Behavior SOS

What You’ll Learn:

  • The importance of “special time” and how it can decrease negative behaviors
  • How over-scheduling contributes to problem behaviors
  • The correlation between screen time and behavior

Nothing tests a parent’s patience more than a misbehaving child. The list of grievances that can cause even the most zen parent to go from zero to sixty ranges from tantrums, lack of cooperation, sibling rivalry, and bickering to back-talk, defiance, and aggressiveness.

All kids have less than desirable behavior from time to time, but when your child is consistently acting out, it’s time to pause and reflect. Even though it may seem like our children are purposely trying to wreak havoc on our lives, it’s important to remember, they are acting out for a reason. Our job is to get to the bottom of it.

If your child has begun to resemble Chucky from the 80’s movie Child’s Play, here are three things to take a look at, as taught to me by therapist, parent educator extraordinairre, and wonderful mentor, Allison La Tona:

1. Special Time

What is special time?

Special time is a scheduled and specified amount of uninterrupted one-on-one time with your child. You give him your complete, undivided attention for at least fifteen minutes. FIFTEEN MINUTES. Your child is in charge — leading and directing the play. You are physically, emotionally, and mentally present. No phone, computer, television, or chores.Your child chooses the activity and you become immersed in his world.

When I was first introduced to the concept of “special time,” I smugly thought, Of course I do “special time” with my son every day. Heck, I am literally with him all day long!

Then, I started noticing that — even though I was physically with him all day — I wasn’t always emotionally and mentally present. Our time together was often spent with my multitasking like a crazed octopus. While we were “playing,” I was folding laundry, talking with other moms, and getting meals ready while cleaning the kitchen and making ten to-do lists in my head. I was shocked to realize that special time was more of a rarity than the norm.

Why is special time important?

Special time tells the child that he matters. It says without actually saying it, in the midst of my busy life, you are central and you are important. It makes your child feel loved, safe, and special. Another one of my mentors, the incredible Barbara Olinger, says, "More than anything, our children need us to feel joy when we are with them, it makes them feel deeply appreciated and accepted just as they are."

Experiment with special time and make note of the differences in both your and your child’s feelings of connectedness and abilities to better weather daily stressors.

2. Schedule

Once you have special time dialed in, the next thing to tackle is your schedule. Chances are, you and your kids are overscheduled. Between school, homework, sports, tutoring, music class, play-dates, OT, PT, speech… it’s easy to get overscheduled. We want the best for our kids so naturally we want to expose them to as many growth opportunities as possible. But, sometimes less is more.

Kids need down time- unstructured time to explore, play, and just be kids. While kids with sensory processing challenges often thrive on routine and structure, too much of it can be overstimulating. There has to be a balance. And it’s not just for your kids, it’s for you too! We need downtime as much as our kids do.

Signs of an overscheduled child include:

  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Lack of interest in things he once found enjoyable
  • Overtiredness
  • Neediness
  • Increase in meltdowns
  • Dropping grades

In addition to these signs, if you can’t remember the last time you saw your child doing nothing, you are definitely overscheduled! As hard as it may be, take a look at your week and cut at least one thing out. Make a list and prioritize your child’s activities, then cut the one with the lowest priority. If you are having a hard time prioritizing, ask yourself a critical question: Is the motivation for the activity coming from you or your child? If it’s coming from you, get rid of it. Once you’ve decided what can go, try replacing it with special time and see what happens.

3. Screen Time

When my kids’ behavior is going south, the third thing I've learned to look at is screen time. This is a tough one, I know. Sometimes our only moment of peace is when our kids are watching a show or playing a game on our phones. It’s hard to resist handing over the phone when you know it will buy you much needed time to get stuff done. Or when you know it will just keep your kids quiet for a bit so you don’t go insane. I totally get it.

So, what do we do? How much screen time is too much? Are some types of screens less bad than others? Where is the balance?

The research is clear. Too much screen time has a negative effect on kids’ ability to recognize emotions and on their attention spans. Research out of UCLA found that sixth-graders who went five days without screen time were significantly better at recognizing human emotions than kids who had regular exposure to phones, televisions, and computers.

Research has also implicated screen time as a factor in childhood obesity, irregular sleep patterns, and delayed language acquisition among other things.

There is a wonderful website, Common Sense Media, that can help you answer your screen time questions. It provides age-appropriate, research-backed guidelines for screen time and gives realistic tips for implementing and enforcing them.

My kids are three and five. Our current rule for screen time is one show or 30 minutes per day. Screen time generally happens in the morning at our house. We set a timer and when it goes off, that’s it. Screen time is over. Some days there’s protesting and some days my boys get bored and are done watching before the timer goes off.

Are there days when we go over 30 minutes? Absolutely. I try to look at the week as a whole rather than each individual day. If they get more screen time one day, I dial it back the next day. And some days, when all hell is breaking loose, my husband and I turn on a movie, catch our breath, and cut ourselves some slack.

This works for us, but every family is different. Just like everything with parenting, there are no one-size-fits-all rules. They key is to come up with a screen time plan that works for your family and do your best to stick to it.

Key Takeaways:

  • When your child’s behavior has gone south, prioritizing “special time” is an excellent first line of defense.
  • Decreasing transitions and limiting the number of activities your child is involved in will help decrease negative behaviors.
  • The amount and the quality of your child's screen time has a direct impact on your child’s development, mood, and behavior.