I am supposed to be doing so much homework right now, it makes total sense that I’m on here instead, right? Okay, maybe not. But I can’t concentrate. Well, I can’t concentrate on coming up with a reasonable thesis about the necessities of a reader understanding the social and political climate in order to fully appreciate a satiric novel.
Instead, I am completely consumed with the ideas of behavioral reinforcement and/or punishment. More to the point, how in the hell am I supposed to help my kid change unwanted behaviors when said child could not give a shit less about consequences?
That wasn’t rhetorical. I’m open to suggestions. Only, don’t suggest building a giant velcro wall using the trampoline base and sticking my kids in velcro suits so I can launch them Ninja Warrier style onto said velcro wall, where I can watch them like flies on fly-paper until they’ve agreed to stop doing really absurd shit. Todd already said no to that idea, the spoilsport.
Last time I was on here I did a mini-dive into the anxieties my kids face. But now I want to look at a whole different monster. Because anxious or not, actions still have consequences, and I have hit a wall when it comes to effective measures of dealing with unwanted behaviors. As usual for me, I have done far too much research on this, hoping to find some kind of method or idea that we haven’t already tried (and watched fail), but I’m at a loss.
So, let’s start with the basics. In psychology there are 4 main methods of either reinforcing or punishing behaviors:
- Positive Reinforcement – Adding something positive to increase a response. Think about offering dessert for eating all of dinner.
- Negative Reinforcement – Taking away something negative to increase a response. Such as, my constant badgering to brush teeth stops when the kid brushes his damn teeth.
- Positive Punishment – Adding something negative to cut out a response. Such as having a child do an additional 30 minutes of reading at home when he refuses to do his work in school.
- Negative Punishment – Taking away something positive to cut out a response. Like taking away electronics time when a major rule is broken.
So, the basic idea is that any time you want to reinforce a behavioral change, one of these four methods is implemented. But how do you know which one to use? Or, in our case, what the hell do you do when you’ve used all of them in various ways over the years and it doesn’t make any difference?
This, friends, is one of the most frustrating things about life with autism I have come across yet. Meltdowns can be next level, but I can usually see them coming. A need for routine and a constant desire for fully understanding the ins and outs of everything from the logical to the downright absurd (think going from reading stereo instructions to asking why cows need four feet), okay, fine. I can work with that, even if it is frustrating. But this? Figuring out how to curb unwanted behaviors in kids who don’t really give a rats ass about consequences? This is a bitch.
Allow me to lay this out for you. We’ll start with the littlest first.
Broadly speaking, Mason does pretty well with a combination of positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Here’s what that looks like right now: We have a points system we use in the house. Points are like currency. He earns points by doing well in school, maintaining basic hygiene, and managing a couple of small household responsibilities (making his bed, putting his laundry away, etc). He then gets to spend those points on things he wants, such as time on electronics. Until recently, this was a fairly lax system for Mase, as he was able to earn enough points each day to get his tv or his tablet or whatever. However, when his behavior at school started sliding downhill, along with his grades, we changed it up.
Now, I’ve taken away the access to all electronic devices on weeknights (negative punishment), and he has to earn enough points throughout the week to have them back for the weekend (positive reinforcement). In addition to this, there are weeknight privileges he can earn as well, and a bonus point system. For example, if he earns a minimum of 7 points today, we play a game of his choosing for family game night. If he earns 60 points throughout the week, he can have his tablet on the weekend after his chores and 30 minutes of reading are done. If he earns more than that 60 points, the left-over points are saved, and over time he can earn things like a day at the zoo, etc.
Strict? Yes. Has he done better in school? Yes. He also sleeps better because he doesn’t have his face crammed into a screen for two hours a day. He’s more engaged, and pleasant, and is forced to spend more time interacting with the rest of the living creatures in this house. Of course, he hates being unplugged all week – but he’ll live.
Then, here comes Kaleb. This kid. Without going into too much detail, let’s say that he has absolutely zero compunction when it comes to other people’s personal spaces or stuff. And yet, if his personal space is invaded you bet your ass there is a war on the horizon.
Okay, once again, I get that this is par for the course, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Nor does that mean I have to be content with raising a hypocrite. So, moving on.
In the span of a week, Kaleb has had his hands in lots of pies – and none of them were his. Devices that were not his to mess with have been altered or reset. Rooms and workspaces that were not his to enter were violated without hesitation. So, what do we do here?
Let me point out, Kaleb runs on a points system much like Mason’s, since they were both doing poorly in school. Which means, he only has his devices on weekends. So, when he does what he did this past week, our immediate inclination is to take away the ability to have the electronics at all for a certain amount of time and try come up with a different positive reinforcement goal. He cares about this… for about 10 minutes. Then he’s reading a book or running back and forth through the house humming Windows 98 tunes or whatever at the top of his lungs with the sole purpose of driving all of us completely mad.
Here’s where the problem lies – none of the reinforcement/punishment strategies do shit with this kid. Positive reinforcement – okay, first of all, how do you positively reinforce someone to not take shit that isn’t theirs? Here kid, have a cupcake every time you don’t go into my room and riffle through my stuff and take my tablet without my permission? How does that work?
I’m not being sarcastic here, or at least, not intentionally. I’m dead serious. If someone has a strategy for positive reinforcement in this instance I am all ears. And before it gets suggested, we have gone so far as to lock all the stuff up in a cabinet with an actual lock. But that isn’t the point. The point is, I should not have to do that. I should not have to hide my tablet from my 12-year-old.
Now we look at negative reinforcement. Look, I don’t know how many of the people who read this have met me in real life, so I’ll explain something real quick. I do not have a deep voice. And when I get worked up, I really get pitchy. You wanna talk negative reinforcement? How about not having to listen to me lecture your ass? Again, I’m not joking. One of the things Kaleb hates the most in the world is having to have “conversations” with me when he’s done something foolish. He thinks it is torture to have to sit out here and discuss what has happened and what should be done about it.
So, where were we? Oh, right. Positive punishment – add something negative to stop a behavior. Once again, I’m at a loss. I can add chores, or essays, or jumping jacks or a dissertation on nuclear physics (probably not a punishment for him but it sounds like hell to me), but how do I make him do it? He’s not 3, I cannot have him clean the bathroom hand over hand like a toddler who needs to pick up his blocks. How do you make that stick? As far as negative punishment – I’m pretty sure I already mentioned the removal of the electronics…
Where we are at right now is this: Kaleb did a lot of big no-no’s over the last week. Impulse control is an issue – always has been, and will likely be something he struggles with for the rest of his life. Impulse control in Kaleb’s world isn’t like it is for the rest of us. When I talk about it, I don’t mean choosing not to buy that Snickers bar while you’re standing in the checkout lane. I mean actively making the decision not to rob a bank because your paycheck was crappy. It’s a whole new level. And, to make matters worse, this is not a simple matter of impulse control. This is a matter of knowing right from wrong and choosing wrong anyway because it suits what you want at the moment. This is hiding the stuff he’s gotten into because he knows he’s not supposed to have it, which shows he is not only aware of what he is doing but that he intends to continue doing it.
What the hell do we do?
He wants all these freedoms – and yet time and again we are unable to give them to him because he is constantly pushing his boundaries too far. He wants to be able to be on a computer unsupervised (he screwed the desktop up so badly we had to completely reinstall the operating system and start from scratch – a fact he acts almost proud of). He wants to have unrestricted access to YouTube (don’t even get me started). He wants a laptop. He wants, he wants he wants. But each and every time we get to a point where he starts to show a bit of restraint and we start to think he’s ready to take on the responsibility that comes with a new privilege, he turns around and pulls some shit like this. Which leaves me at a total loss.
How do you trust him to make wise choices, when he’s completely ruled by impulse?
We’re trying a new system this week – one that largely entails that he spends every waking minute in the presence of an adult until he is so damn sick of us both that by the time he gets his freedom back he might think twice before repeating the same mistake. Except… we’ve thought that before, and we’ve been wrong. I am entirely open to suggestions here. Because now I’m back to feeling more like a prison warden than a mom.
Once more for good measure, I’ll ask it again, what do you do? How do you get through to a kid nearing teenage years who has a stubborn streak that could cross half the continent? A kid who will dig in his heels and starve rather than eat something he finds unpleasant? How do you help him curb the behaviors? How do you get him to see the seriousness of what he is doing and how it impacts other people?
I’m fresh out of ideas, and it’s beyond frustrating.