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Attachment theory vs. behaviorism & discipline for grade-school aged kids

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  • Attachment theory vs. behaviorism & discipline for grade-school aged kids

    We have always practiced attachment parenting, even before I knew it had a name. My husband and I are both animal scientists by education, and behaviorism is the accepted theory for animal behavior. So ideas about attachment theory and behavior were new to me when I first had children. But they simply made sense to me on a gut level - people are not animals, and rewards/punishments seemed to be the wrong approach for teaching children. It wasn't until I heard Gordon Neufeld speak for the first time that I started exploring the science behind attachment and learned that behaviorism is, in fact, not accepted for people and hasn't been for years, and the science behind that. But, behaviorism is still the basis of most of the parenting ideas and techniques out there.

    The "gurus" of attachment parenting - Neufeld, Kohn, etc. all state more or less that with an intact, attached relationship, the child "wants" to be "right" with the parent. So the idea as I understand it, is that if you use the ideas of attachment theory for babies and toddlers, are responsive to your child, honor their emotions, trust them, avoid puishment & discipline practices that lead to detachment, then by the time they're older, they will simply "want" to be right with you and you'll avoid a lot of discipline struggles off the bat.

    Okay, but what if that's not happening? I hadn't really acknowledged how far we've come from the "ideal" w/ discipline until we had another baby. Now we've got a toddler and two 8 year olds. The toddler is easy! I realize how "good" I was as a parent when my twins were babies and toddlers and preschoolers. The struggles were, and are, sometimes intense, but I really do see how the attachment works and how working with that attachment helps resolve the conflict.

    It doesn't work with the big kids. I don't see that drive to be "right" with Mom and Dad. And the behaviors we're struggling with are so much more intense, difficult, potentially having long-term consequences. My big frustration right now is that I can't find resources. I've read and re-read books like "Spirited Child", "Hold onto Your Kids", "Unconditional Parenting". The only book I've found that seems to address this at all is "Explosive Child". The therapists and counselors we can find all use behaviorism - "consequences" (which is a nice name for punishment), reward schedules, and the like.

    I homeschool my big kids, and am part of a large local homeschooling group made up mostly of parents who share our ideals and beliefs about raising children. For the majority of the kids, the idea that the child wants to be "right" w/ the parent works. These are what a handful of us call the "easy" kids. Sure, there are struggles, but they can be resolved w/in the attachment relationship. The child seems as upset as the parent when they are in conflict. And then there are kids like mine, who are not "easy". Some of these children have been diagnoses w/ conditions like ODD, ADHD, autism spectrum, etc. Others have not, or have not been tested. We are currently looking into having one, if not both, of our children evaluated for these sorts of conditions.

    But I still need discipline ideas. I love the ideal of attachment theory, but it's a long-term solution/goal. What do I do in the moment? I cannot remember the last time we got through a day without a meltdown, usually more than one. We make sure they're physically right (fed, enough sleep, not overly scheduled), and I can predict when something is physicallly not right. But sometimes, usually!, there's no such convenient explantion. It seems like there's a huge gap for the big kids between attachment theory and actual, practical, day-to-day options that don't involve punitive discipline/behaviorism.

  • #2
    I hear you, and I completely get what you're saying! Have you read any of the Positive Discipline books by Jane Nelsen? Her main book, "Positive Discipline" is more of a foundational book, explaining the general concepts of positive discipline & the theory behind it. But there is one of her books which you may find helpful: "Positive Discipline A to Z". It is very practical, as it explains in detail how to handle various specific situations. It reads like an index of common behavior issues, so you can look up an issue alphabetically and read just a couple of pages about how to handle it with positive discipline. Very helpful with the application of PD!


    • #3
      Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, I've read her books.

      My question is not really re. the application of positive discipline, but the results/impact. Specifically, what do you do when it doesn't work. We've tried so many times with the behaviors we're seeing, but they continue. More than anything, it's the constant opposition and arguing that's wearing me down. I try not to see their behavior as "defiant", but it's incredibly hard (read, impossible, at least for me) to stay positive day in and day out.

      We have been using positive discipline techniques since day 1. We've named emotions, given them words, role-played how to handle strong emotions, practiced using feeling statements and "I" statements instead of attacking. We've tried "time-ins" and Mommy time-outs. You name it, we've tried it.

      I hear feedback from DD's friends parents that she is a joy and takes the role of problem-solver and peacemaker within the group, so something is sticking. But we certainly don't see that at home! Especially in relation to her twin brother, but also toward me, her father, her grandparents.

      And DS continues to struggle with the same issues over and over and over, to the point now that I have gotten some incredibly negative reports from friends and neighbors; he just seems stuck and unable to modify his behavior. It's really hard to hear your son being labelled by others as "defiant", "bullying", "attacking". It's sad that he can no longer play with his friends in our yard, because we cannot trust his behavior without immediate adult supervision. Which is why we're considering pursuing diagnoses for behavioral disorders. But, honestly, I'm not sure what that will do for us beyond giving us a name, because when I research treatment approaches, they almost invariably use behaviorism techniques (rewards charts and punishment schedules seem the most popular). Any "alternative" therapy options are astronomically expensive and not covered by insurance.


      • #4
        Ah, I understand...I wonder if there are specific examples you'd be willing to share to let us know more about the details of what's going on? Sometimes it's easier to get a sense of things when looking at individual examples...


        • #5
          I'm sorry, CheriK, I didn't mean to pry or ask too many personal questions...just wanting to explore your situation further and see if you can get a new perspective on things. I hope I didn't scare you away. Generally speaking, I would say to continue to hang in there! Positive Discipline is such a long journey, and it looks different for every family. Seeking support during the rough times is so important, so I'm glad you're here!

          When you say it's hard to stay positive, do you mean it's hard to stay "cheerful" when disciplining your kids, or hard for you to keep a positive outlook into your kids' behavioral future, or just hard to continue to use PD techniques? Are you wanting to yell or use punitive techniques because you think they might be more effective? I've had all those thoughts before! I don't think we have to stay "cheerful" at all when disciplining our kids. Raising kids is difficult and emotionally draining, and some periods will be more difficult than others. I think it's normal and OK to react by not feeling posisitive all the time. It makes you sad that he can't be trusted to be alone with his friends, and that is OK to feel like that.

          And you seem so dedicated to using positive discipline, it doesn't sound like you're willing to to try punitive/ behaviorism methods anyway, as it sounds like you know they won't work in the long run. Even kids with behavioral disorders benefit from PD, although results might not be as immediate. There is a new Positive Discipline book to be released soon about "Positive Discipline for Kids with Autism and other Special Needs" which may be helpful to you.

          Have you tried family meetings? That can be very help as a proactive tool as it lets the children voice their thoughts and have a chance to be heard. At your family meetings you may want to keep the focus on his feelings and behavior when he with his friends...ask him how things are going, listen to his feelings, discuss any problems that came up, listen to his thoughts and ask for his input on how to handle problems. Other family members may have input or suggestions too, and family meetings are a time when everyone can be heard. Then, rather than dwelling on the problem, move right into focusing on solutions. For example, if he cannot be trusted to be alone with his friends, then you always being there to supervise is a valid solution. If he has other ideas, you're willing to listen & try them out. Asking for his input may be give him more ownership of the problem and an interest in solving it so that everyone is happy.

          I know you said you've tried everything, but maybe there is a new approach you can take to something you've already tried. Remember that kids are seeking a sense of significance and belonging, and what we see as misbehavior is a mistaken way they have decided to find that. Through PD we show them that they matter and that they belong. Hang in there, you are doing the right thing for your kids!


          • #6
            I find Gordon Neufeld's approach covers certain areas that other AP material don't. In fact, I find him to be the missing piece. I didn't find his book very helpful as a parent but his talks have been very enlightening. I especially find his approach helpful for understanding anger in children and the power dynamic between parent and child. (Sorry, I can't think of a better term than "power dynamic". There's probably a more AP compatible way to say this.)

            There are some audio downloads on his website which might be helpful, particuarily the one entitled "Counterwill in Children". The downloads cost about $20. He also has DVDs you can buy.


            There may be some consultants/counsellors trained in his approach that you could access, whether online or locally. Where I live there are people that run short courses based on his theory. He also has a few clips on youtube.


            • #7
              Kelly, no you didn't scare me away! This is my first chance to visit this week. The book you mention sounds interesting; we're not dealing w/ an autistic child, but I hope it will have ideas that will be helpful for a child who is more challenging than usual.

              Specific examples. . . there are so many Probably our (my) biggest challenge is his inability to handle frustration and life not going as expected. This always been a struggle for him; he is quite inflexible, needs to know exactly what to expect from a given situation, and cannot change gears when life throws in unexpected curves. Which, of course, is exactly how life is! When he was a toddler and preschooler, we'd have what DH and I used to call "repeat and redo meltdowns" where he would want to turn back time and redo an event so it happened the way he expected. We could have an hour meltdown because I opened the car door from him instead of letting him open it himself (he would not have asked to open it beforehand, he'd just have a mental image of that happening and when it didn't he couldn't accept it). Simply shutting the door and letting him open it would not help at that point. Now that he's older, it more often takes the form of temper tantrums over consequences for his actions. He forgot his shoes (losing and forgetting shoes is SO common) on Sunday when we were going to have fireworks at his grandparents. No shoes = no poppers or sparklers, as they just aren't safe. Also no helping to kick the spent fireworks into the gutter and hosing them off (bare feet & potentially hot fireworks also not safe). We tried to find solutions - Grandma offered a pair of her shoes w/ tight laces to hold them on, which he wouldn't wear. Sister gave him HER shoes and wore Grandma's, which should have solved the problem, but he refused to let go of the upset and move on. It was actually suprising, given the usual state of sibling relations around here, both that sister offered her shoes and that he consented to wear pink girl shoes. Commence meltdown, which at this point usually takes the form of screaming verbal garbage at us ("It's all your fault. I hate you. You're the worst parents in the world."), trying to create "fairness" by denying his sister whatever he isn't getting ("If I can't do fireworks, then Fiona (his twin sister) can't either."), and making demands ("I won't ___ (calm down, talk to you, have a drink, take a break, whatever) until I get to set off fireworks"). All this at top volume while hitting and kicking anyone who gets close enough, followed by throwing toys, kicking me and my husband, kicking my husband's car seat hard enough to break the plastic, refusing to stay in his own car seat. I would like to say this is an extreme example, but we have meltdowns of some variety daily and the kicking, hitting, destructive variety at least once a week.

              This one was exacerbated by hunger (it was dinner time & lunch had been a LONG time ago); I know he's really unable to tolerate being physically not right and spend a huge amount of my mental energy ensuring he's fed, not too hot/too cold, rested, etc. We also work really hard on helping him to tune into his own body, but so far that's not too successful. I've only recently realized how hard it is on our family to always have to be SO focused on the physical needs of one person & how often we as a family bend over backwards to ensure he doesn't have a reason to have a tantrum.

              We have had family meetings, but haven't been able to make them successful for our family (sitting still for any period of time doesn't work too well). We've found that role-playing & discussing situations after the fact works to some extent; if we catch the upset in time, don't have things like hunger or sleepiness creating their own challenges, and can guide him into what we've role-played, it does help at times.

              I like Neufeld, have read his book & both DH and I have attended his presentations several times. DH did a day-long workshop w/ him in April. We've been watching his full DVD series, as a friend w/ similar challenges with her son ended up buying it (as she said, it was cheaper than the family therapy they were currently paying for without any measureable benefit). We've also attended workshops & on-line sessions w/ two of his trained counselors. Although I find a lot of usefulness in his ideas and teachings, I really don't find anything he teaches particularly helpful "in the moment". And around here, "the moment" is at least daily.

              I've spent the last many years feeling depressed and discouraged that we've made so many mistakes that have damaged the attachment relationship, because one of Neufeld's points that he repeats at everything I've heard is that the child wants to be "right" with the parent & that's our biggest tool when parenting. But as our struggles have increased and I've connected with other parents in my homeschooling group with similar challenges, I've come to believe that while this might be true for many (maybe even most, although not in my experience) children, it simply isn't true for some children with stronger behavior challenges. My son, even as a toddler, did not show that will to please that is "supposed" to exist. And this seems to be an issue for many of the parents I've been talking to, who also have concerns that their may be other exacerbating issues (food allergies, sensory processing issues, ADHD, etc).

              When I say it's hard to stay positive. . . yes, to all Kelly's interpretations. As I try to explain to my husband, my stress level is about at my eyebrows on a daily basis. So when I'm already pretty much at the point of "had it", between homeschooling two intense 8-year olds, keeping up with an incredibly energetic toddler who still nurses several times at night, trying to keep our house from falling apart w/ a work-aholic spouse who doesn't notice mess and disorder no matter what & certainly doesn't voluntarily clean anything, when I'm already a person w/ relatively low tolerance for stress, disorder, lack of schedule & routine. . . I often do not react in the way I'd ideally like to, end up spending a LOT of my time screaming at whoever has pushed me over the edge, and simply don't have the patience & creativity to manage these constant upheavals. No, I don't particularly think that punitive discipline is any more effective than PD, but it's also no less effective and in the moment is more and more often becoming what comes out of my mouth, because it at least stops the behavior in the moment, which PD has been entirely unsuccessful in doing. Sending him to his room may not teach anything or solve any problems, but he's not in my face screaming at me, so I can't be screaming back at him. One of the struggles I'm having w/ PD - when I can't react in a positive way (which is more and more often), then what do I do? When a behavior needs to stop, then what do I do? I haven't found any good answers to this that don't involve punitive discipline.

              Anyhow, sorry that was so long. I'm actually trying to set up a parent group through our homeschool group as several of us find ourselves at park days discussing these types of issues WAY too often. But we're all short on time and chlidcare, so it's been hard. I'd love to start a group HERE for parents working through these issues. It really seems like there are so few resources for parents of grade-school aged kids.


              • #8
                you sound tapped-out and something obviously needs to change for you and your family. have you ruled out medical issues like AD/HD, PDD, ODD, SID? have you consulted your pediatrician? maybe a child psychologist? it won't do any good to try to tackle a problem relationally if there is something physically exacerbating him. if you're spending the majority of your time out of balance, it may very well be worth a shot to consult with someone who can rule out, or pinpoint, other issues.


                • #9
                  Yes, that is what we're currently exploring, whether there is some diagnosis that helps to explain (from my reading, I think he could very likely be ADD, but no "official" diagnosis yet). But that still leaves us w/ the same concerns. The mainstream treatment options (read, covered by insurance) use behaviorism. Haven't found anything that doesn't use behaviorism that isn't considered "experimental" or "alternative" (read, pay out of pocket and they're expensive). We've gotten a couple of referrals for MDs, allergists, alternative providers in the area who claim to have great success using PD, food elimination, CST, and the like, but when an initial consult costs $2000. . .with of course no guarantees of success. . . that's hard to manage. We chose to homeschool because of our concerns w/ public school & our family choice that homeschooling made more sense than having both parents work full time to pay for private school. So we make it work on one income, and that kind of money isn't just sitting around waiting to be spent.

                  So I would still love to find resources that I can implement myself that would help. Hoping the book Kelly mentioned will give us some of those. And would still like to dialogue with other AP parents coping w/ similar discipline issues.


                  • #10
                    yes, you're right that even if there is a diagnosis (dx), you're still left with the same behaviors. however, a correct and proper dx *CAN* give you information that you did not have before. and i'd recommend getting more than one evaluation done. you're also right that many treatments for some disorders are straight-up behaviorism, but that's not always true. for instance, Sensory Integration Disorder involves therapies which have nothing to do with behaviors. Many autism and ADHD interventions involve altering the environment, not attempting to change the child. the particular episode you mentioned with not being able to open the car door does not fit an ADHD dx, but could qualify under a few others. knowing exactly what you're dealing with can give you a better place to start as far as researching interventions that are successful. that being said, i am NOT a fan of labeling people. i am a special ed teacher and have seen labels be detrimental. if you do end up with a label, don't allow it to narrow your child into a category; instead, use it for the information that you can learn and support your child and family. EXPECT that he will be greater than any dx. okay, hope i'm not sending mixed messages about that.

                    as for specific help for you in the meantime, that can be pretty involved. i don't know you, your family, your home environment, really any of the things that i would need to help a family in the ways that i typically do. but i can ask questions and try to get a better idea if you like. for example, you describe what sounds like strong issues with transition. does your son have a strict routine? does he have a clear calendar of what he can expect each day? does he have a say as to what that routine will look like? can you create a weekly calendar that is laminated so that you write and wipe-off daily activities? at the beginning of the week, sit down and create it with him. then, once he is comfortable with the calendar, slowly introduce changes. you could say, "on the calendar it says that we are going to the library today. if you want, we could change it to the park. would you want to do that?" if he agrees, allow him to wipe it off and change it himself. then talk about the fact that he made a change, ask him how he feels about it, talk about how change can be a good thing and that we don't always have to stick to our initial choices. this way, he gets a visual of things changing. then you can work that into your day-to-day episodes, like "you didn't get to open that car door, that was different, we changed how we thought we'd do that. do you want to change back or choose something else?"

                    you can also start talking to yourself out loud as much as possible. when you're making dinner, "i was going to make spaghetti, but we're out of sauce, i guess i'll have to make a different choice. that's disappointing. i REALLY wanted spaghetti. but now i can make soup. i like soup. that will be good, too." talk out loud at traffic stops, talk out loud about being disappointed, having to make changes, making choices, etc.

                    okay, like i said, i have no idea what your life is like and can only guess. i may be headed in the completely wrong direction. give me feedback and please let me know. i have many other roads that i can meander down. hang in there. treat yourself to a long bath.