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The Defiant or Misbehaving Child - Defiance and Misbehaviours

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Introduction

Though few pursuits are as rewarding as being a parent, raising childrenin 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 tosay 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 the behaviour that seems overwhelming to parents is often rooted in defiance.

Defiant Behaviour in Young Children

All children and teens misbehave and display defiance at various times during their development. Such behaviour typically emerges as soon as the child masters the word "no", and it’s well established - almost legendary - by the age of two. Even before children reach school age, defiance is part and parcel of their behavioural repertoire. It includes actions such as outright refusal to do as they’re told, purposely breaking rules, failing to follow directions, arguing, and blaming others. Defiance and misbehaviour are often expressed by young children in outbursts of emotion characterized by frustration, temper tantrums or anger, while equally oftenthe child appears calm and purposeful. All of these observed actions are part of the normal variation one sees in young preschool and school aged children.

Defiant Behaviour in Older Children

As children get older, they may still return to the angry, defiant behaviour common at younger ages (e.g. temper tantrums), particularly when emotions or stress levels are running high. Psychologists often refer to this as “regression”.

However, by age 10 and throughout adolescence, the nature of normal defiance and misbehaviour changes, often becoming less spontaneous and more manipulative. Confrontations may occur in subtle ways, such as questioning the fairness or necessity of rules, or demanding explanations from teachers and parents when asked to do something – the “why?” stage. Often referred to as "power struggles", these confrontations are actually attempts by children to assert themselves, wrest control from authority figures and be independent. This is a normal part of adolescent development, and seen by some as essential for growing into an independent adult. Older adolescents gradually outgrow these behaviours, but there is no set schedule for this maturation, and some young people continue to display defiance and misbehaviour throughout their High School years. And any young person might return, or “regress” as psychologists refer to it, to younger patterns of behaviour when stressed, angered, frustrated, or pressured by peers.

Effects on Adults and Peers
A defiant child or teen can cause adults to feel threatened because their authority is being challenged, leading to feelings of frustration, helplessness, anger and/or all of the above. Teachers may fear that control of the class is even at risk. Parents worry that they are raising a child who can’t be controlled, or worse, who may end up in trouble at school, in the community, or even with the law. Parents also worry about the negative impact the defiant child or teen has on other family members.Creating these kinds of feelings in adult authority figures is a unique characteristic of children's defiant behaviour.  

Crossing the Line

Although it’s not pleasant, there is nothing unusual about children's defiance or misbehaviour, so long as it doesn't "cross the line" into inappropriate or worrisome activity. When judging where that line is crossed, it is often helpful to think about intensity, frequency and duration. These terms are explained in detail later, but here’s a brief guide. Intensity refers roughly to the level of seriousness of a misbehaviour. For example, arguing with your mom is usually a pretty low intensity kind of defiance, but if the arguing includes screaming, threatening, breaking furniture and so on, the intensity has risen to a pretty high level. Frequency, on the other hand, has nothing to do with whether the behaviour is minor or serious. It’s simply a measure of how often defiant behaviour happens. And duration refers to how long defiance or other misbehaviours last. As you can see, these three measures are completely independent of each other; misbehaviour can be high on one and low on the others, or medium on two but high on the third and so on. All three are important in guiding your decisions about when it might be time to get help.

Unfortunately, there is no handy set of guidelines that can pinpoint exactly when defiance or misbehaviour is "normal" (or in the "Green Light zone") and when it suddenly is not. But there are signs to look for that suggest movement in a negative direction (into the "Yellow Light zone"). When behaviour becomes really serious in all or any of the three measures mentioned above, it crosses into the "Red Light zone". At this point a referral to a mental health professional is warranted.

Approximately 5 to 15 percent of children and teens exhibit this more serious behaviour, and at least half of them will show other serious mental health or learning problems. For example, many children with frequent defiant behaviours also have difficulty paying attention and areimpulsive and/or extremely active as well. This tendency for certain problems to occur together can make it complicated for parents to cope at home, for teachers to cope in the classroom, and for mental health professionals to treat the individual.

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 environments.

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It’s not unusual at home for young children to display outright defiance such as responding to instructions or requests with "No", or "I don't have to!" Failure to comply with household rules is also common, but usually when young children break rules they do it impulsively, without realizing it, rather than in a pointed, confrontational way.

When young children do break rules on purpose, they typically try to hide it, hoping not to get caught. When caught, it's typical for young children to deny they did it, or to attempt to blame someone else. Noncompliance with rules is usually motivated by a need for attention, often from the parents. Peer or sibling attention, boredom, fatigue, or a lapse in concentration can also motivate misbehaviour of this type, but it is seldom planned, deliberate or mean spirited at this age.

These behaviours are also often motivated by a concrete desire. The child may want a particular toy or object, or may be trying to avoid having to do something unpleasant, like clean up a mess. The behaviour is not usually a struggle for power, control or independence, except at the youngest age levels as a carry-over from the "terrible two" stage of development. Even then, these behaviours are more common in children whose temperaments are more demanding or rigid. As such, they tend to be consistent with what the parents already know about their child – it’s not a surprise.

Arguing with adults is also relatively common in this age group. Sometimes it's a learned behaviour resulting from parents’ habit of bargaining with the children about rules 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 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 adept at such behaviour, though they may use different tactics. In most cultures, we still tend to reward girls for "coy" or "feminine" bargaining, while boys tend to be more successful with behaviour that is persistent, annoying or even a bit aggressive.

Temper tantrums or emotional outbursts occur at this age level. In fact, young children's occasional noncompliant, defiant behaviour is highly likely to occur out of frustration or tantrums, leading to anger and tears. But these crises are usually short lived and fairly easily handled.
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Watch for:
  • Intensity
  • Frequency
  • Duration
At any age level, what moves behaviour from the normal range into a category that is worrisome and bears watching is usually its intensity, frequency and/or duration.
 
Misbehaviour and defiance are worrisome, and need to be carefully monitored if one or more of the following conditions are met:
  • Each outburst is so volatile that it creates an atmosphere of stress in the home; the entire household is disrupted, siblings are upset, or even the child is exhausted by the event (intensity)
  • Serious defiant behaviour happens once a month or more (frequency)
  • A defiant episode lasts too long (duration). [Note that young children usually have short attention spans and are easily distracted. Therefore, if an instance of defiance or serious confrontation goes on for more than about 15 minutes, and the child cannot be distracted, the behaviour should be monitored.]
  • There is at least one major argument every week, and/or the arguing has a disturbing intensity, and/or the child is persisting with an argument too long. [Although arguing with an adult is quite common among today's young children, the above behaviours should be closely monitored, whether the adults involved are parents, teachers or other caregivers.]
Young children will engage in a variety of inappropriate behaviours now and then, but would not be expected to carry on to such an extent as to significantly interfere with family routines. This interference, along with the parents’ feelings of frustration, anger or helplessness, signals a need to take some action. Back to top

Behaviours strongly suggest a mental health problem when they interfere to a significant extent with the child's functioning at home, in school, socially or in other normal pursuits.
Behaviours at this serious level of concern are rare before age 5, especially in girls. When overly frequent, intense or long-lasting, defiance and misbehaviour signal the need for referral to a mental health specialist. This is especially important if the misbehaviour is accompanied by problems getting along with other children or frequent aggressive behaviour.
 
At this age level, indicators of a serious degree of concern include:
  • a pattern of on-going uncooperative behaviour, whether openly or in subtle, sneaky or passive ways
  • hostile and defiant behaviour
  • frequent temper tantrums
  • a strong need for power and control (often manifested in power struggles)
  • a strong need to engage adults in arguments in order to monopolize their time or simply to be annoying
  • frequent arguments or power struggles with siblings
  • lying, stealing or destroying property.

Further, you should suspect Red Light level problems when, due to regular temper tantrums, both parents and teachers drastically reduce demands on the child so as not to "set him (or her) off". These children are quick to anger and may cry easily. Defiance and non-compliance will occur regularly or even daily, as will arguments that tend to go on and on. These children can say spiteful, mean things and seldom show remorse or evidence of empathy. Some bullying and teasing behaviour might be noted, as well as cruelty to people or animals.

Parents will feel frustrated, threatened and angry at the fact that the child is attempting to control events in the home and be the centre of attention. Parents might also feel concern for the safety of this child, and/or the safety of their other children (if any). Back to top
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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, or arguing occurs less in the early part of this age range than later when the children move into the preteen years.

Throughout this period, Green Light misbehaviours are relatively mild and predictable, such as forgetting to pick up toys, making too much noise, poking siblings, not paying attention. Defiance does occur, but not that often and is seldom confrontational. Instead, defiance usually takes the form of bargaining, or arguing that requests, chores or rules are either not fair or not consistent ("How come he doesn't have to do it?"). Many children who engage in these normal but annoying behaviours are quite "in character" with their temperament and the parents are seldom surprised at the behaviour.

As this stage of development progresses, children grow steadily more focused on their peers. By around age 10, more and more of their misbehaviour will be aimed at getting peer attention, rather than adult attention as in the early years. This may be somewhat more a school-based problem than one the parents have to deal with, but it’s important for parents to understand that peer attention will somehow be involved in most daily discipline issues at school, and many at home. Teachers and parents dealing with misbehaviour 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 classmates or friends and fragileself-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 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:
  • Intensity
  • Frequency
  • 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. Defiance and misbehaviour are not necessarily worrisome, but they bear watching under certain conditions:
  • If it happens once a month or more (frequency),
  • If a single instance of misbehaviour or defiance is of such intensity that the entire family is disrupted or upset, or the child himself/herself is shaken by the event,
  • If a defiant episode lasts a very long time,especially where the child seems unable to calm himself down (duration).
     
[Note that basing the seriousness of an incident on its duration must take age differences into account. Children in middle school 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 confrontation 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 age 12 however, attention and concentration powers are very well developed and easily focused, and a prolonged incident of defiance or confrontation would not be all that unusual for a 12 year old with a difficult temperament.]

Arguing or "bargaining" with one’s parents is quite common among middle school children throughout the age range,but weekly conflicts, arguing with disturbing intensity, and/or persisting with an argument too long, are reasons for concern. Be particularly concerned at the younger end of the range.

Children from ages 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 functioning of the family. If the defiance or misbehaviour does result in interference or disruption for the family, and the parents feel frustrated, angry orhelpless, this signals a need to take action.

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Early in this age range, "Red Light" behaviours are clearly disruptive to family functioning and highly disturbing both to the parents and to the other children, if any. Slightly more males exhibit this type of behaviour than females. Defiance will be common and confrontational, featuring outright refusal to comply, as well as both overt and covert (“sneaky”) breaking of rules. Arguing with parents and other adults, cruel behaviour, theft, fighting, bullying and intimidation, denial or blaming others, could all be quite common misbehaviours at home and often also in the classroom and the community. The child will lack empathy and be a constant disruptive force - an ever-present, distracting, centre of attention. If the serious misbehaviour is also evident at school, it’s likely that 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 or shows a sudden change in mood or behaviour.

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 defiance, aggression, severeconduct 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 one observes a repetitive and persistent pattern of behaviour that violates both the rights of others and the social expectations for that age group. Serious misbehaviour might be apparent at home, at school and/or in the community, and can include:
  • aggression such as frequent bullying or fighting (perhaps with a weapon)
  • physical cruelty to people or animals
  • theft, perhaps with assault or rarely even sexual assault of the victim
  • destruction of property (including fire setting)
  • deceitfulness (including lying or stealing)
  • break and enter
  • serious rule violations such as breaking curfew, running away from home or school, vandalism or truancy
  • lack of empathy to others in distress
  • frequent power struggles with others, particularly with adults
  • not responding to interventions offered
  • lack of guilt or remorse
Less serious, but still within the "Red Light" zone for this age level are behaviours that show a pattern of negativity, hostility or defiance such as:
  • frequent and/or intense loss of temper
  • regular arguing with adults
  • serious noncompliance
  • rule breaking and denial of blame and/or blame others
  • constantly appearing touchy, annoyed, angry or resentful
  • spiteful or vindictive behaviour
  • not responding to attempts to modify their behaviour
  • frequently violating the rights of others and/or age appropriate social expectations.
With the eldest children in this age range who exhibit Red Light behaviours, say those over age 10, both parents and teachers may feel more than just frustrated, angry or threatened. There may also be concern or fear for the safety of the other children. In fact, teachers and parents sometimes even feel uneasy about their own safety in the face of these serious misbehaviours in older middle school children.
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This age range spans a period of considerable, often abrupt change. One of the developmental tasks at this age is identity-building, and 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, and arguing often increases noticeably in frequency, duration and intensity, particularly in youngsters with difficult temperaments. Defiance becomes almost common and can be confrontational as these young people try to establish their independence. Arguing with adults becomes more frequent and intense, and youngsters often display a strong conviction that they are right and maybe even know more than the adults they engage in debate.

In this stage of development a great deal of the misbehaviour that parents deal with is aimed at the peer group, and parents often feel their child is almost a different person when his or her friends are around. 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 dealing with misbehaviour must be aware of the influence of other kids and think about their child’s social concerns, such as saving face and avoiding embarrassment in front of friends. Failure to consider these concerns will almost certainly lead to increasing tension, acting out and alienation.

As well, young people in early adolescence are striving to be more “grown up”, in part by resisting parental direction. They will be particularly prone to defiance and other misbehaviour if they have a sense that their parents aren’t listening to them, trusting them or showing them respect.

Nonetheless, normal levels of misbehaviour in this age range do not usually disrupt family functioning. Although parents may feel annoyed and get frustrated at times, there aren’t ongoing feelings of anger, helplessness or anxiety, or a sense of losing control if the misbehaviour is within the Green Light zone.
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Watch for:
  • Intensity
  • Frequency
  • Duration
In early adolescence, it is still intensity, frequency and duration that differentiate normal from worrisome behaviours. This is particularly the case with:
  • defiance
  • arguing with adults
  • power struggles with parents, teachers, or even siblings
  • aggression
  • blaming others
  • temper outbursts
  • noncompliance
  • rule-breaking
  • ignoring consequences
However, 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 young teens is usually dictated by the child’s temperament and personality, the child’s life situation and everyday problems, the bond or relationship among family members, and the involvement of the peer group. The mix of temperaments and personalities within the family is also very important. As well, parents will need to acknowledge that young teens want and need to begin taking responsibility for some of the decision-making with respect to their own lives, everything from choosing their own friends, clothing and hair styles,to picking their courses when they enter High School.
Notwithstanding the above, and just as with younger children, two main indicators of worrisome levels of defiance and misbehaviour are:
  • frequent disruption of family functioning, and
  • parents who are constantly battling feelings of anxiety, frustration, outrage and loss of control.
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This age range is part of the most common period for the onset of seriously maladjusted behaviour involving defiance, aggression, significant conduct problems or even criminal activity. Although both boys and girls are at risk, slightly more males are affected than females.
Repetitive and persistent patterns of behaviour that violates both the rights of others and age-appropriate social norms are observed. This can include:
  • frequent bullying or teasing
  • indifference to the suffering of others
  • fighting (perhaps with a weapon)
  • extortion
  • selling drugs
  • physical cruelty to people or animals
  • theft (sometimes with assault of the victim)
  • sexual assault
  • destruction of property (including fire setting)
  • deceitfulness (including lying or stealing)
  • break and enter
  • violating age-appropriate social norms.
Obviously, the worst misbehaviour tends to be most visible at school and in the community, but behaviour in the home is usually also highly disruptive. Many of the serious "Red Light" behaviours at home will show a pattern of negativity, hostility or defiance, such as:
  • frequent and/or intense loss of temper
  • constant arguing with adults
  • serious noncompliance
  • rule breaking
  • denial of blame and/or externalizing blame
  • constantly appearing touchy, annoyed, angry or resentful
  • spiteful or vindictive behaviour
  • lack of empathy for people in distress
  • violating the rights of others
  • serious rule violations such as breaking curfew, running away from home, vandalism or truancy
Parents usually feel more than just frustrated or threatened in terms of control of the child. Confronted by Red Light misbehaviour in this age range, parents often feel concern or fear for the safety of the other children, if any, and sometimes fear for their own safety. The home situation very often feels intolerable.
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This age range, which spans the High School years in North America, can be a chaotic period of development. At the beginning of the range, the children are still in the thick of Early Adolescence, normally thought to range from 13 to 15 years; by the end, the youngsters are in the stage known as Adolescence, encompassing ages 15 to 18. The years comprising this developmental period are frequently filled with the sound and fury of transitioning between early adolescence and young adulthood. And “transition” is the key word, since teens 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 later 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.

The developmental tasks young people face during the High School years include becoming independent, building an identity separate from that of one’s parents, selecting a value system of one’s own, and establishing a supportive social group that will respect that identity, independence and value system. Obviously then, these young people continue to display the intense peer focus and self centeredness first exhibited around Grades 7 & 8, right up through at least the first two years of High School. After that, a subtle shift begins toward a wider social view. Normal misbehaviour such as breaking rules, disobedience, and arguing continues to be similar or even greater in frequency, duration and intensity to that of younger teens, particularly in children with difficult temperaments. But these behaviours begin to diminish toward the last two years of High School. Again, however, because this is a transitional time, behaviour in general tends to be unstable, with youngsters 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 “moody” and self-absorbed.

Defiance is 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, arguing with adults remains more frequent and intense than when they were younger. These young people often display a strong conviction that they are right and maybe even know more than the adults they engage in debate. Yet by age 16 teens become noticeably more mature and begin to demonstrate more restraint and more reasoned arguments. In fact, most young people ages 17 and 18 show a marked reduction in the tendency to display outright defiance and often relate to adults (though not necessarily their parents) 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 abrupt or sudden. This is not to say that 17 and 18 year olds won’t exhibit defiance, argumentativeness and confrontational 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 the misbehaviour that youngsters exhibit is 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 must be mindful of their child’s socially-driven concerns, such as saving face and avoiding embarrassment in front of peers. Failure to consider these concerns will almost certainly lead to increasing tension, acting out and alienation, even among older adolescents.

Misbehaviour when other teens aren’t around is likely rooted in the needs mentioned above, namely to separate from parents and build one’s own identity, to become independent and to demand respect. With some young people, defiance and misbehaviour might even be the result of a subconscious desire to punish parents for not giving in to the normal teen urges to exert control over the environment.

Normal levels of misbehaviour in this age range do not usually disrupt everyday family functioning, particularly in the later years of High School. Furthermore, parents may get frustrated at times, but there aren’t ongoing feelings of anxiety, helplessness and anger, or a sense of losing control when the misbehaviour is within the green light zone.
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During adolescence, distinguishing normal from worrisome behaviour simply on the basis of intensity, frequency and/or duration becomes more complicated. The nature of misbehaviour among High School aged teens is usually dictated by temperament and personality, life situation and everyday problems, the bond or relationship among family members, and the involvement of the peer group. The mix of temperaments and personalities within the family is also very important. As well, parents will need to acknowledge that teens, particularly older teens, want and need to take responsibility for some of the decision-making with respect to their own lives - everything from jobs, friends, clothing and hair style choices, to picking their High School courses or selecting a post-secondary path.
Nonetheless, in adolescence, it is still intensity, frequency and duration that differentiate normal from worrisome behaviours. This is particularly the case with:
  • defiance
  • arguing with adults
  • power struggles with adults and even siblings
  • lack of empathy for the suffering of others
  • aggression
  • blaming others
  • temper outbursts
  • noncompliance
  • rule-breaking.
And just as with younger adolescents, two main indicators of worrisome levels of defiance and misbehaviour are:
  • frequent disruption of family functioning, once a week or more, and
  • parents who are constantly battling feelings of anxiety, frustration, outrage and loss of control.
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Adolescence, particularly the older part of the High School age range, is the most common period for the onset of seriously maladjusted behaviour involving defiance, aggression, significant conduct problems or even criminal activity. Although both boys and girls are at risk, slightly more males than females are affected.
In this “Red Light” zone, one observes a repetitive and persistent pattern of behaviour that violates both the rights of others and age-appropriate social norms. Misbehaviour can include:
  • frequent bullying or teasing 
  • blaming others
  • ignoring consequences, and impact on others
  • fighting (perhaps with a weapon)
  • physical cruelty to people or animals
  • theft (sometimes with assault of the victim)
  • sexual assault
  • significant risk-taking, often involving vehicles
  • destruction of property (including fire setting)
  • deceitfulness (including lying or stealing)
  • break and enter
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • hanging out with antisocial peers (including gang membership) .
 
As can be seen, the misbehaviour above tends to occurs at school and in the community, but other problems will also be visible in the home. Serious “Red Light” zone behaviour that parents might observe at this age level usually shows a pattern of negativity, hostility or defiance such as:
  • frequent and/or intense loss of temper
  • verbal hostility
  • constant arguing with adults
  • serious noncompliance
  • rule breaking
  • denial of blame and/or externalizing blame
  • constantly appearing touchy, annoyed, angry or resentful
  • spiteful or vindictive behaviour
  • violating the rights of others
  • serious rule violations such as breaking curfew, running away from home, vandalism or truancy
  • lack of remorse for inappropriate or antisocial behaviour
  • lack of empathy for others.
 
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 other children, if any, and disrupt the normal flow of family life, and/or
  • their duration is considerable, casting a negative tone over an entire day, week or even longer.
 
Parents usually feel more than just overwhelmed,frustrated, helpless or angry. Confronted by Red Light misbehaviour in this age range, parents often feel concern or fear for the safety of their other children, and sometimes fear for their own safety as well. The situation very often feels intolerable.
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The factors that underlie defiance and misbehaviour can be really complex. Parents need to resist the temptation to look for one-dimensional, simplistic explanations. It is important to remember the following important general points about the factors that influence behaviour in 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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Inherited Factors
Personality or temperament can clearly make a child prone to challenging behaviour. Traits such as aggressiveness, excessive introversion or extroversion, and a low tolerance for frustration are but a few examples of the many characteristics that are generally present from birth and can predispose a youngster to behaviour problems; gifts from our biological family all wrapped up in our DNA.
These characteristics will not necessarily cause misbehaviour, and they may be altered somewhat by different environments, experiences or parenting styles. They should be viewed as part of the vast array of individual differences that exist among human beings, and part of the package that makes each child unique. But in some cases, they will make certain children more at risk to misbehave in certain circumstances.
Health Factors
Mental and physical health factors can play a very prominent role in triggering misbehaviour. Obvious examples of mental health issues that carry a high degree of risk include attention problems, depression, anxiety, and disorders affecting activity level, self control, and/or mood. These conditions are dealt with in detail elsewhere on this website.
Examples of physical health issues known to affect behaviour include those that cause:
  • hearing or speech problems
  • visual impairments
  • asthma
  • allergies
  • serious illnesses such as cancer
  • cerebral palsy
  • degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy or spina bifida

It is important to note that none of these directly causes specific behaviour problems such as defiance. Rather, the interaction of these conditions with the child's temperament, the parents' reaction, the school and community environments and so on, will determine the impact on behaviour. In other words, physical health problems influence behaviour indirectly. For example, the child's health problems may have resulted in parents having very low expectations and demanding very little behaviourally. A typical result is behaviour that is "spoiled", demanding and self-absorbed, with an accompanying lack of drive.

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Family breakdown
Situations where children are raised by a single parent, usually the mother, are commonly seen to contribute to significant defiance and misbehaviour. But this is not a simple case of cause and effect. In fact, the vast majority of children from single-parent homes do just fine, both academically and behaviourally. It is a parent's nurturance, bonding, good relationship with the child and interest in the child's daily life and well-being that supports success. Although children from single-mother families, especially boys, do tend to exhibit more defiant, acting-out behaviour, this may be a result of "fatherlessness" rather than the single-parent family. When the birth father, or a consistent father figure, remains involved with the child from an early age, persistent misbehaviour is less likely. Nonetheless, this family structure is a clear risk factor, particularly since it is frequently accompanied by low socio-economic status, or even poverty.
Poverty
Poverty can affect behaviour, even in families with both parents present. Children who live in poverty often have emotional issues related to security, self-esteem and anxiety, as well as burdens resulting from extra responsibilities and more basic concerns such as hunger, lack of appropriate clothing and general deprivation. During the teen years, when status within the peer group becomes vitally important, poverty can exact an even greater toll. Such children and youth are at risk for acting out behaviour motivated by anger, as well as more practically motivated behaviour such as stealing and fighting to defend one's self image from ridicule.
Frequent moves
Children who move frequently can also exhibit worrisome behaviour, often rooted in alack of school and community roots, feelings of social isolation, loneliness, helplessness or anger. There is considerable variation related to the child's temperament and the circumstances surrounding the moves (e.g., mom keeps getting promotions vs. dad keeps changing jobs vs. we keep getting evicted because we can't pay the rent).
Physical punishment
Parents who use threats, physical assaults and punishment as their main tool for managing behaviour (not just an occasional mild spanking) are highly likely to produce children who fight, bully and intimidate others. Research has shown that children imitate or “model” their parents’ use of violence or intimidation to solve social problems in their everyday social interactions.
Parenting practices
Parenting practices, especially those related to discipline, have been linked to misbehaviour when they are:
  • overly strict or too permissive
  • cool and detached
  • chaotic and inconsistent
  • volatile and unpredictable

Some critics argue that since no parent is perfect, researchers can always find something they're doing wrong and then use that to explain the misbehaviour of the children. Although there might be some truth to this criticism, parent training programs have been shown to be highly effective in improving the behaviour of defiant, acting out, aggressive children.
Mother's depression
Children of depressed mothers are significantly more likely to exhibit challenging behaviour and to have difficulty relating to adults. Some suffer socially and academically because of having to assume extra home responsibilities to meet family needs. Some will appear depressed themselves. Others try to replace their mother's attention by seeking peer attention through clowning, acting out, defiance, aggression or even gang involvement.
Disturbed family histories
In addition to one or more of the factors noted above, children who exhibit the most disordered behaviour of the "Red Light" variety frequently struggle with other issues as well. These include:
  • abandonment
  • erratic discipline, or discipline focused on power and control
  • physical and/or sexual abuse
  • substance abuse in the family
  • incarceration of one or both parents
  • frequent changes in caregiver
  • removal of some or all of the children from the home
  • history of losses especially deaths
  • history of mental health problems
Unless they have a markedly resilient temperament, these children will likely exhibit a range of disordered behaviours including defiance.

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This section deals with disabilities that can affect movement, sensation and learning, as well as differences that might affect a child's school experience, social relationships or support needs. Examples include:
  • learning disabilities
  • intellectual disabilities
  • hearing or speech problems
  • visual impairments
  • cerebral palsy
  • disabilities affecting mobility and/or requiring use of crutches or a wheelchair.

Except for a few rare brain abnormalities, disabilities or differences seldom if ever directly cause defiant, aggressive or disrupting misbehaviour. Behavioural difficulties usually result from the interaction between the disabled or "differently abled" child and other factors such as:
  • the child's temperament
  • the way others (especially peers and caregivers) react to the disability or difference
  • the supports available to the child and the family, and
  • the culture of the school, which often helps determine the extent of peer support and acceptance the child will enjoy.

The temperament of the child is particularly important, since it will determine his or her attitude. Children 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. On the other hand, children who are easily discouraged, pessimistic or low in self-esteem will likely be prone to depression and giving up easily.
In children who are defiant, disruptive or misbehaving, certain temperamental characteristics can be expected. These children tend to have:
  • a 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, which in turn reduces their ability to develop age appropriate coping skills.
     
The important point:
 
The behaviour is a learned reaction to the way others view the child's challenges, and not an inevitable result of the challenges themselves.
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See section on Disabilities and Differences above. Back to top

In our multiculturalworld, sensitivity to the role of culture and religion in the lives of children and youth is critical. While it is helpful to understand how these factors influence behaviour, it is important not to blame them for the behaviour. No cultural or religious factor would directly cause defiant or disruptive behaviour. Instead it is circumstances that surround these factors, and the reaction to them, that can move a child toward worrisome behaviours.

For example, children who are newly arrived in the country and not yet comfortable with the language and customs may enter a neighbourhood or school where, for whatever reason, the culture is not welcoming or accommodating. In this case, the potential for behaviour problems is high. These children might be taken advantage of, bullied, or ignored by the other children in the neighbourhood, and react by lashing out and getting into trouble. Obviously, these behaviours are triggered by the reactions of others to the child's culture or religion and not by the culture or religion itself.

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. The child may feel threatened, and react with fear, outrage, threats or fighting, depending upon factors such as age, temperament and gender.
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Circumstances in country of origin

In a small number of cases, defiance and misbehaviour could be a result of being raised in a country of origin that is beset by lawlessness, anarchy and corruption, or a result of difficult refugee experiences in transition camps, or separation from parents during the formative years. Those who have not undergone such traumatic experiences may underestimate the impact of moving abruptly from a culture focused on survival to a culture of relative peace, order and prosperity, and the time it can take to adjust to such a significant change. Children caught up in that transition may continue to distrust others in the new country, especially officials in positions of authority. These children may continue to use inappropriate means, such as aggression, to meet their immediate needs. Teens who arrive here from such background conditions may be at particular risk of isolating themselves in groups of friends or relatives who share their experiences. Such groups can function positively as social support systems, or degenerate into gang-like activity depending upon a myriad of factors related to the school and community environments.
Children who arrive from very turbulent or even violent circumstances in their home country could be at risk behaviourally. Often, these children and their families have been traumatized in the course of their relocation, and may exhibit post-trauma symptoms. The longer the duration of 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.

Signs of trauma can include anxiety, poor concentration, easily triggered startle response, fear of leaving home and appearance of daydreaming (actually a sudden re-experiencing of traumatic events). These behaviours can bring about negative reactions from teachers or peers and lead to disruptive, argumentative or defensive reactions from the child.
Abuse at Home
A surprisingly large number of children and youth in Canada exhibit symptoms of trauma, and only a small proportion of them are children who experienced violence or disasters in their home country or community. Most children with trauma-induced behaviour problems have either been abused (physically or sexually), or have witnessed the abuse of their mother.

This may seem shocking, but research bears it out. Recent reports suggest that as many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 8 boys will be abused in some way before the age of 18. Almost all will show some effects of this in their behaviour. In the case of woman abuse, Canadian statistics indicate that about 30% of women report being the victim of violence at the hands of their partner at least once. Almost 40% of these women report that the children witnessed the event(s). If the definition of "witnessing" is broadened to include simply hearing the abuse as it happens, that number increases to as much as 80%. In addition, in more than 30% of cases of woman abuse, the children are also abused, and this does not include the 20% of fetuses at risk when women are abused while pregnant.
To put the data into more concrete terms it appears that on average, in every Canadian classroom there are as many as 6 children who have witnessed the abuse of their mother, and in every elementary school there are as many as 70 girls and 35 boys who've been victims of abuse themselves. Clearly this is a major traumatizing factor affecting behaviour, and the results often include significant defiant or disruptive acting out.
 
In fact, 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. The most commonly reported behaviour problems in these children are:
  • aggression toward peers (and sometimes toward female teachers)
  • noncompliance
  • defiance
  • destructive behaviour
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • school phobia
  • low self-esteem, and a negative self-image
  • social problems
Approximately 60% of children who witness or experience a traumatic event will develop post-trauma symptoms. As mentioned above, these might include:
  • hyper arousal ("deer in headlights" effect)
  • fearfulness
  • frequent worrying and other signs of anxiety
  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating
  • passive learning style
  • daydreaming
  • angry outbursts
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 defiant, aggressive misbehaviour addressed here.
Death or Loss
Children who have suffered a significant loss might also display some of these behavioural issues. Children who have been re-located have also experienced loss: of friends, a familiar school and neighbourhood, and adults they relied on, such as teachers and after school caregivers

Following the death of a friend or loved one, children show sadness, depression, concern about the future, and so on. Remember that anger is also a very normal part of the grieving process, and it can lead to some of the aggressive, defiant or noncompliant behaviours being examined here.

Of course, in most cases these behaviours triggered by loss are temporary. Researchers have developed a considerable body of knowledge regarding the behavioural effects of loss and the warmth and compassion needed to get the child through this difficult time.
 
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Why should parents do something about defiance and misbehaviour?
Dealing with defiance or misbehaviour 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 behavior out of the home, and undermines parental authority.

From the standpoint of the child, action should be taken because this kind of misbehaviour can be a warning sign of worse to come. Defiant behaviour at a young age is often a precursor to significant academic, social and behaviour problems in subsequent years. In fact, it’s been shown that children identified as hard to manage at age 4 have a 50/50 chance of experiencing serious behaviour problems in adolescence.

Underlying beliefs about dealing with defiant behaviour
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 some clear underlying beliefs.

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 are 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 anger feelings due to the death of a deeply loved pet. Thoughts and feelings do count.

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.
  1. 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.
  2. As parents we assume that out 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.
  3. Some of the misbehaviour we deal with as parents is directed at getting our attention. Anticipate this by finding time each day to give each child a blast of individual, focused, intense 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’ve learned need to be re-taught 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, but very consistent.
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 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":
  1. 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?).
  2. If a child needs to be confronted about misbehaviour, make direct eye contact and use a calm, strong (not loud) voice.
  3. 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.
  4. Don't accuse children of any evil intentions or interpret their behaviour as having some hidden agenda (e.g. “Your doing that just to make me mad!”) Just repeat your direction calmly and wait for compliance. (We’ll look at noncompliance later.)
  5. 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 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.
 
Corollary to 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 cracking her knuckles 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 grunting. 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 any more 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's 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 performing the Knuckle-Cracker Suite 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.
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:
Punishing 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:
  • exactly which behaviours will be punished, and why
  • 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:
  1. you don't have to punish the child, and
  2. 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,
  • or because they like their other kids better,
  • or to pay them back for ruining our day.

Corollary to the rule of purpose: Always employ punishment while you're calm.
This may not be easy since misbehaving, defiant, non-compliant behaviour 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 our 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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If you haven’t already read it, it’s important to begin with the introductory section under “Course to Follow”. It lays out the framework and rationale for all of the sections that follow, regardless of the age level of any child we might be concerned about.


In the early years, normal day-to-day misbehaviour is common and usually just annoying. There is great temptation to simply ignore the majority of it, and often that's not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for training good behaviour may result in the misbehaviour escalating and becoming more serious. Sometimes basic environmental manipulations can make a difference, such as changing where the toys are kept, tweaking our schedules, or shortening activities that seem to precipitate problems. But in many cases, a more targeted approach is needed.
 
Tips for dealing with every-day behavioural issues:
  • Clearly define behavioural rules and expectations in very simple terms. The rules should be repeated often, especially when rule violations occur.
  • Focus on the rule rather than the child. Focusing too much attention on children who violate a rule could just reinforce the misbehaviour.
  • Watch for behaviour that is consistent with the rules, and reward that behaviour often with eye contact, smiles, hugs, positive comments (both public and private), and so on.
  • This combination of ignoring the misbehaviour and intermittently rewarding behaviour that is consistent with the rules should be an automatic, ongoing, second-nature kind of thing. With practice it can be highly effective.

Even within the Green Light zone, children who have a tendency to misbehave a lot seldom get the same positive feedback that other children get throughout the day. They end up being tolerated much of the time until their behaviour exceeds their parent’s tolerance threshold, and then they get scolded or worse.
 
To avoid this, try to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring. Look for the early signs that your child might not be getting much in the way of positive feedback, or that behaviour problems might be developing, and find some reason to give them praise and encouragement for any appropriate behavior right away. At this point, parents must make a conscious decision to alter their behaviour in order to influence the behaviour of their children, by looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive contact.
 
If rule violations persist, the initial reaction should be, calmly and in private, to point out the problem to the child and have him or her repeat the rule. Sometimes young children might actually have misinterpreted the rule, so the first thing we need to do is 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 misbehaviour continues then probably it is somehow being reinforced. The next step then is to try, through observation, to determine what is reinforcing and maintaining the misbehaviour.
 
Determine what is reinforcing and maintaining the behaviour.
Some helpful questions to consider are:
  • "Since behaviour is influenced by its antecedents (what has come before), is something triggering the misbehaviour such as the onset of a particular family 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 annoying behaviours?"
  • "Are the other children rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?"
  • "Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by allowing it to alter my schedule or the nature of some family activities?"
  • "Am I paying too much attention to what my children are doing wrong, and missing what they are doing right?"
  • “Am I simply not being positive enough when the children are behaving appropriately?”
  • "Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?"
  • "Are some of my child’s friends present when he or she misbehaves, and if so is it usually the same ones?"
  • "Does the misbehaviour seem to be goal directed? That is, is my child trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particular chore?"

We want to discover the underlying factors or antecedents that trigger the behaviour, as well as the reinforcement that is maintaining it, and then somehow alter them. Clearly, good observation skills and keen self-awareness are real assets for parents to develop.
 
An Example
Suppose your child begins to misbehave and be defiant whenever you ask her to start putting away her toys in the evening to begin getting ready for bedtime. Analyzing the situation, there could be many reasons for this misbehaviour. For example, one possibility might be that she is resisting bedtime due to sleep problems, such as frequent nightmares. If in fact she is struggling with sleep problems, the solution would involve contacting your physician, a psychologist or other health care professional.
 
Assuming that there are no health-related issues, it’s also possible that she becomes resistant because her older brother gets to stay up later and get undivided parental attention. If her refusal to pick up her toys results in a long, drawn-out battle with her parents, followed by a discussion about behaving better, and maybe a cuddle, this might just keep her up as late as big brother, and certainly she has monopolized the parents’ attention. This analysis suggests that the parents are in fact reinforcing the misbehaviour by allowing it to accomplish its goal of getting to stay up as late as the older brother.
 
Would such a child be devious enough to be aware of how all this works? That possibility exists, though it depends partly on factors such as the child’s age, temperament, etc. But in most cases of persistent misbehaviour, kids are merely reacting to chains of events in the environment, no more aware of the web of cause and effect than are the parents caught up in it with them.
 
When a negative consequence is needed
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to use only positive approaches, nothing seems effective enough and you will need to consider a negative consequence (punishment). It will be most effective if it's logical (e.g., if you can't share the blocks, you don't get to play with them.), and applied under the rules laid out in the previous section, including a clear discussion with the children about expectations and consequences.
 
With children this age, the most effective consequences tend to be those involving "time out", which 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 his or her room for a few minutes can actually be effective with some children, and it is a logical consequence for misbehaviour that causes social disruption (if you can't play nicely with your sisters, then you can't be a part of the group).
 
Remember, it's important that time out be limited to about 10 minutes at this age, and then the child begins with a clean slate, partly so that he or she isn't 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 reinforce the good behaviour and make it more likely to prevail.
 
Everyday approaches
The techniques described above are pretty simple, but that does not mean they are easy to apply. It certainly helps if you are a fairly high-energy individual with the time to be constantly observing your kids. Interaction with your children has to be ongoing and spontaneous, but also follow an underlying plan to ensure that they get attention and positive feedback for the things they do well, including behaving appropriately, following rules, interacting positively with others, being helpful. As well, children who are having difficulty with appropriate behaviour require particularly close observation, so that any positive efforts they make will be "caught" and somehow reinforced.
 
Clearly, everyday management of children’s behaviour can be challenging, and at times exhausting. But it’s also highly important work.
 
Despite your best efforts however, some children might still show a tendency to be defiant, break rules, have tantrums, and generally fail to comply. 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 even more intensive behavioural support.

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Develop a focused management plan
When young children exhibit behaviour that's serious, worrisome and doesn't respond to the everyday 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. When we become parents, we don’t get trained in using the strategies described below, so planning and practice will be key.
 
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 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. Below are some steps to consider. 
 
1.      Carefully observe your child and take notes on what you see
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 "bothering his sister" or "misbehaving". A 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 descriptors might be:
    • pushes or hits siblings
    • refuses to put toys away
    • fails to comply with a request within 3 seconds after the parent repeats it
    • turns on the TV when told not to
    • disturbs brother by teasing him while he’s doing homework
    • refuses to get washed and ready for bed
    • slow to get dressed in the morning so is often late
    • is rude to parents when guests are visiting
It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just by observing.
 
2.      Count how often these behaviours occur.
Clearly, you will want to begin with those behaviours that seem to be the most disturbing and the most frequent. Try listing 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.
 
This counting phase should last for one to two weeks to ensure that you get a good continuous sample of behaviour over time. It's not necessary to count for every minute of every day. In fact, 3 to 5 observation periods per day, each about 10 or 15 minutes long, should suffice. Try to sample several different time periods throughout the day, particularly those where misbehaviour seems to be frequent.

Sometimes, this period of intense observation actually pays unexpected dividends. For example, you may note that there are patterns involving the time of day that weren't apparent with more casual observation.

Note that your child may notice that he or she is being observed, and actually begin to behave better 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 it doesn't matter. Whatever the reason, the change is likely temporary so it's advisable to push on with the program.
 
3.      Pick target behaviours to work on.
It would be too difficult to work on every observed misbehaviour at once, so select certain ones to focus on first. Guidelines for this selection process include:
    • start small - 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 occur only occasionally and 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.
 
4.      Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded.
Rewards in the Green Light zone are informal and social, such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, and praise. But in the Yellow Light zone, we are likely dealing with kids who have not responded to these. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. But we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.
Concrete reward suggestions for children age 3 to 5
    • school supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
    • one-on-one time with mom and/or dad
    • extra computer or TV time
    • small toys
    • nutritious treats
    • choosing a game/activity to play with the whole family
    • having a friend over
    • points or checkmarks that can be "cashed in" daily for prizes such as those listed above. The best prizes might be determined by either asking the child, or observing what he or she tends to do during free time.
 
5.      Think about negative consequences or punishments.
These should be used rarely if ever. Still, it's absolutely essential that parents are prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
The most common punishments include:
    • exclusion (sending the child to a special “time out chair, to the corner, to his or her room, etc.)
    • loss of privileges such as TV or computer time, access to toys, play dates
    • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.
Consequences always work better if they are logical and if “the punishment fits the crime”. Note that aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, or shaming have been shown in research studies to be 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, and perhaps also affect other children who witness these events.
 
6.      Formulate the plan.
“The plan” is simply a written description, even in point form, of how you intend to observe the targeted behaviours, count them, deliver rewards and/or punishments and what those will be, chart results and so on. In other words, it’s really helpful to write down what you intend to do, and how you intend to do it. That makes it more concrete and easier to share with your spouse, if any, as well as any other adult who lives in the house. In carrying out any behavioural plan consistency between parents and/or caregivers is extremely important.It usually takes a few adult discussions, away from the children, to agree on a course of action.

Involving the child
The role of the child at this age level might be minimal, but it's still very important that he or she be involved. Talk the plan through with the child. The child must understand that this program is being put in place because the misbehaviour is interfering with his or her quality of life, and the smooth functioning of the 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". There may not be complete understanding or cooperation at this age level, but any attempt to make the child part of the solution is well worth the effort.
Clearly explain the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how the consequences will work, whether it's some kind of isolation or accumulating checkmarks to get a special healthy snack. Simple programs are essential at this age level, since complexity will quickly discourage the child.

Accentuate the positive
Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Where the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should include ways to reward the opposite desired behaviour. For example, if a targeted behaviour is "refusing to put away toys", one major thrust of the program should be to reinforce any behaviour directed at putting away toys. In practice this might mean, in full view of the child, putting check marks on a page each time he or she picks up or puts away a toy. While recording checkmarks, always smile and make positive comments, and simply ignore other noncompliant behaviour.

Important to Note:
    • The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the child's behaviour improves. At first, 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 the behaviour at some times but not others. This sounds complex, but in fact is quite a natural flow over time.
 
 
7.      Implement the plan.
Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant
In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most critical factors. Remind yourself not to become discouraged if things move slowly initially. It's great to have some help at this time, 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 and bargaining, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly. It is vitally important that you continue to count both targeted and appropriate behaviours. If these can be colourfully charted or graphed for the child each day, it increases the power of the program.

Dealing with the other children in the family
One common complication is that the other children 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 children will be satisfied with this, especially since they will be fully aware that the targeted child is a disruptive force in the family. On occasion, the easiest solution may be to include the entire family in the program either individually or using a form of "group contingency" or group process.

Group Contingency
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, but below is a common example.
Many parents already do something like this. For example, you may say that if everyone finishes their homework by a certain time, the whole family will go for a walk in the park. Or, if all the kids tidy their rooms by a certain time on a summer Saturday morning, the family will go to the beach. You get the benefit of peer pressure as the kids push one another to be productive so they all can enjoy the reward. So you’ve been using this complex sounding strategy all along and didn’t even know it!
 
Important to Note: Document everything you can, 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 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 wasting time repeating approaches that were ineffective.
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When young children exhibit defiance and misbehaviour that is so severe as to be clearly in the Red Light zone, the parents will very likely require professional help to manage the situation. Acquiring such help can take a while, however, and even once some kind of help is underway it may take a while before you can see results in everyday life. Therefore, the parents will need to try to control the misbehaviour in the meantime to whatever degree possible, and a written management plan will be essential.
 
The plan should include documentation of:
  • your observations,
  • the exact nature of the child's misbehaviour,
  • when and where it occurred,
  • who else was present,
  • the strategies that have been applied (successfully and unsuccessfully).
Not only is this a hallmark of good planning, but clear notes describing these things will often be incredibly helpful to any mental health professional who is working with the child and family.(See Bringing in the Experts at the end of this chapter.)
 
To attempt to control Red Light behaviour in these young children, parents need to take a structured approach to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours. Parents don’t normally have training in the application of these strategies, so planning and practice will be key. As well, it will be essential for all parents, caregivers or other adults who are part of the child’s life to work together as consistently as possible for the good of the child. Significant misbehaviour at the Red Light level can have as serious an impact on a child’s life as any health or educational problem and should be tackled just as seriously by the adults responsible for the child’s welfare.
Steps in a structured behaviour management plan
1.      Collect data
Begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously disruptive. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. Descriptions such as "being bad" or "misbehaving" are too vague to be useful. It’s important to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way using clear, concrete language. Examples of seriously disruptive behavioural descriptors in young children might include:
    • violent toward other children
    • intimidates or threatens other children
    • has violent temper tantrums
    • confronts parents
    • directly refuses to go to his room when told to
    • refuses to get washed and go to bed
    • deliberately breaks his sister’s toys
    • yells at mom using foul language
    • deliberately hurts family pet
    •  
2.      Count how often these behaviours occur
List five or six behaviours on a page. Put the page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each behaviour whenever you see it occur. Both parents and other adults who have regular contact with the child can help by also counting the frequency of these significant misbehaviours.
 
Try to note if there are patterns involving the time of day, day of the week or social context for misbehaviour.

Note that 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 it's usually 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. 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 defiant and/or disruptive.
 
3.      Determine how good behaviour can be rewarded.
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
    • TV or computer time
    • special outings to the park, the beach, etc.
    • helping bake a cake
    • stickers
    • having a friend over
    • school supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
    • small toys
    • nutritious treats
    • points or checkmarks that can be "cashed in" (daily, in the case of young children) for prizes such as those listed above.
 
4.      Think about appropriate negative consequences or punishments.
With Red Light zone behaviour, negative consequences will likely have to be used frequently in the initial stages. It is essential that the parent is prepared beforehand with an array of possibilities and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
 
The most common punishments available include:
    • isolation (sending the child to the corner, to a “time out” seat or to his or her room),
    • loss of privileges such as TV time, play dates, access to toys, etc.,
    • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward, etc.
NOTE: Consequences work best when they are logical given the situation and when “the punishment fits the crime”. 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 anger and anxiety that can interfere with the long-term emotional development of the child.

Formulate the plan
This is simply 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 any, and any other adult who regularly cares for the child, as well as the child.

Involve the child
Talk the plan through with the child. The child must understand that this program is being put in place because the behaviours are interfering with his or her quality of life, as well as with the smooth functioning of the 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". There may not be complete understanding or cooperation at this age level, but an attempt to make the child part of the solution is well worth the effort.
 
Clearly explain the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how the consequences will work, whether it's isolation or accumulating checkmarks to get to watch a favourite TV show. Simple programs are essential at this age level, since complexity will quickly discourage the child.

Accentuate the positive
Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Where the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should include ways to reward the opposite, desired behaviour.
 
For example, if a child "refuses to follow directions", the program would reinforce the child for following directions. In practice this might mean in full view and in a way obvious to the child, the parent puts check marks on a page each time the child responds to direction appropriately. While recording checkmarks, the parent is smiling and making positive comments regarding the compliant behaviours.
 
Important to Note:
    • Given the seriously defiant and disruptive 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 the child and the parent.
 
5.      Implement the plan
In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors. Remind yourself not to become discouraged if progress is slow initially. You may need some help, 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 and temper tantrums, which might persist for some time. It is vitally important that you continue to count both targeted and appropriate behaviours. If these can be colourfully charted or graphed for the child each day, it increases the power of the program.
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If you haven’t already read it, it’s important to begin with the introductory section under “Course to Follow”. It lays out the framework and rationale for all of the sections that follow, regardless of the age level of any child we might be concerned about.

In the middle school years, normal day-to-day occurrences of misbehaviour are common and usually just annoying. 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 behaviour 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:
  • changing bedtime or meal times slightly to accommodate other activities
  • moving children in or out of activities, sports or hobbies
  • 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 behavioural issues:
  • Phrase behavioural 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 who violated a rule might actually reinforce the misbehaviour.
  • Constantly watch for behaviour that is consistent with the rules, and subtly reward that behaviour often 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 with the child as they approach 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 misbehave often don’t get the positive feedback that the other children get. They end up being suspiciously watched most of time until their behaviour exceeds the parent’s tolerance threshold, and then 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 behaviour problems 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 the 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 (grades 1 to 3) might actually have misinterpreted a rule. So if rule violations persist, first ensure that they understand and are capable of the behaviour you expect. Point out the problem to the child calmly and in private, and have him or her 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:
  • "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 routine? If so, does the child have some problem with the activity?"
  • "Since behaviour that's occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these annoying behaviours?"
  • "Are the other children rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?"
  • "Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by allowing it to change the family routine or the nature of some activities?"
  • "Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by paying too much attention to it, and ignoring the child’s good behaviour?"
  • "Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?"
  • "Are other children present, and if so is it usually the same ones?"
  • "Does the misbehaviour seem to be goal directed? That is, is the child trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particulartask, or situation?"
An example
If we can discover what triggers the behaviour and what is maintaining it, we might then somehow alter it. For example, suppose a child begins to misbehave and be defiant 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’s pretty obvious that morning misbehaviour is being rewarded. Even if the child is being scolded for the entire trip to school, it’s still probably much more comfortable to be chauffeured to school in the family car.
 
Analyzing defiance 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:
 
  • making sure she’s late for school when she is driven, and
  • collaborating with the school to ensure that there is a significant consequence for being late.
Rewarding self-reliance, co-operation and effort in the morning should begin with ignoring slow, whiny, 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’s enough to dramatically improve the problem. In some cases however, parents might need to add a points 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 effectivewhen 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's 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 the kids. 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, 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 defiant, break rules, have tantrums, and generally fail to comply. 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 middle school children 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 manipulate consequences for targeted behaviours. Parents aren’t usually trained to do this, so planning and practice will be key. As well, seeking support, such as that of 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 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.
 
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:
    • pushes or hits other children
    • refuses to put toys away
    • fails to comply with a request within 3 seconds after the parent repeats the request once
    • refuses to turn off TV at bedtime
    • ignores timetables and normal routines
    • speaks rudely to parents
    • won’t complete homework
    • teases other children, calls them names and uses other “put downs"
 
2.      Count how often these behaviours occur.
Begin with the 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 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, 5 or 6 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, social context or relationship to family activities.
    • 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 process include:
    • 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;
    • 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.
 
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.
 
Concrete reinforcers for children age 6 to 12 include:
    • Stickers
    • school supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
    • nutritious treats
    • permission to have a friend over
    • computer or TV time
    • points or checkmarks that can be "cashed in" at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above. Determine prizes by asking the child, or observing what the child tends to do in their free time. The youngest children should have an opportunity to cash in at least daily.
 
5.      Think about negative consequences or punishments.
We hope these will be used rarely if ever. Still, it's 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.
The most common punishments include:
    • exclusion (sending the child to the corner, to 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 anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with the long-term emotional development of the child.Moreover, they don’t teach the child anything about how he or she should behave. As well, other children in the family who observe your actions may also 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:
 
·        the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and
·        how these rewards and punishments will work.
 
Simple programs are essential 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 the opposite, desired 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 noncompliant behaviour.

Important to Note:
    • The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the child's behaviour improves. 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.
    • With the older children, public praise or attention might actually be counter-productive due to the peer teasing it might trigger. Praise and attention are still a powerful reinforcement for these youngsters, but may need to be delivered in a low-key way.
 
7.      Implement the 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 defiance and misbehaviour that is so severe that it’s clearly in the Red Light zone, the parents will need professional help. Acquiring such help can be a long and complicated process. In the meantime, the parents need to control the misbehaviour as much as possible. This level of defiance and misbehaviour 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:
  • your observations,
  • the exact nature of the child's misbehaviour,
  • when and where it occurs,
  • who else was present,
  • the strategies that have been tried (successfully and unsuccessfully).
Not only is this documentation a hallmark 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 key. As well, it is worth seeking support from family members, friends or support staff in the school such as Psychologists or Psychological Associates, 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 stubborn" or "misbehaving". A target behaviour has to be described in clear, concrete language. Examples include:
    • violent toward other kids
    • intimidates or threatens other kids
    • creates frequent power struggles
    • has violent temper tantrums that disturb the family
    • confronts parents
    • refuses to comply and says “no” to parent requests for help with chores
    • purposely breaks sister’s toys
    • deliberately hurts family pet
 
2.      Count how often these behaviours occur.
Put five or six 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 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 and 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 prizes 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 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.
Examples of common punishments available include:
    • exclusion (sending the child to a “time out” seat or to his or her room),
    • loss of privileges such as TV time or participation in a family activity,
    • 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".
 
One can't expect a high level of understanding or co-operation at the earliest age levels, 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 "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 Note:
    • Given the seriously defiant and disruptive 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 counseling 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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If you haven’t already read it, it’s important to begin with the introductory section under “Course to Follow”. It lays out the framework and rationale for all of the sections that follow, regardless of the age level of any child we might be concerned about.

In early adolescence, normal day-to-day occurrences of misbehaviour tend to be common, peer driven, and usually just annoying. 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.

For example:
  • 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 child 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 stage, 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 ("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 misbehave do not usually get as much positive feedback as other kids. They end up being tolerated most of time until the parent 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 behaviour problems, or signs that a particular child might not be getting much positive feedback, and then target that child for praise and encouragement when appropriate. At this point, the parent makes a conscious decision to alter his or her 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 child 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’s 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 misbehaves and becomes defiant 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 child either delays taking out the garbage, or even gets help.

Now obviously you first need to determine that the child 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 the 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, 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 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 child 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 the kids 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 defy their parents, break rules, have tantrums, and generally fail to comply. 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 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 general 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 the child and document the 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 pokes other children
  • creates frequent power struggles
  • fails to complete homework
  • speaks rudely to dad
  • refuses to put video games away
  • fails to comply with a parental request within 3 seconds after the parent repeats it once
  • late for dinner
  • teases other kids, calls them names and uses other "put downs"
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 occur. It can help to have another adult such as a relative or friend carry out 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. It's not necessary to count for every minute of every day. In fact, 5 or 6 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 anywhere 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 children in early adolescence are informal and 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 child 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 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 applicable, 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 child, and this should be done at a stage where the plan is in draft form so that the child can have input.
 
Involve the child
The contribution of the child in this age range is often surprisingly helpful. Talk it over with the child at a time when you are both in a good mood. It's very important that your child understands that this program is being implemented because the target 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 the opposite, desired 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 the child, 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. 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, 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.
  • Be discreet. With adolescents, public praise or attention might actually be counter-productive 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, but parents can do this alone. 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. 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 the other children 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. They can work in several ways, and there is a lot of information in books and other resources, but here’s a brief outline. 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’s 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 defiance and misbehaviour are severe enough to be clearly in the Red Light zone, the parents will require professional help. Acquiring 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:
  • your observations,
  • the exact nature of the young person's misbehaviour,
  • when and where it occurred,
  • who else was present,
  • 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.
 
  • ·         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:
    • strikes other children
    • intimidates or threatens others
    • has violent temper outbursts
    • refuses to comply with time tables
    • initiates power struggles
    • speaks to teachers rudely or makes veiled threats
    • directly refuses to comply with parent requests/directives
    • vandalizes property
    • leaves the house at night without parental permission
    • refuses to do chores
    • is truant from school
  • ·   Count how often these behaviours occur.
List five or six 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. It is helpful if another adult can help 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 this data, initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. This period of intense observation of a child 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 defiant and/or disruptive behaviours, rather than just one or two.
 
  • ·         Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded for this 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:
 
·         access to TV, computer or video game
·         ride to school
·         permission to have a friend over or go to a friend’s house
·         checkmarks or points that can be cashed in for rewards of his/her choice
·         shopping trip for new clothes

 
  •     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:
    • exclusion (sending your child out of the room or to his or her room),
    • loss of privileges such as access to TV, computer or video game,
    • “grounding”, i.e., loss of opportunities to hang out with friends,
    • 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 anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere withthe long-term emotional development of the child.


  • 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 the child
Involvement of the child at this age level is very important. It's 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 the child, with the focus on helping him or her. If the child 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 "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 child responds appropriately to the request to clean up. 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 complimenting the youngster for his 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 defiant and disruptive 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 often negative and needs to be minimized as much as possible.
 
  • ·         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 child gets rewarded a lot and punished infrequently. Expect a range of reactions from the child, 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 increases 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 counseling 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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If you haven’t already read it, it’s important to begin with the introductory section under “Course to Follow”. It lays out the framework and rationale for all of the sections that follow, regardless of the age level of any child we might be concerned about.

Note that in the section that follows, the adolescent is often referred to “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 misbehaviour tend to be common, peer driven, and usually just annoying, at leastto many adults. 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 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.
For example:
  • 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.
  •  When rules are broken, don’t focus too much attention on the child, since that might inadvertently reinforce the misbehaviour. Instead, the rule itself should be the focus.
  • Parents should 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, 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.
  • With this age child, 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. On the other hand, 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.
  • The combination of ignoring misbehavior and “differential reinforcement” of the positive behaviour (rewarding some but not all of the time) 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 kids age 15-18 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 behaviour problems, or signs that the youngster isn’t getting much in the way of positive feedback, then try to increase the praise and encouragement whenever appropriate. At this point, the parent must make a conscious decision to alter his or her behaviourin order to influence the behaviour of their child. By looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive contact, the parent adopts astyle of interaction that has been shown in the research literature to promote positive behaviour.
If rule violations can’t be ignored, the initial reaction should be a private conversation, to calmly point out the problem and have the child acknowledge that a rule is being violated. 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:
  • “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?”
  • “Since behaviour that’s occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these annoying behaviours?”
  • Since adolescents are extremely peer focused, are other kids rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?”
  • “Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by allowing it to alter the family’s schedule, the teen’s responsibilities or the nature of some activities?”
  • “Am I paying too much attention to what my children are doing wrong, and ignoring what they are doing right?”
  • “Am I so frustrated or angry, that even when I observe positive behavior, I’m not motivated to praise it?”
  • “Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?”
  •  “Are other people present, and if so is it usually the same ones?”
  • “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 misbehaviour, as well as the reinforcement that is maintaining it, and then somehow alter one or both. As an example, consider a child who misbehaves and becomes defiant 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 child either delays taking out the garbage, or even gets help.

Now obviously you first need to determine that the child 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. 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 consequence (punishment) will need to be considered, and it will be most effective if it’s logical (e.g., if you can’t sit at the dinner table without teasing 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. Thisis not easy, but if it can be managed it will help to lessen resentment and anger.
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’s important that each day begins with a clean slate, partly so that the youngster isn’t 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 kids 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 teens might still show a tendency to defy their parents, break rules, and generally fail to comply. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and 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, a friend or 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.
The first step in a more serious, focused behaviour management plan involves detailed observation of the 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
  • fails to complete chores
  • refuses to follow timetables or schedules
  • initiates power struggles
  • plays video games when should be doing homework
  • fails to comply with a parental request within 3 seconds after the parent repeats the request
  • whines and complains while doing chores
  • blames others for his misbehaviour
  • yells at other members of the family
  • teases siblings, calls them names and uses other "put downs"
 
It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just through observation.
 
The second step is to actually count how often these behaviours occur. Clearly, you should 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. It’s 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 anywhere 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.
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.
 
Next, you need to determine how appropriate behaviour might be rewarded.
 
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 are fine, 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 prizes such as those listed above.
 
Often, the best prizes can be determined by either asking the child 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 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.
 
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 the child while the plan is in draft form so that he or she can have input.
The contribution of the child 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 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 a ride to school.
In formulating the plan, it’s 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 “refusing to put away video games”, one major thrust of the program should be to reinforce any behaviour directed at putting away video games. 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 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 quietly making positive comments following compliant behaviours, and simply ignoring noncompliant 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.
The next stage is 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 child gets rewarded a lot and punished only rarely. Expect a range of reactions from the 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 targeted child 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’s 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 defiance and misbehaviour that is so severe as to be clearly in our Red Light zone, the parents will require professional help. Acquiring 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:
  • your observations
  • the exact nature of the teen’s misbehaviour
  • when and where it occurred
  • who else was present
  • the strategies you’ve 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 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.
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:
  • strikes others
  • intimidates or threatens others
  • disregards schedules timetables and rules
  • has violent temper outbursts
  • speaks to parents rudely or makes veiled threats
  • displays frequent hostility toward others
  •  initiates and/or escalates power struggles
  • seems not to care about the impact of his/her behaviour on others
  • directly refuses to comply with requests or directives
  • vandalizes property
  • refuses to complete chores
 
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 might 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 defiant and/or disruptive.
Next, the parent needs to determine how good behaviour might be rewarded.
Examples of rewards for older adolescents
 
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:
  • a ride to school or use of the car for short periods
  • choice of meal or dessert
  • bonus added to allowance
  • fast food coupons
  • computer use
  • use the child’s ideas for family activity (within reason)
  • curfew extension on the weekend
  • choice of chore
  • 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.
 
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:
  • exclusion (sending the child out of the room or to his room)
  • loss of privileges such as participation in a family activity, use of the car, curfew extension
  • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.
 
Note that 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.
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 one intends 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.
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 misbehaviour 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 child, 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 “refusing to put away video games”, one major thrust of the program should be to reinforce compliant behaviour as frequently as possible. In practice this might mean that, you put check marks on a page each time the child makes any effort to put away any component of a video game. Assuming the check marks are important to the youngster, 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 defiant and disruptive 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.
The next stage is 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 the child gets rewarded a lot and punished infrequently. Expect a range of reactions from the 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.
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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:
 
  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists
  • Psychological Associates (Ontario, Canada only)
  • Psychoeducational Consultants
  • Social Workers
  • Family Counselors
  • 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 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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