Tip of the Week: Choose When to Battle

Instead of choosing your battles, choose when to battle.

Recently at a workshop I was providing, a parent shared a difficult behavior that her 8 year old son with autism was exhibiting. When it was time to play with trains, he wanted a specific train. He would scream and cry until his mom found the specific train he wanted, and sometimes she was unable to find it at all. The screaming often lasted 30-60 minutes. She said this frequent behavior was stressful for both her, her son, and her other two children.

My suggestion to her was to tell her son “wait quietly,” and that she not search for the train while he was screaming or crying. As long as he was quiet, she would search, but when he started screaming or crying she would stop searching. We talked about the importance of just asking one time to “wait quietly,” and whether or not her son would benefit from a textual prompt (such as a paper that said “Wait quietly. I’m looking.”) As we discussed this, the parent said, “I just know I can’t do that all the time. I have to pick my battles.”

It’s important to note here that I have very different expectations for teachers and parents when it comes to implementing interventions. A teacher’s sole purpose when they’re with your child is to teach in a way to meet their unique needs. Teachers should be implementing an intervention 100% of the time.

Parents, on the other hand, are in a very different situation. Parents are frequently trying to implement the intervention while also cooking dinner, answering the phone, taking care of other children, etc. Unless the intervention is addressing a dangerous behavior, I don’t expect parents to be implementing the intervention 100% of the time. It’s unrealistic given the different environment the parent is working within.

But I’m not letting parents off the hook! Let’s go back to the example from the workshop.

My response to this parent was that picking your battles doesn’t necessarily mean choosing to address other, less stressful behaviors instead of this behavior. Instead of picking your battles, think of it as picking when to battle. For this parent, she would direct her son to “Wait quietly” when she knew she was ready to implement the intervention. When she knew she wouldn’t be able to implement the intervention (because she was excessively tired or she had the other two siblings with her and no other adult support) she would not say “Wait quietly.”

This may seem a bit silly at first, but over time, the child learns that when mom says “Wait quietly,” she means it. I also suggested that the first time she tries it, she should set herself up for success. Have her mother babysit the other two children, have a therapist or teacher come provide support or coaching if possible, and make sure she has enough time to follow through on implementing the intervention successfully the first time. While it takes some time and planning, the long term benefits can be powerful for the whole family.

I do not know if this particular parent tried out any of my suggestions after the workshop, but I have used this strategy with many other parents over the years. Two things tend to happen. One: the child figures out the parent means what he/she says. Two: As the child learns this and the parent experiences success, the parent uses the intervention more frequently creating a calmer, less stressful environment for both parents and children.