Book Excerpt: How to Discipline a Defiant Child

Parents who use my method often find great relief in discovering that getting down to business doesn't have to mean bearing down even harder on their children. Being more effectively gentle and positive with your child doesn't mean being spineless. The reverse, in fact, may be true. Flying off the handle, perpetual anger, shouting, hitting — those are the truer signs of a defeated, ineffective parent. Positive reinforcement tends to calm a household because it offers clear, attainable objectives for parents and children alike to aim for in shaping behavior.

My method does not require a lifelong commitment. The program you'll set up for changing your child's behavior works like a frame you place around a growing plant to train it up straight and healthy. The plant is better behavior, and once it can stand on its own, you'll take down the frame. You will not be awarding points or keeping track of rewards forever. In fact, most parents find that such concentrated interventions take effect very quickly and can be largely discontinued after a relatively short time, like a month or two. The intention here is that you build the frame of this method around your child's changing behavior, but once the desired behavior takes deeper root and gains in vigor, you quickly scale down the frame and then take it down entirely.

Where the Method Comes From

I did not set out to specialize in helping parents improve their children's behavior. I started down the road that led to this method when somebody gave me a problem to solve and I turned to the research for help.

That occurred back in the early 1970s, when I was a graduate student at Northwestern University. The director of a local clinic that treated children who had emotional problems asked whether I could help his clients. The one I remember best was Sharon, a fifteen-year-old girl who had terrible, destructive tantrums whenever anyone said no to her or there was even the slightest unexpected change in her routine.

When told we would be breaking for lunch, for instance, Sharon would blow up. She threw things, swore with amazing virtuosity, and shouted at the top of her voice. The predictable pre-lunch tantrum could be controlled by announcing to her sixty and then thirty minutes before lunch that lunch was coming, but if the clinic's staff forgot to do this, the tantrum was inevitable.

After consulting with researchers around the country, I created a program for Sharon and other clients at the clinic by adapting techniques on learning and behavior that had proved effective in treating adults. The program did not produce overnight miracles, but it did bring about gradual transformations with clear, lasting effects. We could see and measure the changes and, more important, others working with our clients and their families saw the changes. In the case of Sharon, we entirely eliminated her tantrums in about three weeks, step by step, by instituting a system of rewards for small positive changes in her behavior. She reached the point where she would smile mischievously instead of blowing up when we interrupted her. And once we ended the programs, the improved behaviors continued. The programs were temporary; the changes endured.

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