Imagine a situation in which you would like your child to do something but he or she refuses or just does not do it without even refusing. Ok, no imagination is needed. If you have children or you have lived with another human of any age, you have all the examples you need. People do not do what we want all the time and those people includes adults (friends, partners, relatives), adolescents, and children. It even includes us—often we do not engage in the behaviors we want ourselves to do—maybe exercise more, eat less of a certain food, and so on. Behavior change is a fascinating topic and there are several techniques that are effective based on excellent science. I will refer to some of them later and with resources if you want further information. For now, consider a very special situation in which we as parents try to change something in our children and are having no success. Our frustration is high, and this may be heighted by external pressures—the school may be demanding that the child behaves in some way or there might be peer pressure on us (from other parents) or on the child (from peers who are doing the behavior we cannot get our child to do).
You have tried to get the behavior from your child; you showed her often how to do it by direct instruction, by modeling the behavior yourself, maybe even she has done the behavior once or twice but does not do it regularly. You have nagged, pleaded, made little threats, tried kindness, and even threw some rewards at it (“If you clean your room, you can go to college when you are older.”) The result is nothing. You are super perplexed. The child perfectly understands what is needed—you have explained it and what you want is not all that complex. (“Just go to the bathroom and sit on the toilet as we practiced 400 hundred times but this time before you have an accident.”) Your reactions, frustrations, and efforts are completely understandable, and if we needed to “label” them, we would call them “normal.”
A routine source of frustration in everyday life draws on the assumption that “knowing” (being informed, understanding) is related to “doing” (carrying out the behavior and doing so regularly). Sometimes getting people (children, partners, ourselves) to understand something does make a difference in what we do. But among the ways of changing behavior merely imparting knowledge and understanding is not so helpful. For example, our partner may well know that we do not like this or that behavior on his or her part and yet they still do it. “Very normal.” Similarly, the limits of merely telling someone what to do is clear when we say to our child, “If I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times, not to do that.” Here in place of the word “child” all those other words fit too “oneself, a partner, a neighbor.” So, what can you do?
There are several standard procedures that are very effective ways to get the behavior you wish, and these include Modeling, Shaping, Simulations, and arguably the most important one, Praising Positive Opposites. I say they are “standard,” not so much because they are familiar, but because they have been well studied in research. Also, these techniques have been applied effectively from toddlers to the elderly and in many different settings (home, school, hospitals, military bases, universities, assisted living facilities—it is endless). Each of these techniques is an effective way to get the behavior you wish and is much more effective than fostering understanding, nagging, making threats, and punishing. These techniques are the first line of “attack” in developing behavior and take priority over the special case and topic of this blog. Modeling, shaping and the other techniques I mentioned for changing behavior need to be implemented in special ways, and these are the topics of other blogs. Also, I have described these other procedures concretely in a step-by-step way, so they can be implemented in the home. This is available in a free online course for parents (https://www.coursera.org/learn/everyday-parenting)
This blog is more about a very special case, namely, situations in which the child has seen the behavior (perhaps you have modeled it or has seen it in a sibling), or has performed it once or twice, or you are persuaded that the child knows the specific actions that are needed. The behaviors you want to occur might be such things as using the toilet, taking a bath, or doing some self-care task. A key feature is not just about the child but about something special about you, the parent, and the atmosphere surrounding the behavior you wish.
Desperation and a Surprising Effect
Desperation in the context of this blog refers to needing or wanting something very much. That is, we are desperate for the child to perform some behavior and probably conveyed this to the child endlessly. Other words to describe how we might feel as a parent is that we are so eager for the child to do the behavior, we long for the child to do the behavior, we are inpatient given how long it has taken, and we still have not solved the problem. In this sense, desperation on the part of the parent might be to get the child to do homework, go to the bathroom correctly, to speak nicely and so on.
It is useful for the moment to consider this desperation as in the air or ambience of the home in the sense that it is ever present and quietly or not so quietly (because of reminders) in the background. This is a huge hope and demand for the child to do some specific behavior. It may not be talked about very much but everyone in the situation knows. If this were toilet training, without being able to voice this, the child is very aware that if he went to the bathroom and toilet correctly, a full orchestra would start playing, confetti would drop from the ceiling, and several clowns would run into the house making little animals out of those balloons they use. The parents are so desperate for the behavior to occur.
What can desperation do? Sometimes desperation can decrease the likelihood that the behavior will occur. That is, extreme wanting of the behavior and pressure to perform the behavior whether explicit or not can interfere with the behavior occurring. It is nothing like a child (or another person) being oppositional or manipulative. Just the opposite. The person is responding in a way that can be predicted based on what desperation can do.
Toilet Training. I mentioned toilet training so let me begin with an example of this. This was a case of a 5-year old girl, named Kimberly, who lived with her mother and father and a younger brother. The mother and father were very eager for her to be toilet trained. School was to begin and required that children be toilet trained to be allowed in class. A slight additional pressure was a neighbor friend who was 4-years old and toilet trained without any problem. These pressures merely added to the frustration and views by the parents that they must be doing something wrong. The mother and father often had told Kim what they wanted her to do. They asked her to tell them when she had to go to the bathroom, so they could take her to and help her get on the toilet. They also modeled the behavior. That is, when the mother and sometimes the father had to sit on the toilet, they left the door open, so Kim could come in and observe and talk to them. They also placed Kim on the toilet a few times a day and read to her while she sat there with the hope that Kim coincidentally she would go. Clearly, these parents went out of their way, did so much more than what most of us would or could do, and were very constructive. When Kim had an accident, at least a couple of times a day, no doubt they showed signs of frustration, were short with their words, but they said they did not punish, nag or scream.
They asked what more they could do? They already had used some of the very procedures known to effectively change behavior—modeling the behavior, repeated practice, praise for sitting on the toilet. Where did they go wrong? Of course, they did not go wrong. The key question is what could be done now after all that had been tried?
It looked as if this was a case where there was a cloud of desperation in the home that could suppress the behavior. One cannot be certain, so we provided a test. We consulted with the parents with the idea to remove the desperation completely and observe the effects. The parents came to our center for a few sessions in which we explained how we wanted to remove the desperation in the home.
To remove the desperation in the home, we had the parents practice both verbal and nonverbal behaviors that would show less pressure and in fact no pressure on the child. As to the verbal behaviors, the easy part, the parents practiced saying, “It is fine if you do not use the toilet when you have to go to the bathroom. When you are a little older, this will be easier but for now, just do what you want? Let us know when you have to be changed. It really will be all right.” These statements are easy to read here, but we actually practiced with role playing how they were delivered (tone of voice, appearance of nonchalance). Our trainer modeled the statements with the parents, then each parent stated it back, the training went back and forth like this using modeling, praise, and feedback from the trainer to help each parent master the statements in their own style so in fact they were persuasive. While the verbal statements were being practiced, we added nonverbal features that conveyed that the parents were not too concerned. These included facial expressions and shrugging the shoulders—any nonverbal cues to convey there was no pressure and the child could use the toilet or not, it was fine either way. The parents learned this quickly with a little practice. The parents were amused with each other in practicing this and had this down. They were certainly willing to try this and did so after a couple of sessions of practice. The mother said during the practice that it felt good and that she felt less concerned, but that is certainly just a side effect.
After the second session, the next morning at home, the father chatted with Kim at breakfast and conveyed how toilet training and using the toilet correctly was not important for now and that she would be able to do this when she was older. The mother also commented to underscore the point and then quickly ended the conversation and went on to other things that were going on that day. As part of this, the parents stopped all the interventions they had been using to try to encourage use of the toilet. That is, no more taking Kim to the bathroom, no more asking her if she had to go, and in general nothing focusing on toileting. If Kim needed to be changed, that was to be done in a matter-of-fact way with nothing said about using the toilet.
That afternoon, unannounced, Kim went to the toilet, used the toilet correctly, and came out and told her parents to come to the bathroom. The parents did and saw that she had used the toilet correctly for the first time. Normally one would provide effusive praise (when developing behavior), but we wanted to avoid that here because that is mixed up with the desperation. The mother said, mildly that was really good, like a big girl who was much older than 5. Then everyone resumed their routine without making more of the matter. This “success” continued. Kim had one accident the next day but started using the toilet regularly. The parents gave irregular attention and mild praise noting how mature she was to start this while still a little girl. Of course, to the parents this looked like magic. And I and my team of parent trainers did not expect an instantaneous change. The main reason the anti-desperation mode worked was because of all their prior efforts, as I explain more below.
Taking a Bath. David was 3 ½ years old and given a bath by his mom or dad daily. The bath was a fun time; there was a toy or two in the bath tub, and the parent viewed this as a time to chat and even tell amusing stories. David had an easygoing temperament and that made most interactions relatively easy. Occasionally, there was a hair wash also at bath time, but this could be completed quickly and without consequence, even though David did not especially like them. By accident on the part of the parent, David was lifted into the bath when the water was very hot. David immediately started crying and his mom lifted him out of the tub immediately. There was no physical injury—his legs were red from hot water. Fortunately, there was no enduring burn or need for a special treatment. Obviously, there was no bath that evening and everyone seemed to recover quickly and resume the normal schedule. By bedtime, the bedtime story seemed to show the bath incident had passed.
The next night it was time for bath and David said “no” when he was taken to the bathtub. The dad put his hand in the water and put some water on his own face to show that the water was not too hot at all. David still refused. The parents thought it would be wise not to force this. One night without a bath is not that important so they were accommodating and comforting. David went to bed without a bath. Now add 5 more nights just like this, and then a 6th, 7th and 8th. Now the parents were less patient and started “normal” increases of parent pressure, including pleas, mild threats, noting consequences of not being clean, and tossing in a reward or two if David would get into the bathtub. They had tried the compromise a few times—a “sponge bath” in which a washcloth would be used to clean his body without going into the bathtub. Again, it is important to ask: what did the parents do wrong or ill-advised? Generally nothing, apart from the accidental hot bath. They were very sensitive to the child’s feelings and new fear and certainly did not want the bath battles to be a new trauma for the child.
What had emerged understandably was parent desperation and with that a force of wills and a tacit background that shouted, YOU NEED TO GET A BATH! Yet, the parents did not voice the message that way. When the parents came to us, we explained the possibility that the pressure and desperation to get the child to bathe might be impeding progress. It was important to reassure them that this “pressure” was not anyone’s fault; it was to be expected.
After an explanation of what we were trying to accomplish, we practiced with the parents to completely remove the pressure for a bath. This included what to say to David, how to say it (tone of voice, bodily movements like shoulder shrug). The parents practiced this for one session. They were also asked to stop the bath ritual at night. At bath time, they just said, “You don’t have to bathe tonight unless you want to.” There is something more here. Providing choice is a useful antecedent (something that comes before behavior) because it often increases compliance. The parents continued what they were doing (reading, watching TV in another room) instead of providing the bath. When it was bedtime, they continued that routine, as if the bath had been completed. On the second night, they did not even mention the bath. On the third night, David asked if could have a bath. The mom said “sure,” but still low key and nonchalantly, even though she said later that she said to herself, “Thank God!” David had a bath—just like the prior days. On the next night, he asked for a bath again. After that, the old routine had been renewed with no more on the matter coming up. Yes, the parents were super careful of the temperature to make sure that mistake never occurred again.
The key factor in implementing this procedure is to remove all possible cues that indicate pressure and in fact to convey the opposite, namely, that it is fine not to do the behavior. Implementation may include these ingredients, as seen in the examples, such as conveying that the child does not have to do the behavior, that he or she may do it when they are “bigger” (older) but it is not critical now. Then take away cues requiring the behavior. Do not ask about it, do not mention it, and if it comes up, convey nonchalance. The goal is to change the atmosphere from desperation (please please do it) to something completely nonchalance (no need to do it at all).
There is a key caution. Some behaviors we want children to do relate to their safety, have important consequences if not done each time, and cannot wait for what might be a clever intervention. Examples include a child holding your hand when crossing a street, sitting in the car carrier, avoiding strangers who are approaching him or her, and coming in the store with you rather than staying in the car. These behaviors and others like them can have horrible consequences if something goes wrong. In all such cases, the parent has to ensure the behavior occurs, no matter what. Such behaviors are not candidates for the procedure where one can tolerate nonperformance. Parents are often desperate here for an important reason, safety. When in doubt, we always must err on the side of safety.
The cases I have mentioned are special and that is why anti-desperation is not the first line of attack when wanting to change behavior. As I mentioned, modeling, shaping, simulations, and praising positive opposites usually work very well. The circumstances that make anti-desperation effective are special. The procedure is applicable when:
- You have worked on developing the behavior;
- The child has seen examples of the behaviors;
- The steps to do the behavior are known, that is you know the child can do the specific behaviors or because of modeling examples that is a reasonable assumption;
- You have tried practice and praise in some way already;
- You really can take the pressure off, which means you are capable of that and there is no horrible consequence if the behavior is not performed (e.g., toileting, bath) for a day or two;
- You practice (in a mirror at the very least) showing you do not care, that you are not desperate, that the behavior is not very important. Of course, you have to practice a little because you do care, you are desperate, and the behavior to you and in the world might be very important.
We often do not think of trying to do something as trying too hard. Anti-desperation parent behavior is to overcome that. We purposely try “less hard”. Among the reasons, when things look or feel coercive a natural human response is not to do the behavior. It is perfectly common, “normal,” and applies to parents, children, and others.
We have used the procedure I have described on several occasions. The two examples were some of those but there are many others. At the same time, it is important to be clear about what is known about the procedure. This is not a studied procedure that has a strong research base. There are bits and pieces of research that are relevant. For example, we know that when humans feel pressure to do something, they often are more likely not engage in the behavior. That is a whiff of coercion can readily backfire. This might make the procedure reasonable because the goal is to completely remove the pressure. Yet, the procedure has not been studied and hence that is important to keep in mind.
The procedure I mention is one we have used at the Yale Parenting Center, a former clinic where we have worked with parents spanning 30 years. The procedure is one that is not researched and hence does not have the status of being established. At the same time, there are special circumstances in parenting that make the procedure worth trying if the more tried and true techniques do not seem to be working. The special circumstances are those in which: 1) it is very likely the child can do the behavior (this is NOT to be confused with understanding what to do), and 2) you feel extremely desperate and frustrated in trying to get the child to do the behavior. As for the first condition, you might consider the child very likely to have the requisite responses if he or she has seen the behavior (modeling), or you have practiced that behavior with the child, or the child has done the behavior before but now has stopped.
There is a huge science on how to change behavior in the home, at school, and in the community. Not too many of the findings are circulated so that people who can most use them. I mentioned where to start when you are trying to change child behavior. In most situations, modeling, shaping, simulations, and praising positive opposites is enough. And one does not have to do all of these; often one is quite sufficient. Some resources below may be of use if you would like further information.
Free online course for parents (https://www.coursera.org/learn/everyday-parenting)
Kazdin, A.E., & Rotella, C. (2013). The everyday parenting toolkit: The Kazdin Method for easy, step-by-step lasting change for you and your child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kazdin, A.E. with Rotella, C. (2008). The Kazdin Method for parenting the defiant child: With no pills, no therapy, no contest of wills. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.