Another Facebook Fan asked: Our middle boy just turned 5. He has high energy and is very competitive. At home and with his brothers he’s fine, but with other kids he gets aggressive, hits, gets upset easily. Good news is he’s immediately remorseful when he does something wrong. He has poor impulse control.
Being a behavioral psychologist, I’m often steering parents toward teaching a new, better behavior rather than getting trapped in diagnostic or developmental labels alone. Those are helpful to know, but ultimately we want things to improve. In this case the target behavior is complex – social skills (cooperative, non-aggressive play with peers). Here’s a plan:
Set up small play groups and activities that are time limited and involve only one or two other kids. Start with kids you think he’ll do best with. Start small. 10-15 min sessions. Then break. The plan is to reward him for success in suppressing his negative behaviors in these short time periods. If he can’t last that long, stop the play (get a whistle). Then try again in 15 minutes or half-hour – or next day. Practice these small play sessions and gradually increase the time, increase the number of kids, and vary the activities. Even better to use a timer and show him how long it takes to earn the reward. Always remind him right before you send him into the play group what he needs not to do… no touching or fighting. And, make him keep eye contact with you and repeat that back to you before he goes in to play. Make certain he knows the consequence is attached to his behavior – and it’s ultimately his choice to earn it or not.
It may seem unnatural to play and socialize this way… but this isn’t much different from any new skill we have to learn – think of practicing catch (which kids spend thousands of hours at) before they do it naturally. It’s a long series of rehearsals before they’re good enough to actually field and throw in a real baseball game.
The goal here is to over-practice the target behavior (perfect, pro-social behavior) but you have to demand 100% compliance – and that’s why you stick to a short time period and yank him as soon as it goes wrong. No more coaching him from the sidelines or second chances. We want to use the value of the reward (not you) as the agent of change. You’re more a teacher in this context (less of a nurturer), and always remain calm. Don’t shout, don’t look worried, just stop the play and wait. Model calm control. show him by example what self-control looks like.
Social skills, for some kids, are a very complex to learn. Another analogy is playing the piano. No one sits down the first time and plays. It’s based on practicing tiny, small key strokes. Rehearsing those until they feel comfortable and easy. Only then, you add new parts of a song, chaining them together. Always going back to the basics to rehearse anything that isn’t going well. Game with social skills. You’re practicing tiny controlled moments until he’s able to succeed (i.e., suppressing aggression), and gradually increasing that (more kids and new situations). Go slow and steady. Be patient. Expect lots of rehearsal to turn this around. Think of it as his learning to play Chopin!
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