Generally speaking, predictability is helpful in dealing with problem behavior. This is because if the child knows what to expect, he is not confused about what he is supposed to do. Predictability also diminishes the stress in the caregiver because the caregiver does not have to think of what to do on the spot. On the other hand, there is one situation in which predictability is a problem, and that is when caregiver continues to use a strategy that does not work.
This happens more than you would imagine. It doesn’t make any sense to continue to do something that fails to achieve the desired goal, but people do it all the time. Caregivers may have in mind what the child needs to do in order to allow the household routine to proceed in a necessary way, or in order to become adequately independent, and though the caregiver may continue to insist that the child comply with her demands, failure results every time.
If It Is Not Working, Stop.
The solution to this problem is simple to propose, but hard to implement. It is, when a strategy is not working, stop it and try something else. Remember that repetition builds brain structure, and you do not want to build a stronger and stronger struggle pattern in the brain.
I like to explain the situation to caregivers using the metaphor of a landscape (Granic & Patterson, 2006). A caregiving system is like a landscape with multiple population centers. Some are highly adaptive such as ones characterized by collaboration, compliance, and respect. Others are less adaptive and are characterized by struggles and coercion. The more a particular city is occupied (the more times a pattern of collaboration or of coercion is repeated) the stronger the infrastructure of that city becomes. One cannot abruptly dismantle a problem city. Instead, the plan should be to build up the infrastructure of the positive cities by repetition of the adaptive patterns, so that over time they become the easiest to get to and to live in, and the infrastructure of the problem cities fall into disrepair, eventually turning them into ghost towns. The more often the caregiver-child dyad negotiates a common agenda, avoids a struggle, achieves mutual understanding through discussion, the stronger the “good” cities become and the weaker the problem ones become.
Granic, I & Patterson, G (2006). Toward a comprehensive model of antisocial development: A dynamic systems approach, Psychological Review 13 (1), 101-131.
Successful resolution of conflict between caregiver and child or between two children requires an initial assessment of the state or intensity or physiological arousal of the child or children. This is important because a child who is functioning at a high level of intensity will have different – and fewer – capacities available to him than a calm child. It is common sense, but it is easy to forget to look at the child to see where he is in his ladder of arousal – high or low.
Next, the caregiver must look at, and listen to, what the two children are doing together. If the conflict is between the child and caregiver, it is helpful to have a second caregiver give his or her perspective about what is going on. If this is not possible, the caregiver must do his or her best to step back from the interaction and observe it as objectively as possible. It is not only the physiological arousal state of the individual child that must be assessed, but the intensity of the conflict between the two people. If the conflict is low intensity, the caregiver can try to negotiate a common agenda. For example, if the child wants to play a game instead of get ready for school, the caregiver may negotiate a way for the child to get ready for school quickly and then play the game. Or, if both children want to play with the same toy, the caregiver may negotiate a turn-taking in which each child gets a turn with the toy. If the conflict is high intensity, on the other hand, it is usually necessary to separate the two fighting children, or for the caregiver to try to disengage from the conflict with the child. Disengagement does not necessarily mean leaving the scene, though that can sometimes be effective with an older child. Instead, it means the caregiver’s taking her attention and emotions out of the interaction. She communicates to the child without words that she is perfectly happy to discuss the situation with the child in a civilized manner, but that she is not interested in arguing or being shouted at. I have realized through talking to many parents, and through being a parent myself, that disengagement is not easy. Parents often experience a strong inner pull to be right, or to win the battle. Often they rationalize this intention as the need to show the child that they are in charge. In high intensity conflict, this rarely works. I have also noticed that sometimes this kind of conflict generates in the parent a wistful feeling about losing the child if the child does not comply. Again, this is irrational.
After everyone calms down following a high intensity conflict, it is important to “de-brief”, that is, to discuss what happened. What were the intentions, the agendas, of the conflicting parties? What made it impossible for them to negotiate? What could they do differently next time?