist with the program for a long enough period to see the small improvements that usually occur in the initial stages.
 
It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours, and if these can be colourfully charted or graphed on a daily basis it increases the power of the program.


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In the middle school years, normal day-to-day occurrences of misbehaviour such as angry outbursts or aggression are common and usually mild. It is very tempting simply to ignore the majority of these, and often that's not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for training good self-control is very likely to result in the misbehaviours escalating and becoming more serious than simply an annoyance.
 
Sometimes basic changes to the environment or routine can make a difference, such as:
a)       Changing bedtime or meal times slightly to accommodate other activities
b)       Moving children in or out of activities, sports or hobbies to perhaps reduce stress
c)       Organizing family schedules differently to give the children more or less free time.

But in many cases, a more targeted approach is needed.

Tips for dealing with everyday anger or aggression include:
  • Phrase rules and expectations in clear, simple, concrete terms. Refer to the rules often, especially when violations occur.
  • Focus on the rule rather than the child. Too much attention on the child might actually reinforce the misbehaviour.
  • Constantly watch for behaviour that is consistent with the rules, and subtly reward that behaviour with eye contact, smiles, positive comments, or affectionate pats, touches or hugs.
  • Starting around age 10, provide positive comments and praise privately, to avoid teasing from siblings or friends who might be around. This may help to build a positive and trusting relationship as your child approaches the teen years.
  • Try to ignore negative behaviour and intermittently reinforce positive behaviour in an automatic, ongoing, second-nature kind of way. With practice, this combination can be highly effective.

Observe, Monitor, and Praise

  • Children who have a tendency to be overly aggressive or angry often don’t get the positive feedback that the other children get. They end up being avoided by other kids, and watched suspiciously by adults. The minute their behaviour exceeds their parent’s tolerance threshold, however, they get scolded or worse.
  • To avoid this, parents need to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring, as well as strong self-awareness. That is, you have to make a conscious decision to alter your own behaviour by looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive interaction with the child in order to influence the behaviour in a positive way. Look for the early signs that anger or aggressive behaviour might be developing, or that your child isn't getting much in the way of positive feedback, and try to find a reason, any reason, to praise and encourage him or her. Rather than catching our kids doing something wrong and then punishing them, it’s far more effective to “catch them doing something good” and then give them positive feedback. In the rush of modern family life, we have to remind ourselves to make time to let our children know when we’re happy with their behaviour, rather than only commenting on what we don’t appreciate.
 
Reinforce the Rules
Sometimes younger children (ages 6 to 8) might actually have misinterpreted what you expect of them. So if they keep being overly aggressive for example, first ensure that they understand and are capable of the self-control and appropriate social skills you expect. Point out the problem calmly and in private, and have the child repeat the rule. This kind of correction strategy can be used once or twice, but if the misbehaviour continues then it's probably being reinforced somehow, by someone – maybe even you.
 
Use observation to try to determine what is triggering, reinforcing and maintaining the misbehaviour.
Questions to consider:
  1. Since behaviour is influenced by its antecedents (what happens just before), is something triggering the anger or aggression such as the onset of a particular activity or routine? If so, does the child have some problem with the activity?
  2. Since behaviour that's occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these annoying behaviours?
  3. Are siblings or other children rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?
  4. Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by allowing it to change the family routine or the nature of some activities?
  5. Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by paying too much attention to it, and ignoring the child’s good behaviour?
  6. Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?
  7. Are other children around, and if so is it usually the same ones?
  8. Does the misbehaviour seem to be goal directed? That is, is the child trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particularchore, or situation?

 
An example
If we can discover what triggers a behaviour and what is maintaining it, we might then somehow alter it. For example, suppose a child begins to get angry and aggressive every morning when the parent is trying to rush her to get ready for school in time to catch the bus. One possibility is that the child is having difficulty on the bus or at school, perhaps with bullying or with academics. Obviously, these kinds of possibilities need to be thoroughly investigated by the parents and ruled out before any kind of behavioural strategy is initiated.
Once the parents have satisfied themselves that the delaying and avoiding behaviour is not due to bus or school issues, then other, simpler causes can be looked at. For example, if the child's misbehaviour results in a long, drawn out argument, followed by a missed bus, followed by being driven to school, then it is pretty obvious that morning misbehaviour is being rewarded. Even if the child is being scolded for the entire trip to school, it is still probably much more comfortable to be chauffeured to school in the family car than to walk.
 
Analyzing aggression and other misbehaviour this way helps us to understand what triggers it, what rewards it, and our role in maintaining the very behaviour that drives us crazy.
So how best to deal with the missed bus problem? Well, a great deal depends on the child’s personality, the flexibility of the parents and a bunch of other factors, but basically the idea is to find a way to eliminate or reduce the reward the child is getting for missing the bus, and reward her instead for getting herself on the bus. Eliminating the reward of the drive to school could be done by:
a)      making sure she’s late for school when she is driven, and (very importantly)
b)      collaborating with the school to ensure that there is a significant consequence for being late.
Rewarding self-reliance, cooperation and effort in the morning should begin with ignoring slow, angry, unhelpful behaviour while giving smiles, praise and attention for anything the child does to help get herself ready for school. In most cases, believe it or not, that is enough to dramatically improve the problem. In some cases, however, parents might need to add a point or token system initially, using concrete rewards to kick start the improvement.
 
When a negative consequence is needed
Sometimes, no amount of tinkering with the antecedents of behaviour is effective, and whatever is reinforcing the misbehaviour is simply too difficult to eliminate. A negative consequence (punishment), such as the school consequence for lateness in the example above, will then need to be considered. It will be most effective if it's logical (e.g., if you can’t behave appropriately at the dinner table with the family, then you don't get to eat until the family is finished.), and applied under the rules laid out in the previous section.
 
With children this age, the most effective consequences tend to be those involving "time out". "Time out" really means time away from the reinforcement of being a part of the family and/or family activities. The old-fashioned approach of having the child sit alone in the corner for a few minutes can actually be effective with some children, and is a logical consequence for misbehaviour that causes disruption. (If you can't play nicely with others, then you can't be a part of the play group.). Even with the older children in this age range, exclusion or isolation can be effectiveso long as it’s not overused. However, any consequence that withholds privileges or possessions valued by that specific child will work over time, even if the child claims not to care.
 
Note: It is usually important that each day begins with a clean slate. This can help ensure that the child is not discouraged by having to overcome "yesterday's baggage", and can also help you determine if the consequence has altered the behaviour or not. If it has, then you have the opportunity to reinforce the good behaviour so that it is more likely to prevail.
 
Everyday approaches
The techniques described above are pretty simple, but that does not mean that they are easy to apply. Effective behaviour management requires parents to be observant, constantly watching and analyzing what’s going on with their children. Interaction with the children has to be ongoing and spontaneous. But it also needs to be based on planning and self-awareness to ensure that the children get attention and positive feedback for the things they do right, including behaving appropriately, controlling their tempers, following rules, interacting positively with others, and being helpful. Children who are having difficulty behaving appropriately require particularly close observation, so that any positive efforts they make will be "caught" and somehow reinforced.
 
Even though you are working hard to employ the strategies described above, some children might still show a tendency to be angry, break rules, have tantrums, and react aggressively to every little annoyance. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and long-lasting, it moves into the Yellow Light zone and the parents will need to consider taking more intensive action.

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Develop a focused management plan

When children in this age range exhibit behaviour that's serious, worrisome and doesn't respond to the strategies described in the Green Light area, a more structured approach is needed. This approach will help the parent observe and analyze behaviour, and tailor consequences for specific behaviours. Parents aren’t usually trained to do this, so planning and practice will be key. As well, seeking support, such as from a consultant in the school, would go a long way toward ensuring success, and helping avoid self-doubt.
 
Developing a clear plan is well worth the investment of time and effort. Children whose behaviour is in the Yellow Light zone are already monopolizing a good deal of your time and energy. A more structured approach will take some initial effort, but probably won't take more time in the long run. Planning will simply help you be more organized and deliberate with the time you are already investing in trying to control the misbehaviour. By doing so, you just might prevent your child from falling into far more serious behavioural difficulties down the road.
 

1.   Observe and document the behaviour.

First, list observed behaviours that are frequently troublesome. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. General descriptions such as "bothering her brother" or "misbehaving" are too vague to be useful. Define the behaviour in a specific, observable way so that anyone coming in off the street can see it and recognize it. Give yourself a few days to carefully compile such a list just by observing.

Some examples of useful ways to describe behaviour include:
1)       Pushes or hits other children
2)       Angrily refuses to put toys away
3)       Throws things when angry
4)       Threatens or intimidates other children
5)       Destroys or damages other peoples’ property
6)       Speaks rudely to parents
7)       Starts fights
8)       Teases other children, calls them names and uses other “put downs"
9)       Does cruel things to pets
 

2.      Count how often these behaviours occur.

Begin with the behaviours you feel are the most disturbing, disruptive and frequent. List five or six of them on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. It helps to have another adult such as a spouse (if any) or a friend do this step as well to see if the behaviour changes with other adults, but that's not essential. This counting phase should continue for about two weeks to provide a good sample of behaviour over time.
 
It's not necessary to count for every minute of every day. In fact, 4 or 5 observation periods per day, each no more than 10 or 15 minutes long, should do. Try to sample a few different time periods throughout the day, especially those where misbehaviour seems to be frequent.
This period of intense observation can pay unexpected dividends:
  • Parents sometimes discover patterns in the misbehaviour that they hadn't noticed before, perhaps involving the time of day, the social context or what’s going on at the time.
  • Sometimes, the parent realizes that he or she has chosen the wrong behaviour to observe, or even the wrong child!
  • Sometimes, the child notices that he or she is being observed, and actually begins to change as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason. Whatever the reason the improvement is likely temporary so it's advisable to push on with the program.

3.       Pick target behaviours to work on.

After counting how often certain behaviours occur, it’s time to select some to work on. Guidelines for this selection include:
1.       Start small and be consistent - pick only one or two behaviours to work on at first so that the program doesn't fall under its own weight within the first week.
2.       Initially choose behaviours that are troublesome enough to be worth working on, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences.
3.       Pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street.
4.       Choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that they can be easily counted.
5.       Choose behaviours that occur often, at least several times per day, since the infrequent misbehaviours tend to take longer to overcome.

4.          Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded.

The rewards in the Green Light zone are informal and social, such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, hugs and praise. But in the Yellow Light zone, we are likely dealing with a child who hasn’t responded to these. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. It simply means we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.
 
Examples of concrete reinforcers for children aged 6 to 12 include:
1)       Stickers
2)       School supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
3)       Nutritious treats
4)       Permission to have a friend over
5)       Computer or TV time
6)       Points or checkmarks that can be "cashed in" at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above. (The youngest children should have an opportunity to cash in at least once per day.)
 
Sometimes it helps to pick rewards by asking the child, or observing what he/she tends to do in their free time.
 

5.         Think about negative consequences or punishments.

We always hope these will be used rarely, if ever. Still, it is absolutely essential that the parent is prepared beforehand with an array of possibilities and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
 
With kids this age, the most common punishments include:
·       Exclusion (sending the child to the corner, to a special “time out” seat, or to his or her room)
·       Loss of privileges such as TV time, computer time or participation in an activity
·       Loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.
 
Research has shown that aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding or shaming are ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as increased anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with the emotional development of the child.Moreover, they don’t teach the child anything about how he or she should behave. It’s also possible that other children in the family who observe your actions could be negatively affected by the tension created by parental anger.
 

6.      Formulate the plan.

Put together a written description of how you intend to observe the targeted behaviours, count them, deliver rewards and/or punishments (and what those will be), chart results and share the outcomes. While the plan is still in draft form, it is important to discuss it with the child, so that he or she can have input.
 

Involve the child

 
The role of younger children in this age range might be minimal, but it's very important that they be involved. While they might not display a high level understanding or co-operation, an attempt to make them part of the solution is well worth the effort. With the rest of the children in this age range, say ages 8 to 13, their contribution to the program might be surprisingly helpful.
 
It is very important for children of all ages to understand that the program is being implemented because the targeted misbehaviours are interfering with their happiness and everyday functioning and that of other people. The focus should be on helping the child, with the child feeling a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to".
 
Make sure the child has a full understanding of the program, including:
1.       The specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished
2.       How these rewards and punishments will work
 
Simple programs are essential, especially at the younger age levels, since complexity can quickly cause discouragement.
 

Accentuate the positive

 
Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Where the targeted behaviours are negative (e.g., yelling), the plan should include ways to reward an opposite, appropriate behaviour (e.g., talking quietly).
 
Where checkmarks or points are being used as a reward, it’s fine to award them in full view of the child, in a matter-of-fact way. But it’s really important that while recording checkmarks the parent is smiling and making positive comments, and simply ignoring minor instances of angry or aggressive behaviour that haven’t been targeted just yet.
 
Important to Note:
1)       The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the child's behaviour improves. For example, when first training a new behaviour, you need to try to provide at least some reinforcement each and every time an appropriate behaviour is observed. As the behaviour becomes more frequent and ingrained, it's more powerful to reward appropriate behaviour at some times but not others. This sounds complex, but in fact is quite a natural flow over time.
2)       With the older children, public praise or attention might actually be counter-productive since they value privacy, and siblings or friends might tease them about it. Praise and attention are still a powerful reinforcement for these youngsters, but may be best delivered in a low-key, private way.
 
7.          Implement your plan.
Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant
 
In the first few days of any behavioural program, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most critical factors. It’s nice, though not necessary, to have some help at this time, since it's so important that very little is missed and the child gets rewarded a lot and punished only rarely. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing and bargaining, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly. It is vitally important to continue counting the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as the opposite appropriate behaviours. If it can all be charted or graphed by the child each day, it increases the power of the program.
 

Dealing with the other children in the family

 
If there are other children in the family, they will notice that something is going on, and react with anything from curiosity to jealousy. Some may want to know why they can't participate and share in the rewards. Usually, this can be dealt with in private conversations discussing the need to help the targeted child. Often the children will be satisfied with that, since they are no doubt aware that the targeted child is a disruptive force in the family. On occasion, however, it might turn out that the easiest solution is indeed to include all the children in the program either individually or using a form of "group contingency" or group process.
 
Group contingencies can be quite effective, and are usually no more work than a program focused on an individual child. They can work in several ways, and you may be already using some of the most common strategies. For example, you may say that if everyone finishes their homework by a certain time, the family will play a board game or watch a movie with popcorn. You get the benefit of peer pressure as the kids push one another to be productive so they all can enjoy the reward.
 
Note: Document everything you can (in any language). Writing down your experiences isn’t necessary, but it is very often helpful. Like a journal or diary, it allows you to record where you’ve been as a family and to see how situations have changed over time. As well, if you should eventually seek family counselling a written record of what you’ve tried, what worked and what didn’t, can be invaluable to a mental health professional and prevent wasted time repeating approaches that were ineffective.

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When children in this age range exhibit angry or aggressive misbehaviour that is so severe that it’s clearly in the Red Light zone, parents will need professional help. Finding such help can be a long and complicated process. In the meantime, parents need to control the misbehaviour as much as possible. This level of anger and aggression isn’t going to be eliminated or “cured” using the following strategies, but parents might be able to keep some control of the situation until counselling can begin. A written management plan will be essential.
 
Management plan
 
If possible, the plan should include documentation of:
1.        Parents’ observations,
2.        The exact nature of the child's misbehaviour,
3.        When and where it occurs,
4.        Who else was present,
5.        The strategies that have been tried (successfully and unsuccessfully).
 
Not only is this documentation a key part of good planning, but clear notes will often be required in order to access community resources.
 
To attempt to control Red Light behaviour, a structured approach to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours will need to be rigorously applied. Most parents have not been trained in doing this, so planning and practice will be crucial. As well, it is worth seeking support from family members, friends or support staff in the school such as Psychologists or Social Workers, if available.
 
1.          Collect data.
Begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously disruptive. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn't useful to use a vague description such as "being aggressive" or "misbehaving". A target behaviour has to be described in clear, concrete language. Examples include:
  • Violence toward other kids
  • Intimidates or threatens other kids
  • Initiates frequent power struggles
  • Has violent temper tantrums that disturb the family
  • Screams at parents
  • Hits, kicks or bites other kids
  • Purposely breaks sister’s toys
  • Deliberately hurts family pet

 
2.      Count how often these behaviours occur.
Put five or six behaviours from your observed list on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. Another adult might be better able to carry out this step, since these serious misbehaviours will usually keep the parents busy.
 
Sometimes, the child notices that he or she is being observed, and improvement actually occurs as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but whatever the reason the change is usually temporary so it's paramount to push on with the program.
 
The process of counting behaviours is important. Without this data, initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. As well, this period of intense observation of your child may reveal that there are patterns involving the time of day, day of the week or social context for a misbehaviour, that weren't otherwise apparent. This might be useful information later on.
 
Red Light behaviours are usually not all that frequent during any one day, especially in the youngest children. As a result, rather than selecting one or two behaviours to work on, you may be able to work on several.
 
3.          Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded for this child.
In the Red Light zone, we are dealing with children who haven't responded to informal or social rewards such as smiles or praise, and whose misbehaviour is far more serious. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. It simply means we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.
 
Common concrete reinforcers for children age 6 to 12 include:
  • Stickers
  • School supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
  • Small toys
  • Permission to have friends over
  • Nutritious treats
  • Fast food coupons
  • One-on-one time with a parent
  • TV or computer time
 
Another common approach is to use points, tokens or checkmarks that can be "cashed in" for rewards at the end of a predetermined period. This strategy may be necessary, at least initially, for a program to be effective with serious misbehaviours. With the youngest children, the opportunity to cash in should occur at least twice daily. Older children should also be able to cash in frequently, but can manage with less frequent cashing in as the program goes on.
 
4.      Think about negative consequences or punishments.
 
These will likely have to be used frequently in the initial stages, so it's essential that the parent is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used. But always remember that punishment by itself will never solve behaviour problems.
 
Examples of common punishments available include:
1.       Exclusion (sending the child to a “time out” seat or to his or her room)
2.       Loss of privileges such as TV time or participation in a family activity
3.       Loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward
 
Note that research has shown that aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, or shaming are ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger and anxiety that can interfere with the long-term emotional development of the child.
 
5.      Formulate the plan.
 
Put together a written description of how you intend to document the targeted behaviours and deliver rewards and/or punishments. It is absolutely essential that the plan be discussed and formulated in partnership with both parents (if applicable), and that the child is informed and has an opportunity for input.Keep in mind that the more input children have into the plan, the more likely they are to ‘buy into it”, especially with older children.
 
Involve the child
 
The role of the child at the earliest part of this age range might be minimal, but it's very important that he or she be involved. Talk to the child about the program. It's very important that the child understands that this program is being implemented because his or her behaviour is interfering with his or her happiness, and the happiness of the entire family. The focus should be on helping the child, who should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to".
 
You can't expect a high level of understanding or cooperation at the earliest part of middle childhood, but an attempt to make the child part of the solution is well worth the effort. With the older children in this group, their participation is both important and often surprisingly helpful.
 
The child must have a full understanding of the program. This includes understanding the specific behaviours that will have consequences, and how the consequences will work, whether it's removal from the room or accumulating checkmarks to get a fast food coupon. Simple programs are preferable at the younger age levels, since complexity can quickly become discouraging.
 
Accentuate the positive
Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Although the targeted behaviours are serious and unacceptable, the plan should specifically include ways to reward the opposite, desired behaviour.
 
For example, if a targeted behaviour is "angrily refusing to follow parental direction", the program should ensure that compliant behaviour is reinforced as frequently as possible. In practice, this might mean that the parent, in a way obvious to the child, puts check marks on a page each time the child responds to direction appropriately. Assuming the check marks are important to the child, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the parent is smiling and making positive comments following compliant behaviours.
 
Important to NoteGiven the seriously angry and aggressive nature of the targeted behaviours, it will likely be necessary to simply ignore less serious misbehaviour during the initial stages of the program. Otherwise you risk being in a constant disciplinary mode that would quickly discourage your child as well as yourself.
 
6.      Implement the plan
 
Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant
In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors. You will really benefit from help since it's so important that the child gets rewarded a lot and punished infrequently. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing and temper tantrums, which might persist for some time. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours. If these can be charted or graphed by you or the child on a daily basis, it increases the power of the program.
 
Bring in outside help when possible
Children exhibiting Red Light behaviour are unlikely to be "cured" by the use of these programs without some form of outside counselling or therapy as well. The likelihood of finding such therapy varies with location, resource availability, home situation, and many other factors. Nonetheless, parents must attempt to implement some kind of strategy or program that might improve behaviour and positively impact their child’s chances for success.

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In early adolescence, normal day-to-day occurrences of anger or aggression tend to be minor. There is great temptation to simply ignore the majority of these, and often that's not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for training good behaviour is very likely to result in the misbehaviours escalating and becoming more serious than simply an annoyance.
 
Sometimes subtle changes to the environment can make a difference, such as changing family routines, or separating siblings to do their homework. But in many cases, a more targeted approach is needed.
 
Examples of helpful first steps include:
 
  • Clearly define behavioural rules and expectations in concrete terms, and refer to them often, especially when rule violations occur.
  • Focus attention on the rule rather than the youngster who has violated a rule, since that might inadvertently reinforce the misbehaviour.
  • Avoid labelling the child/teen as “difficult” or “bad”.
  • Be ever watchful for behaviour that is consistent with the rules, and reward that behaviour often, using subtle positive feedback such as eye contact, smiles, and positive comments. (At this age, positive comments and praise are often more effective if done subtly or privately, to avoid teasing if friends or siblings are around.)
  • A combination of ignoring most misbehaviour and frequently rewarding good behaviour (called "differential reinforcement") should be an automatic, ongoing, second-nature kind of thing, and with practice it can be highly effective.

Observe, monitor, and encourage
Youngsters who tend to be angry a lot do not usually get as much positive feedback as other kids. They end up being tolerated most of time until parents can no longer put up with their behaviour, and then they get scolded or worse. To avoid this, parents need to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring.
 
Look for the early signs of anger, or signs that your child might not be getting much positive feedback, and then heap on the praise and encouragement any time you see appropriate behaviour or self-control. At this point, the parent makes a conscious decision to alter his or her own behaviour in order to influence the behaviour of the child, by looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive contact.
 
If rule violations can't be ignored, the initial reaction should be a private conversation, to calmly point out the problem and have the youngster acknowledge that a rule is being broken. Indicate that further misbehaviour will not be tolerated. This kind of correction strategy can be used only once or twice. If the misbehaviour still continues, then something must be reinforcing it.
 
Determine what is triggering, reinforcing, and maintaining the behaviour
It is necessary to discover what triggers misbehaviour and what reinforcement is maintaining it in order to alter these factors. To do this, good observation skills, as well as strong self-awareness, are really important.
 
As an example, consider a child who becomes aggressive or angry when asked to take out the garbage. This behaviour usually produces a long, drawn-out confrontation with the parents, followed by a discussion about the importance of chores, and in the end the child either delays taking out the garbage, or even gets help.
 
Obviously you first need to determine that the youngster has the ability to handle the chore. If he or she can’t physically cope with it, then clearly you should rethink the assignment of that chore. But if your child can handle the expectation, then something else is going on. The misbehaviour probably is goal directed and the goal is to avoid taking out the garbage. So one key consideration is to ensure that the misbehaviour does not accomplish its goal of avoiding the chore.
 
The other side of the coin is that there may need to be some reinforcement for doing the chore, especially doing it without drama or complaint. For most teens, a verbal or physical “pat on the back” is sufficient, but for some there may need to be a more concrete reward, at least temporarily. More on that later, but the important point here is not to forget how much all us of need to be acknowledged for the everyday good things we do.
 
In the face of any child’s negative behaviour, parents have to be very conscious of their own reactions and behaviours, since we are often rewarding the misbehaviour ourselves. Some questions to help with observation and self-awareness are:
  • Since behaviour is influenced by its antecedents (what has come before), is something triggering the misbehaviour such as a particular activity or event? If so, does my child have some problem with these?
  • Since behaviour that's occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these annoying behaviours?
  • Are other kids present, and if so is it usually the same ones?
  • Since early adolescents are extremely peer focused, are other kids rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?
  • Am I rewarding the misbehaviour, perhaps by paying too much attention to it, or by allowing it to alter the family schedule or what I expect of the child?
  • Am I paying too much attention to what this child does wrong, and missing what he or she does right?
  • Am I so hurried, or frustrated or angry, that even when I see positive behaviour I’m not motivated to praise it?
  • Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?
  • Does the misbehaviour seem to be directed toward a particular goal? Is the child trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particular task or situation?

Consider using consequences
Sometimes, no amount of manipulation of the environment or the antecedents of the behaviour is effective, and it is too difficult to eliminate whatever is reinforcing the behaviour (e.g., attention from the peer group). At this point, a negative consequence (i.e., punishment) will need to be considered. It will be most effective if it's logical (e.g., if you can't do your homework quietly in the family room, you'll have to work alone in your room), and applied under the rules laid out earlier.
 
With young adolescents age 13-14 years, one usually effective consequence involves "time out". Time out should mean time away from the reinforcement of being with the family, and would therefore involve exclusion from the room. Whenever possible this should be done in a way that is calm and helps the youngster preserve his dignity, especially if siblings or friends are around. This is not easy, but will help to avoid a "grandstanding" reaction where the child uses the situation to impress the “audience” with his or her attitude and rebelliousness.
Everyday approaches
Each day should begin with a clean slate. This will help prevent the youngster from being discouraged by having to overcome "yesterday's baggage". It can also help you determine if previous consequences have altered the behaviour or not. If they have, then you have the opportunity to give the child some positive feedback on the good behaviour and make it more likely to prevail.
 
Effective behaviour management requires a lot of this careful observation, and interaction with early adolescents has to be ongoing and spontaneous, but also somewhat planned. This can help ensure that the children get attention and positive feedback for the things they do well, including behaving appropriately, following rules, completing work, interacting positively with others, and being helpful. Young people who are having difficulty behaving appropriately require particularly close observation, so that any positive efforts they make will be "caught" and somehow reinforced.
 
Maintaining a well-ordered family situation can be exhausting, but it’s worth it.
 
Unfortunately, some early adolescents might still show a tendency to get angry, have tantrums or behave aggressively. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and/or long-lasting, it moves into the Yellow Light zone and the parents will need to consider being a little more intense with their behavioural support.
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When young adolescents exhibit behaviour that's serious, worrisome and unresponsive to the informal strategies described above, the next steps require a more structured approach to observing and analyzing behaviour, and to manipulating the consequences that follow misbehaviour. Most parents haven’t been trained in doing this, so planning and practice will be key. As well, seeking support from family, friends or even a counsellor in the school, would go a long way toward ensuring success.
 
Developing a clear plan is well worth the investment of time and effort. Youngsters whose behaviour is in the Yellow Light zone are already monopolizing a good deal of your time and energy anyway. A more structured approach probably won't take more time, but will simply help you be more organized and deliberate with the time you are already investing in trying to control the misbehaviour. By doing so, you may be able to prevent your child from falling into far more serious behavioural difficulties later on.
 
1)       Observe your teen and document his/her behaviour.
Begin by listing observed behaviours that are frequently troublesome. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn't useful to use a vague description such as "being annoying" or "misbehaving". A target behaviour has to be described in such a way that anyone off the street could see it and recognize it. Examples of clear behavioural descriptions might be:
  • Pushes or hits other kids
  • Initiates frequent power struggles
  • Swears when angry
  • Speaks rudely to dad
  • Yells and gets angry when told to put video games away
  • Initiates fights with siblings
  • Damages other kids’ property
  • Threatens other kids

Remember these are just examples. It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just through observation.
 
2)               Count how often these behaviours occur.
Begin with those behaviours that you feel are the most disruptive and the most frequent. Try putting five or six of them on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it happen. It can help to have another adult, such as a relative or friend, handle this step, but that's not essential. This counting phase should continue for about two weeks to ensure that you get a good continuous sample of behaviour over time.
 
Note that it's not necessary to count for every minute of every day. In fact, 4 or 5 observation periods per day, each no more than 10 or 15 minutes long, should do. Make sure to sample many different days of the week or time periods in the day, especially those where misbehaviour seems to be frequent.
 
Sometimes, this period of intense observation actually pays unexpected dividends. For example:
  • Parents might discover patterns involving the time of day, day of the week or social setting for a misbehaviour, that weren't apparent with more casual observation.
  • Sometimes, the parent realizes that he or she has chosen the wrong behaviour to observe, or even the wrong child!
  • Sometimes, the child notices that he or she is being observed, and actually begins to change as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but whatever the reason the improvement is probably temporary so it's advisable to push on with the program.
 
3)        Pick target behaviours to work on.
There are guidelines for this selection process:
  • Start small and be consistent - pick only one or two behaviours to work on initially so that the program doesn't fall under its own weight within the first week
  • Choose behaviours that are troublesome enough to be worth working on, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences
  • Pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street
  • Choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that they can be easily counted
  • Choose behaviours that occur often, at least several times per day, since infrequent misbehaviours tend to take longer to overcome.

4)       Determine how appropriate behaviour might be rewarded.
The best reinforcers to use with early adolescents are informal social rewards such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, and praise. Most people don’t believe it, and the kids will deny it, but even at this age an arm around the shoulder and even hugs can be effective rewards, as long as you are sensitive to your child’s reaction.
 
5)        Consider negative consequences or punishments.
We hope these will be used rarely if ever, but it's absolutely essential that the parent is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
 
The most common punishments for children in early adolescence include:
  • Exclusion (sending the youngster out of the room, or to his or her room)
  • Loss of privileges such as TV or computer time, or participation in a family activity
  • Loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.
Note that aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, and shaming have been shown to be ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as more anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with the child's long-term emotional development.
 
6)       Formulate the plan

This involves putting together a written description of how you intend to:
  • Observe and count the targeted behaviours
  • Deliver rewards and/or punishments (including descriptions of what those will be)
  • Chart results and share the outcomes with your spouse (if any), the child, and anyone else who is helping.In two- parent families, it’s important that both parents are “on the same page”, working towards the same goal.
 
It is important that the plan be discussed with the teen, and this should be done at a stage where the plan is in draft form so that he or she can have input.


Involve your child
The contribution of the child in this age range is often surprisingly helpful. Talk it over with your child at a time when you are both in a good mood. It's very important that he or she understands that this program is being implemented because the targeted behaviours are interfering with his or her functioning, growth and happiness as well as the happiness and functioning of the rest of the family. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the child, who should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to".
 
The child must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how these consequences will work, whether it's removal from the room or accumulating checkmarks to earn ten minutes of computer time.
 
Accentuate the positive
Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are inappropriate or unacceptable, the plan should specifically include ways to reward an opposite, appropriate behaviour.
 
For example, if a targeted behaviour is "refusing to put away video games", the program should reinforce any behaviour directed at putting away video games. In practice this might mean that, in full view but in a very subtle way, you put check marks on a page each time the child picks up or puts away a piece of equipment. Assuming the check marks are important to him or her, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks you are smiling and quietly making positive comments following compliant behaviours, and simply ignoring other noncompliant behaviour.
 
Important to Note:
  • Doing homework, chores or work around the house is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering praise and/or rewards for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider.
  • Keep it flexible. The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the youngster’s behaviour improves. For example, when first training a new behaviour, you need to try to provide reinforcement each and every time an appropriate behaviour is observed. But as the behaviour becomes more frequent and ingrained, it's actually more powerful to reward appropriate  behaviour at some times but not others. This sounds complex, but in fact it’s quite a natural flow over time.
  • Be discreet. With adolescents, public praise or attention might actually be counterproductive due to the negative attention it can attract from siblings and friends. Praise and attention are still powerful reinforcement for these young people, but perhaps best delivered in a low-key manner.
     
7)              Implement the plan.

Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant
In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most critical factors. It's nice to have some help since it's so important that the child gets rewarded a lot and punished only rarely. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing and bargaining, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours. And if these can be charted or graphed it increases the power of the program.
Dealing with other kids in the family
A complication that sometimes arises with the use of concrete rewards is that your other children (if any) will notice that something is going on and react with anything from curiosity to jealousy. Some may want to know why they can't participate and share in the rewards. Usually, these kinds of issues can be dealt with in private conversations discussing the need to help the targeted child. Most of the other kids will be satisfied with this, since they likely are aware that the targeted child is a disruptive force in the family.
 
Sometimes, especially in a large family, the easiest solution may be to include all the children in the program, using a form of "group contingency", which simply means they all get rewarded.  This can work in several ways, and there is a lot of information in books and other resources. Group contingencies can be quite effective and are usually no more work than a program focused on an individual child.  You may have already used this strategy without realizing it. For example, you may say that if everyone finishes their homework by a certain time, the whole family will get some kind of reward such as renting a movie and making popcorn. You get the benefit of peer pressure as the kids push one another to be productive so they all can enjoy the reward.
Important to Note: Document everything.
Writing down your experiences isn’t necessary, but it is very often helpful. Like a journal or diary, it allows you to record where you’ve been as a family and to see how situations have changed over time. As well, if you eventually seek family counselling, a written record of what you’ve tried, what worked and what didn’t, can be invaluable to a mental health professional and prevent wasting time repeating approaches that were ineffective.
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When a young adolescent's anger and aggression are severe enough to be clearly in the Red Light zone, the parents will require professional help. Finding such assistance can be a long, drawn-out process. In the meantime, you will need to control the misbehaviour to whatever degree possible, and you will need a written management plan.
 
In the plan you should document:
  1. Your observations
  2. The exact nature of the young person's misbehaviour
  3. When and where it occurred
  4. Who else was present
  5. The strategies that have been applied (successfully and unsuccessfully).
 
Not only is keeping records a hallmark of good planning, but clear notes often are a tremendous help to a counsellor trying to get to know the history of the problem.
 
To attempt to control Red Light behaviour, you will need to try a focused, structured approach to manipulating the consequences (both positive and negative) that follow targeted behaviours. Parents aren’t normally trained to do this, so planning and practice will be key. As well, significant support from a relative, friend or mental health professional working in the school will be really helpful.
 
1.         Collect data
Begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously disruptive. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn't useful to use a vague description such as "misbehaves" or "is rude". Behaviour has to be described in clear, concrete language. Examples of ways to describe seriously disruptive behaviours include:
  • Hits or kicks other kids
  • Intimidates or threatens others
  • Has violent temper outbursts
  • Angrily refuses to do chores
  • Initiates power struggles
  • Speaks to teachers rudely or makes veiled threats
  • Starts fights
  • Vandalizes property
  • Leaves the house at night without parental permission
  • Is cruel to pets
  • Throws things

 
2.         Count how often these behaviours occur.
List five or six behaviours on a small clipboard, and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. It is helpful if another adult can assist with this, since these behaviours will usually keep the parent busy.
 
Sometimes the young person notices that he or she is being observed, and actually improves as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason. Whatever the reason, the improvement is temporary so it's paramount to push on with the program.
 
The process of counting behaviours is important. Without these data, initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. This period of intense observation may also reveal patterns involving the time of day, day of the week or social setting for a misbehaviour, that weren't otherwise apparent. This information can be useful later.
 
Unlike Yellow Light behaviours, Red Light behaviours are usually not very frequent during any single day. Counting can confirm whether this is the case. If the behaviours are infrequent, you can work on several seriously angry and/or aggressive behaviours, rather than just one or two.
 
3.        Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded for your child.
For children in early adolescence with “Red Light” levels of misbehaviour, use of informal and social rewards such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, and praise is unlikely to be effective. At this age, rewards might need to be more concrete, such as:
1.       Access to TV, computer or video game
2.       Ride to school
3.       Permission to have a friend over or go to a friend’s house
4.       Checkmarks or points that can be cashed in for rewards of his/her choice
5.       Shopping trip for new clothes
 
4.       Consider negative consequences or punishments.
With Red Light behaviour, punishments will likely have to be used frequently at first. It is essential that the parent is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
Common punishments used with young adolescents include:
1.       Exclusion (sending your child out of the room or to his or her room)
2.       Loss of privileges such as access to TV, computer or video game
3.       “Grounding”, i.e., loss of opportunities to hang out with friends
4.       Loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.

Note:  
It may be helpful to discuss rewards, and maybe even punishments, with your child at a time when you’re both in a good mood. Children this age will often have ideas of what they want as rewards for improving their behaviour, and will even share what kind of punishment they view as fair. Keep in mind that they are more likely to buy into and follow a plan when they had input into it.
 
Note: Aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, and shaming have been shown to be ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as increased anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere withthe long-term emotional development of the child.
 
5.         Formulate the plan
Put together a written description of how you intend to document the targeted behaviours and deliver rewards and/or punishments. It is absolutely essential that the plan be discussed and formulated in partnership with your spouse if applicable, and that the child is informed and has a chance for input.
 
Involve your child
Involvement of your child at this age level is very important. It is crucial that he or she understands the reason the program is being implemented: because the misbehaviour is interfering with his or her functioning and happiness, as well as the functioning and happiness of the entire family. Talk it through with your child, with the focus on helping him or her. If the youngster feels like a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to", his or her participation can often be surprisingly helpful.
 
For a full understanding of the program, the child must know which specific behaviours will have consequences and how the consequences will work, whether it's removal from the room or accumulating checkmarks to get thirty minutes of TV time. Simple programs are best, since complex strategies are more difficult to implement and can become discouraging. 
Accentuate the positive
It is important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should specifically include reinforcement of behaviour that is opposite to or incompatible with the misbehaviour. For example, if the child is yelling and refusing to put away his video game, the consequence might be that he loses the game for a set time. However, the program should ensure that compliant behaviour (any attempt to put away equipment), is reinforced as frequently as possible. In practice this might mean that the parent puts check marks on a page each time the youngster responds appropriately to the request to clean up. Assuming the check marks are important to him or her, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the parent is smiling and complimenting the youngster for displaying mature, compliant behaviour.
 
Important to Note:
  • Doing chores or homework is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering praise or reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good idea.
  • Given the seriously angry and aggressive nature of Red Light behaviours, it will likely be necessary to simply ignore less serious misbehaviour during the initial stages of the program. Otherwise you risk being in a constant disciplinary mode that would quickly discourage both you and your child.
  • Always keep in mind the importance of the peer group to early adolescent children. Some programs can harness that peer influence in a positive way, but peer influence is more often negative and needs to be minimized as much as possible.

 
6.      Implement the program.
Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant
In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors since it's so important that the youngster gets rewarded a lot and punished infrequently. Expect a range of reactions from him or her, including testing, temper tantrums and so on, which might well persist for some time. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as the opposite or incompatible appropriate behaviours, and if these can be charted or graphed each day it might increase the power of the program. 
Bring in outside help when possible
Young adolescents exhibiting Red Light behaviour are unlikely to be "cured" by the use of these structured programs, without some form of outside counselling or therapy being provided as well. The likelihood of finding appropriate therapy varies with location, resource availability, home situation, and many other factors. Nonetheless, parents must try to provide work on strategies that will improve behaviour even a little, and maintain the child’s chances for success.
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Note that in the section that follows, the adolescent is sometimes referred to as “the child”. While these young people are clearly not children, (though they are our children), the term is used strictly for convenience and shouldn’t be taken as insulting the maturity of these older adolescents.


In 15 to 18 year olds, normal day-to-day occurrences of anger or aggression tend to be minor, at least to most adult eyes. There is great temptation to simply ignore the majority of these, and often that’s not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for encouraging self-control is very likely to result in these behaviours escalating and becoming more serious than simply an annoyance.

Sometimes basic manipulations or alterations in the home environment can make a difference, such as changing the family schedule, making minor changes in the young person’s responsibilities, and so on. But in many cases, a more targeted approach is needed.

Example strategies include:

A.       Clearly define behavioural rules and expectations in concrete terms, and refer to them often, especially when rule violations occur. With most teens, but particularly with these older adolescents, rules should be open for discussion and their input taken seriously. In fact, teens are more likely to “buy in” and follow the rules if they feel that their contributions are respected and accepted.

B.       When rules are broken, don’t focus too much attention on the teen, since that might inadvertently reinforce the misbehaviour. Instead, the rule itself should be the focus.

C.       Parents should be ever watchful for behaviour that is consistent with the rules, and reward that behaviour using subtle positive feedback such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, and yes, even affectionate touches and hugs. This is likely to increase the incidence of positive behaviour, and might also open up positive communication.

D.       With adolescents, positive comments and praise are often more effective if done subtly or privately, to avoid negative reactions when siblings or peers are around. As well, in a one-to-one situation these comments tend to come across as more genuine. However, as teens mature and begin to value academic prowess and higher education or working-world ambitions, adult praise may be viewed in a more positive light. Clearly, parents have to be able to read the social milieu and their child’s mood, and use some judgment when utilizing praise to increase positive behaviour.

E.        The combination of ignoring misbehavior and rewarding positive behaviour is called “differential reinforcement” and should be an automatic, ongoing, second-nature kind of thing. With practice it can be highly effective, and help create the kind of caring, supportive climate we all want and need in the home.

 

Remember that 15-18 year olds who have a tendency to misbehave may develop a “bad rep” and a history of not getting much of the positive feedback that their peers get routinely. They may have been tolerated most of time until their behaviour exceeded the teacher’s or parent’s tolerance threshold, and then they got scolded or worse. To avoid continuing this history, parents need to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring. Look for the early signs of anger or aggression, or signs that the youngster isn’t getting much in the way of positive feedback, then try to increase the praise and encouragement for any appropriate behaviour. At this point, the parent must make a conscious decision to alter his or her behaviour in order to influence the behaviour of their child. By looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive contact, the parent adopts a style of interaction that has been shown in the research literature to promote positive behaviour.

If angry or aggressive behaviour can’t be ignored, the initial reaction should be a private conversation to calmly point out the problem and have the young person acknowledge that their behaviour is inappropriate. Using this one-to-one approach, parents give the youngster an opportunity to “have his say” which might actually strengthen their relationship and improve cooperation. However, the main purpose of this conversation is to have the child acknowledge breaking the rules, and to state that further misbehaviour of this nature will not be tolerated. This kind of correction strategy can be used only once or twice.  If the misbehaviour continues after that, you know there must be some kind of reinforcement involved.

The next step then is to try, through observation, to determine what is reinforcing and maintaining the misbehaviour. As well, the parent has to be very conscious of how he or she is reacting to negative behaviour. Some helpful questions to consider are:

A.       Since behaviour is influenced by its antecedents (what has come before), is something triggering the misbehaviour such as the onset of a particular activity or event? If so, is there a problem with these activities?

B.       Since behaviour that’s occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these annoying behaviours?

C.       Since adolescents are extremely peer focused, are other kids rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?

D.       Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by allowing it to alter the family’s schedule, the teen’s responsibilities or the nature of some activities?

E.        Am I paying too much attention to what my teen is doing wrong, and ignoring    what he or she is doing right?

F.        Am I so frustrated or angry, that even when I observe positive behavior, I’m not motivated to praise it?

G.      Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?

H.       Are other people present, and if so is it usually the same ones?

I.         Does the misbehaviour seem to be goal directed? That is, is the teen trying to accomplish something such as getting attention, exerting control or avoiding a particular task?

 

The importance of good observation skills, as well as strong self-awareness, cannot be overemphasized.  

Obviously, we’re attempting to discover the antecedents that trigger anger or aggression, as well as the reinforcement that is maintaining it, and then somehow alter one or both. As an example, consider a teen who becomes angry or abusive when asked to take out the garbage. The misbehaviour usually produces a long, drawn-out confrontation with the parents, followed by a discussion about the importance of chores, and in the end the youngster either delays taking out the garbage, or even gets help.

Now obviously you first need to determine that the teen has the ability to handle the chore. If he can’t physically cope with it, then clearly you should rethink the assignment of that chore. But if the child can handle the expectation, then something else is going on. The misbehaviour probably is goal directed and the goal is to avoid taking out the garbage, or to control the situation. So one key consideration is to ensure that the misbehaviour does not accomplish its goal of avoiding the chore.

The other side of the coin is that there may need to be some reinforcement for doing the chore, especially doing it without drama or complaint. For most teens, a verbal or physical “pat on the back” is sufficient, but for some there may need to be a more concrete reward, at least temporarily. More on that later, but the important point here is not to forget how much all of us need to be acknowledged for the everyday good things we do.

Sometimes, no amount of manipulation of the environment or the antecedents of the behaviour is effective, and the reinforcer for the misbehaviour is simply too difficult to figure out or eliminate. At this point, a negative consequence (punishment) will need to be considered, and it will be most effective if it is logical (e.g., if you can’t sit at the dinner table without threatening your brother, then you’ll have to eat dinner alone later on), and applied under the rules laid out in the previous section. With adolescents, one effective consequence usually involves “time out”, which really means time away from the reinforcement of being a part of the family. Therefore, time out should mean exclusion from the room. Note that whenever possible this should be done in a way that is respectful and helps the young person preserve his or her dignity. This is not easy, but if it can be managed it will help to lessen resentment and anger.

Note that with any child, but especially with older adolescents who are looking forward to leaving school in the next few years to enter higher education or the job market, try to avoid consequences that might impact negatively on school performance. For example, homework and studying should take priority over teaching the youth a lesson about forgetting chores. One way of motivating our children to do their best in school is by showing how much you value education.

In general, it is important that each day begins with a clean slate, partly so that the youngster is not discouraged by having to overcome “yesterday’s baggage”, and partly so that you can determine if the consequence has altered the behaviour or not. If it has, then you have the opportunity to acknowledge and reinforce the good behaviour and make it more likely to prevail.

The techniques described above are pretty simple, but that does not mean that they are easy to apply. Effective behaviour management requires a lot of careful observation, and interaction with the teen and has to be ongoing and spontaneous, but also somewhat planned. This can help ensure that the children get attention and positive feedback for the things they do well, including behaving appropriately, following rules, controlling their emotions, completing work, interacting positively with others, and being helpful. Young people who are having difficulty behaving appropriately require particularly close observation, so that any positive efforts they make will be "caught" and somehow reinforced.

Maintaining a well-ordered family situation can be exhausting but it’s worth it.

Unfortunately, some teens might still show a tendency to get angry, be aggressive, and generally fail to control themselves. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and/or long-lasting, it moves into the Yellow Light zone and parents will need to consider more intensive behavioural support.


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When older teens exhibit behaviour that’s serious, worrisome and doesn’t respond to the general strategies described above, the next steps require a more structured approach to observing and analyzing behaviour, and to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours. Parents generally have not been trained in using the strategies described below, so planning and practice will be key. As well, seeking support from a relative or a friend, or from a counsellor or mental health professional in the school, might go a long way toward ensuring success.
Make no mistake, however, the investment of time and effort is well worth it since the result might be to prevent your child from falling into far more serious behavioural difficulties down the road. As well, consider that if your teen’s behaviour is in the Yellow Light zone, he or she is already monopolizing a good deal of your time and energy. The strategies below probably won’t take more time, but simply will require being more organized and planful with the time you are already investing in trying to control misbehaviour.
 
Steps to Take
1.       Observe the child and document the behaviour
The first step in a more serious, focused behaviour management plan involves detailed observation of your child and actual collection of data. Begin by listing observed behaviours that are frequently troublesome. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn’t useful to use a description such as “being a smart-alec” or “misbehaving”. Target behaviour has to be described in such a way that anyone coming in off the street could see it and recognize it.
 
Examples of useful behavioural descriptions might be:
  • Pushes or pokes family members
  • Gets angry and fails to complete chores
  • Yells and starts fights
  • Initiates power struggles
  • Has temper tantrums
  • Threatens or intimidates other teens
  • Throws things when angry
  • Damages or destroys property
  • Is cruel to younger members of the family
  • Is spiteful or vindictive with siblings
 
Remember, these are just examples. It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just through observation.
 
2.              Count how often these behaviours occur.
Begin with those behaviours that are the most disruptive and the most frequent. Try putting five or six of them on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. Another adult such as a relative or friend might actually be better able to handle this step as an uninvolved observer, but that’s not essential. This counting phase should continue for about two weeks to ensure that you get a good continuous sample of behaviour over time.
 
Note that it’s obviously not necessary to count for every minute of every day. In fact, 3 to 5 randomly timed observations per day, each no more than 10 or 15 minutes long, should suffice. Make sure that you sample different days of the week and different times of day; especially anytime misbehaviour seems to be frequent. 
Sometimes, this period of intense observation actually pays unexpected dividends. For example, you might note that there are patterns involving the day of the week, time of day, or social context for a misbehaviour that weren’t apparent with more casual observation. Sometimes, the parent realizes that he or she has chosen the wrong behaviour to observe, or even the wrong child! Sometimes, the child notices that he or she is being observed, and actually begins to change as a result. This might be due to concerns about being “caught”, or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but whatever the reason the improvement is probably temporary so it’s advisable to push on with the program.
 
3.       Pick target behaviours to work on.
 
Once the data collection phase is complete, the parent needs to pick target behaviours to work on. There are guidelines for this selection process that are particularly important:
  • Start small and be consistent - pick only one or two behaviours to work on initially so that the program doesn’t fall under its own weight within the first week.
  • Choose behaviours that are troublesome enough to be worth working on, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences.
  • Pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street.
  • Choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that they can be easily counted.
  • Choose behaviours that occur often, at least several times per day, since infrequent misbehaviours tend to take longer to overcome.

 
4.        Determine how appropriate behavior might be rewarded
 
Next, you need to determine how appropriate behaviour might be rewarded. There are a number of reinforcers to consider with older adolescents. Continue to use the informal and social rewards such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, praise, hugs and so on. To increase their power, pair these social reinforcers with something more concrete, such as:

  • New clothing items
  • Fast food coupons
  • TV or computer time (within reason)
  • Being driven to friends’ houses, or use of the car
  • Permission to select the music played in the car.
 
These usually are pretty effective, particularly if this is a child who, because of misbehaviour, doesn’t normally get much of this stuff.
 
Another common approach is to use points or checkmarks which act as a reinforcer because they can be “cashed in” at the end of a predetermined period for rewards such as those listed above.
 
Often, the best reward can be determined by either asking the young person or observing what he or she tends to do when given free time.
 
Similarly, you need to think about negative consequences or punishments. This is something that ideally will be used rarely if ever, but it’s absolutely essential to be prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used. The most common punishments used for older adolescents include:
  • Exclusion (e.g., sending the child out of the room or to his or her room)
  • Loss of privileges
  • Additional chores
  • Loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.
 
Note that aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, or shaming have been shown to be ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with long term emotional development. They may also have an impact on your relationship with your child, for example if he or she feels outrage at not being treated respectfully.
 
5.        Formulate a plan.
With all of these pieces in place,it’s time to formulate the plan. This is nothing more than a written description of how you intend to observe the targeted behaviours, count them, deliver rewards and/or punishments and what those will be, and chart and share the results. It is important that the plan be discussed with your teen while the plan is in draft form so that he or she can have input.
 
The contribution of the young person in this age range is often surprisingly helpful. It’s very important that the teen understands that this program is being implemented because the target behaviours are interfering with his or her functioning and happiness, as well as the functioning and happiness of the entire family. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the child, who should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being “done to”.
 
The youngster must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how these consequences will work, whether it’s removal from the room or accumulating checkmarks to earn a ride to school.
 
In formulating the plan, it is important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are inappropriate or unacceptable, the plan should specifically include the reinforcement of behaviour that is opposite to or incompatible with the targets. For example, if a targeted behaviour is “angrily refusing to put away video games”, one major thrust of the program should be to reinforce any behaviour directed at putting away video games, as well as any evidence of emotional self-control. In practice this might mean that you subtly put check marks on a page each time the youngster picks up or puts away a piece of video game equipment. Assuming the check marks are important to him or her, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the parent is smiling and quietly making positive comments following calm compliant behaviours, and simply ignoring angry behaviour.
 
Important to Note:
  • Doing chores or homework is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering praise or reinforcers for various degrees of completed chores or homework is always a good program component to consider.
  • The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the behaviour improves. Keep in mind that when first training a new behaviour, you need to try to provide reinforcement each and every time an appropriate behaviour is observed. As the behaviour becomes more frequent and ingrained however, it’s more powerful to reward appropriate behaviour at some times but not others. This sounds complex but, in fact, is quite a natural flow over time.
  • With these older adolescents, public praise or attention might actually be counter-productive, partly due to the negative peer or sibling attention it can attract. Praise and attention are still powerful reinforcements for these young people, but perhaps mostly when delivered in a low-key manner or in private.
 
6.       Implement the plan

The next stageis the actual implementation of the program; the execution of the plan. In the first few days of the implementation, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors. If you can have some help at this time, all the better, since it’s so important that very little is missed and the teen gets rewarded a lot and punished only rarely. Expect a range of reactions from your child, including testing, bargaining and so on, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly, although you can expect regular temporary setbacks. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours, and if these can be charted or graphed it increases the power of the program.
 
A complication that sometimes arises with the use of concrete rewards is that the other children, if any, will notice that something is going on and react with anything from curiosity to jealousy. Some may want to know why they can’t participate and share in the rewards. Usually, these kinds of issues can be dealt with in private conversations discussing the need to help the targeted teen. The other children will often be satisfied with this since they certainly are aware that the youngster in question is a disruptive force in the home. On occasion however, it turns out that the easiest solution is indeed to include all the kids, using a form of “group contingency”.
 
Group contingencies can work in a number of ways, but the most common is simply to allow all of the children to earn rewards when their behaviour is appropriate. Parents often do this anyway when they say, for example, that if everyone finishes their homework by a certain time, the family will rent a movie and make popcorn. You get the benefit of peer pressure as the children push one another to be productive so they all can enjoy the reward. These group plans can be quite effective, and are usually no more work than a program focused on an individual child.
 
Important to Note: Document everything in your own words.
Writing down your experiences isn’t necessary, but it is very often helpful. Like a journal or diary, it allows you to record where you’ve been as a family and to see how situations have changed over time. As well, if you eventually seek family counselling, a written record of what you’ve tried, what worked and what didn’t, can be invaluable to a mental health professional and prevent wasting time repeating approaches that were ineffective.

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When these older adolescents exhibit anger and aggression that is so severe as to be clearly in our Red Light zone, the parents will require professional help. Finding such help can be a protracted process. In the meanwhile it will be necessary for the parents to control the misbehaviour to whatever degree possible, and a written management plan will be essential.
 
The plan should include documentation of such items as:
1.      Your observations
2.      The exact nature of the teen’s misbehaviour
3.      When and where it occurred
4.      Who else was present
5.      The strategies you have tried (successfully and unsuccessfully).
 
Not only is this a hallmark of good planning, but clear notes such as these will often be extremely helpful to any mental health professional who works with the family later. Further discussion of the process for bringing in the experts, can be found at the end of this chapter.
 
To attempt to control Red Light behaviour, a focused, structured approach to manipulating the consequences (both positive and negative) that follow targeted behaviours will need to be rigorously applied. Parents have not typically been trained in using the strategies described below, so planning and practice will be key. As well, where possible, support from a relative, friend or mental health professional in the school would be extremely helpful.
 
1.       Collect data
The first step in a serious, focused behaviour management plan involves collection of data. The parent should begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously disruptive. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn’t useful to use a description such as “doesn’t listen” or “being defiant”. A target behaviour has to be described in clear, concrete language. Examples of seriously disruptive behavioural descriptors include:
1.       Strikes others
2.       Intimidates or threatens others
3.       Has violent temper outbursts
4.       Speaks to parents rudely or makes veiled threats
5.       Displays frequent hostility toward others
6.       Initiates and/or escalates power struggles
7.       Initiates fights
8.       Vandalizes property
9.       Is cruel to pets or younger children
10.     Sets fires
 
2.   Count how often these behaviours occur.
 
The second step is actually to count how often these behaviours occur. Try listing five or six on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. If practical, ask another adult such as a relative or friend to help with this counting step, since these behaviours will usually keep you, the parent, busy.
 
 
Sometimes, the young person notices that he or she is being observed, and improvement actually occurs as a result. This might be due to concerns about being “caught” or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but whatever the reason the improvement is probably temporary so it’s paramount to push on with the program.
 
The process of counting behaviours is important, since without this data initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. As well, this period of intense observation may reveal that there are patterns involving the time of day, day of the week or social context for a misbehaviour, that weren’t otherwise apparent. This information can be useful later.
 
Note that unlike Yellow Light behaviours, Red Light behaviours are usually not all that frequent during any one day. As a result, rather than selecting one or two behaviours to work on, one can in fact work on several behaviours that can be classified as seriously aggressive and/or disruptive.
 
2.        Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded.
 
Continue to use informal and social rewards such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, praise and even physical touch or hugs. But bear in mind that young people whose behaviour is in the Red Light zone have not responded to these informal approaches, and their misbehaviour is far more serious. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. It simply means we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.
 
Examples of concrete rewards include:
1.      A ride to school or use of the car for short periods
2.      Choice of meal or dessert
3.      Bonus added to allowance
4.      Fast food coupons
5.      Computer use
6.      Use the child’s ideas for family activity (within reason)
7.      Curfew extension on the weekend
8.      Choice of chore
9.      Small gift certificates
 
Another common approach is to use points or checkmarks which act as a reinforcer because they can be “cashed in” at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above. These may well prove necessary, at least initially, for a program to be effective with these serious misbehaviours.
 
4. Consider negative consequences or punishments.
 
As well, the parent needs to think about negative consequences or punishments. With Red Light behaviour, punishments will likely have to be used frequently in the initial stages, so it’s essential to be prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
Common punishments used with adolescents include:
1.        Exclusion (sending the child out of the room or to his room)
2.        Loss of privileges such as participation in a family activity, use of the car, curfew extension
3.        Loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.
 
Note: Aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, shaming, etc. have been shown to be ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with the long term emotional development of the young person, and damage your relationship with your child.
 
5. Formulate a plan.
With all of these pieces in place, it’s time to formulate the plan. This is nothing more than putting together a written description of how you intend to document the targeted behaviours and deliver rewards and/or punishments. It is absolutely essential that the plan be discussed and formulated in partnership with the teen and that he or she has a chance for input.
 
Involve the adolescent
The involvement of the young person at this age level is very important. It’s crucial that your child understands that the program is being implemented because the anger or aggression is interfering with his or her life and happiness, as well as the happiness and functioning of the entire family. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the young person, who should feel like a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being “done to”. With these older children their participation is important and can often be surprisingly helpful.
 
The adolescent must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be met with consequences and how the consequences will work, whether it’s removal from the room or accumulating checkmarks to get a ride to school. Obviously, simple programs are preferable, since complex strategies are more difficult to implement and can become discouraging.
 
In formulating the plan, it’s important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should specifically include the reinforcement of behaviour that is incompatible with the targets. For example, if a targeted behaviour was “has temper outbursts when asked to put away video games”, one major thrust of the program should be to reinforce compliant behaviour and emotional self-control as frequently as possible. In practice this might mean that, you put check marks on a page each time the youngster makes any effort to put away any component of a video game. Assuming the check marks are important to him or her, watching them accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the parent is smiling and quietly making positive comments. 
 
Important to Note:

    Doing chores or homework is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering praise or reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider.

    Given the seriously angry and aggressive nature of the targeted behaviours, it will likely be necessary to simply ignore less serious misbehaviour during the initial stages of the program. Otherwise you risk being in a constant disciplinary mode that would quickly discourage both your child and you.

    With adolescents, the importance of the peer group must always be kept in mind. Some programs can harness that peer influence in a positive way, but very often the influence is negative and needs to be minimized as much as possible.


 
6.   Implement the plan.

Be consistent, persistent and vigilant
The next stageis the actual implementation of the program, the execution of the plan. In the first few days of the implementation, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors. You will require help if at all possible, since it’s so important that your teen gets rewarded a lot and punished infrequently. Expect a range of reactions from your child, including testing, open defiance and so on, which might well persist for some time.
 
It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as opposite or incompatible appropriate behaviours, and if these can be charted or graphed on a daily basis it increases the power of the program.
 
Older adolescents exhibiting Red Light behaviour are unlikely to be “cured” by the use of programs such as described here, without some form of outside counseling or therapy being provided as well. The likelihood of accessing therapy varies with location, resource availability, home situation, and many other factors. Nonetheless, parents must attempt to do something that will improve behaviour and maintain the child’s chances for success.
 
 
Bringing in outside help when possible
Many school systems employ counselors, Social Workers, Psychologists orother mental health professionals who can be consulted by parents experiencing serious problems with the behaviour of their children. Though these professionals probably are not mandated to actually deliver therapy or counselling, they often provide support, advice and referrals to community agencies outside the school system. 
 
Some other sources of help or referral to community agencies include the family physician, religious leaders, local hospitals, self-help groups and community centres.
Community based professionals who might provide behavioural support, counselling and therapy include:
1)      Psychiatrists
2)      Psychologists
3)      Psychological Associates (Ontario, Canada only)
4)      Psychoeducational Consultants
5)      Social Workers
6)      Family Counselors
7)      Behaviour Management Consultants.
These mental health professionals may work for hospitals or government-run clinics, or they may be in private practice and charge a fee for their services. The exception is Psychiatrists who, as medical doctors, are usually covered under provincial medical insurance plans in Canada, even when in private practice.
 
Some experts would advise parents to consider looking for help as soon as it becomes apparent that behavioural issues are crossing from the Green Light to the Yellow Light zone, and to try to take full advantage of any support that might be available within the school or the community. There is seldom anything to be gained from waiting or struggling to turn a problem around without help, and the additional support may make a substantial difference. Unfortunately, due to many factors, including a lack of resources in the schools and in the community, many teens end up on wait lists for help, while their behavioural difficulties escalate into the Red Light zone.
 
Parents may need to persist in approaching the school, perhaps the school’s Guidance Department, the family doctor, community agencies such as Child and Family Clinics, Family Life Centres, self-help groups etc., in their search for assistance in dealing with these serious behavioural issues that have the potential to make a significant difference in their child’s life. As has frequently been asked, “If you don’t advocate for your child, who will?And if not now, when?”
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