Q&A: Curbing Destructive Behavior

Each week Michele Borba answers your parenting questions right here on her blog. If you have a parenting problem or question leave a comment on this post and you may have yours answered next week!

I have a friend who has a three-year-old, a two-year-old and a one-year-old. The oldest has displayed the typical sibling rivalry traits, not sharing, tantrums, etc. The most disturbing behavior is that she causes considerable damage to the house, like flooding, ruining wood floors with ink, and a few other things that cost a lot of money to repair. When she is punished, she acts like she doesn't care by laughing or ignoring you. How can my friend better understand where this behavior is coming from, and how can she teach her daughter that these behaviors are wrong? Theses destructive activities are a daily event and she is desperate for help! -Christina

Wow, do I wish I could set up a video recorder in the house and watch this. You're describing very  uncommon behaviors for a three-year-old--very uncommon. And they are disturbing because they are daily and destructive. So here are six steps to turn destructive behaviors in young kids around. It will take concerted effort, patience, support and consistency (which is essential). Here ya go:

Step 1: Aim for prevention.  This child needs to be monitored much, much closer. How is a three-year-old able to flood a house? Really! That takes time and effort. The same with damaging wood floors with ink. Mom needs to keep this child in close proximity. There are also younger children involved here, and their safety may be at stake. Supervise! Block off some portions of the house. Keep this child in tow (or under toe) at all times!

Step 2: Find positive ways to keep her occupied. I'm assuming this child also is impulsive. She needs things to keep her occupied so she doesn't get into trouble. Fill a basket or bag with things to do so she doesn't get into trouble. Keep one in each part of the house and car. Simple things like erasable crayons and paper, a doll and dresses, or toys that she already owns. (Don't buy anything.) Just keep her busy. Three-year-olds have very short attention spans. Mom's goal is to stretch her attention span.

Step 3: Use the right discipline. Discipline for a three-year-old is tricky. A possible reason for her laughing after she destroys something or pretending not to care is Mom's response to how she is disciplined. Mom must be calm. Must. No yelling. No spanking. Both will backfire with this child. Seriously backfire. And that's what may be happening. Instead, she must catch her the moment she is destructive, and on the spot firmly and calmly say, "That's time out. We don't draw on the floor. Please sit in the thinking chair." Next, she sits, but not too long. A big mistake for an impulsive kid is too long of time out, so let her sit there for two or three minutes. That's it! As long as she's sitting. Once she sits, the time begins, but Mom has to ignore the child in time out, and the chair must be in a spot where there's no attention. Suppose she doesn't go to the chair? Don't drag. Stay calm. Firmly say, "Please go to the chair." If she refuses after the second time, then immediately remove a privilege that she likes. No ice cream after dinner. No TV. Something. I'm betting Mom is using the wrong way to do time out. Help her with this. Then she should thank her daughter when she completes the time out. Seriously. "Thank you for going to time out." Alan Kazdin's book, The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, is a great source and explains the steps thoroughly.

Step 4: Find relief. Mom needs support! An impulsive three-year-old who needs constant supervision is taxing. Two more kids in the home! Ahh! Stress is going to build. Mom has to be calm and cool with this child. A quick temper escalates an impulsive child. So what can anyone do to help out Mom? A playdate once a week? Helping her watch the kids? Making a dinner together and have one frozen to save on the witching hour? She has to carve out at least 15 minutes of downtime for herself--at least!

Step 5: Reinforce good behavior. Mom is discouraged. So is the child. Really! A three-year-old really does care. But if she only gets negative reinforcement she learns to "act bad" because she desperately needs attention. Lavish on the love and hugs and strokes when she isn't into mischief. Rebuild that bond with Mom. Catch her being good. Please! The best way to change behavior is to look for those positive moments. You will need to help Mom. Point out positives. Model how to be positive. Mom may be missing those moments because of the stress of the situation.

Step 6: Get help. If Mom doesn't see change in two weeks, or things escalate, it's time to get help. I hope she already has spoken to a pediatrician to rule out any other causes of this behavior. She also needs to think about anything else that could be triggering this behavior (an impending divorce, a financial crisis, an illness). If this is a sudden and new behavior, then something else is triggering it. Talking things through with a training specialist could help. Taking a parenting class could also be beneficial.

Please do not give up!  Doing so will be disastrous not only to your child's future, but to your family's harmony. Hang in there!

Click here to read more of Michele Borba's Q&As, or leave a comment below with your own questions and it may be answered next week.

Dr. Michele Borba is the author of No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them .

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