Managing Difficult Behaviors with Small Brooklyn Psychology

We recently held a webinar with Jill DiPietro, LCSW, at Small Brooklyn Psychology to address some of the behavioral challenges that may be exacerbated in the age of Covid. Read on for notes on breaking the coercive cycle, modeling positive behaviors, and more.


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Recognizing and working with the challenges of the current moment. Even after five months of living with the pandemic, we are still seeing all of the same challenges we saw in March. Emotional distress is the norm right now. It’s an unfortunate reality, but recognizing that you’re not the only family struggling can help you relax expectations and feelings of self-judgment. Your kids may be experiencing sleep disturbance, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, and tantrums. You may be going through your own mental health challenges, and, while it’s important to feel what you’re feeling, it’s also useful to remember that kids are like sponges: whatever their parents are feeling, they feel too.


To help get a handle on what your kids are feeling, observe their play: What are the themes that arise? Are they bringing real-world problems like the coronavirus into their playtime? Also try to keep your kids in the loop with what’s happening in the city and the world. Children like to know what’s going on, so, even if you don’t have the answers, reassure them that “I don’t know, but I will share it with you as soon as I know.”


The Coercive Cycle and how to break it. The Coercive Cycle goes like this: Child engages in problem behavior → parent has emotional response → child escalates → parent escalates → parent withdraws or gives in. In every cycle, escalation is reinforced. The cycle is all too easy to fall into, but the good news is that it is possible to break. It’s easier to put a stop to problem behavior when your child feels actively taken care of emotionally, so break the cycle by putting money in the emotional bank: In other words, gain leverage by ensuring that their emotional needs are attended to. Then, you can “withdraw” your savings from the bank when the problem behavior arises again: Offer a calm and measured response, and they’ll remember all the times they felt nurtured and cared for by you and choose to de-escalate.


Be direct about expectations. Let your child know upfront what you expect of them in a given situation. Give direct commands, clearly and one at a time, and break information up into small chunks. Provide transition warnings: inform them ahead of time what is going to happen (whether that’s a consequence for their behavior or any other activity or expectation that they need to adjust to) and allow them time to get ready. In every situation, think about how you can best create an opportunity for your child to rise to the occasion and succeed.


Identifying and defining behavior. In order to reinforce positive behaviors and deescalate negative behaviors, you first need to know what you’re looking for. Behavior is something observable, measurable, and specific. If you’re wondering whether something counts as a behavior, ask yourself if a stranger could identify it in the child. For instance, hitting is an observable behavior: You or a stranger could observe and count it while it’s happening.


Behaviors thrive because they satisfy different functions.

-Sensory: It feels good, e.g., jumping on the couch.

-Escape: It lets the child get out of something, e.g., “My stomach hurts, I have to go to the nurse.”

-Attention: It provides interactions or attention; this includes attention for both positive and negative behaviors, e.g., “Come here and look at my drawing.”

-Tangible: It lets the child obtain something, e.g., screaming in the grocery store to get a piece of candy.




Model positive behaviors. These times are traumatic for kids, but if you model for them how to live through difficult situations, they can come out the other side with constructive coping mechanisms that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Don’t wait until they’re having a crisis or tantrum to suggest positive behaviors; rather, strike while the iron is cold to proactively talk through your own emotions and model your adaptive coping skills.


Attention reinforces behavior. Give your attention to your child’s behavior when it’s positive, not negative. To reinforce positive behavior, try the PRIDE acronym, which is courtesy of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT).

Praise positive behavior. Be specific about what you’re praising: “Thank you so much for listening.”

Reflect positive language back to them to show that you’re truly listening: “I cleaned my room.” “You cleaned your room!”

Imitate positive behaviors. When you see them acting positively, do the same to show them how much you appreciate it: “I made myself a sandwich.” “It looks delicious, I’m going to make myself one too.”

Describe positive behaviors. When you observe them acting positively, show them you see and appreciate what they’re doing: “You drew a picture of me with lots of bright colors.”

Enjoyment/enthusiasm. Enjoy the time you spend with them one-on-one, and verbalize how much you love playing with them and how impressed you are with them.


As a rule of thumb, try to offer your child three praises per one piece of constructive feedback. Keep your praises free of negative comments: no “This looks good, BUT…” Remember to focus your praise on the behaviors we want to see more of. For instance, if your child is struggling with homework completion, be sure to focus your specific praises on that behavior, e.g., "Great job working so hard on your homework today." Prioritize praises that focus on persistence, rather than the completed product.


On the flip side of praising positive behavior, actively withdraw your attention from minor misbehavior. If your child is whining, ignore it; turn away and direct your attention to something else. Behavior tends to get worse before it gets better, but do not give in and reward the misbehavior with attention. Wait it out, and, as soon as they re-engage in appropriate behavior, give them praise.


Handling aggression. It is possible to handle aggressive behavior without funneling attention toward it—with the caveat that safety is always paramount, so be sure to safeguard the room by removing objects that you feel may become unsafe. A reverse time-out can help. If your child is acting violent, simply leave the room; return once they are calm, and positively reinforce that with a specific praise. As a milder option to a reverse time-out, you can direct your attention toward another person in the room.


Handling your own anger. It’s okay to be angry. Kids are hard! Try to remember that when you model negative or aggressive behavior, your kids will mimic it. If you’re partnered, it can help to tap in and out; if you’re having trouble breathing through your anger, tap out and let your partner handle the situation.


Behavior plans. Creating a behavior plan seems simple but can be very complex, and they’re best put together with the help of a consultant. The best behavior plans focus on one to three positive behaviors and create a reward system of five to eight specific rewards, to be cashed in twice a week. Big rewards can be offered for positive behaviors exhibited three times in a row. Once a child is meeting a specific behavior at approximately 75% of the time, try changing it up and adding a new behavior. Behavior plans can be used for many months, but ideally they evolve to reward less acute behaviors as kids improve.


Handling teen and tween behavior. For older kids, it’s important to collaborate. The teen or tween should always be an involved and consenting partner in the reward system. Tally systems can work, as can simple consequences, e.g., the goal is to do a chore, and I’m going to lose my ride to school the next morning if I don’t do that chore.


Handling difficult behavior between siblings. You can often find success by practicing non-interference. Just step back and let siblings work things out for themselves, only stepping in if things really start to escalate. If you do need to interfere, you can apply a strategy of differential attention—that is, model and give attention to the child who is exhibiting the better behavior. If conflicts are ongoing, it’s best to sit down together and talk through solutions proactively: Strike while the iron is cold rather than waiting until folks are already fighting.


Practice self-care. While self-care is always crucial, it takes on a new level of importance during these tumultuous times when you need to be your best self for your kids. Lower your expectations; prioritize kindness for yourself; make sure you have space to recharge for your kids; and seek help if you need it.


Further reading and resources: