Keep in mind that misbehavior is simply an expression of an unmet need or an inability to cope with the circumstances in the current environment.
A child's behavior is always a signal of how he or she feels inside and a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who has trouble communicating can become very frustrated with their environment very quickly. Just picture yourself not being able to communicate your very basic needs to the people who care for you? Close your eyes and visualize trying to tell someone you are very thirsty, or the light is hurting your eyes or the music is too loud and not being able to get them to understand. Wouldn't you be a candidate for an emotional meltdown if this were what your world was like on a daily basis?
When you think of a child's misbehavior as a need that is out of balance, your perspective can more easily shift to "my child has a problem instead of my child is being a problem". Then you can focus on discovering what the issue is and alleviate the potential for inappropriate behavior.
Also, we as adults are able to monitor our emotional state and manage the way we express our feelings but young children do not have these skills and need to be taught. This is where we need to step into our role as teacher - giving our sons and daughters words or pictures for their feelings or providing them with additional means to express them appropriately.
Here are some other strategies that will help you prevent and deal with angry behavior:
- Play detective and look for clues in determining underlying unmet needs. The need for attention and control are often the first ones that come to mind. Others might be boundaries, trust, structure, respect, and belonging. For a child with Autism, the unmet need is often the ability to clearly communicate to others what he or she wants. Providing visuals and other alternative means of communication will help keep frustration levels low and therefore avoid the potential for an angry outburst.
- Be on the lookout for stress. Acting inappropriately is often an indicator of stress. Bonnie Harris, author of Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids, states that all children want to be successful. Most children want to please and no child deliberately plans to have an outburst. Is something blocking your child from being successful in his play? Is she stressed due to insufficient sleep? Is his sensitivity to noise on overload in a chaotic environment? Has her dislike for transition been set off due to a sudden change in schedule? These and other triggers for stress can often be avoided.
- Give your child a feelings vocabulary that goes beyond happy, sad, and mad. Acknowledge your child's emotions by identifying what you see and giving the feeling a name. "I see an angry boy who wants something he can't have." or "You look frustrated with that toy because you can't get it to work." or "Are you disappointed because mommy can't play with you right now?" By labeling what you are observing and naming it, your child is learning what it means to be angry, frustrated or disappointed and the word for it.
- Remember to role model. Get in the habit of stating what you are feeling and what you can do about it. Making statements such as, "I am upset because I burnt the toast, I will have to watch the toaster more carefully next time". "Daddy is frustrated because he lost his book again, can you help him find it?" not only normalizes feelings of all sorts but it also introduces the concept of problem solving.
- Make a house rule that has no tolerance for hurtful behaviors. "Being angry is OK but hitting hurts, it is not OK to hit." Hands are for helping not hurting is also a good statement to use when hitting is involved. Focus on recognizing the times when your child uses his hands appropriately and give him specific praise for doing so. "I like the way you use your hands to pat the dog softly. He likes it too. See how happy it makes him."
- Create a "yes" environment where exploration will be safe and acceptable so you do not have to constantly use the word no. When children hear that term at every turn it can be a very frustrating experience for both of you.
As parents, it is always important to address concerning behaviors such as these as soon as they surface. First, spend time exploring your child's world from their point of view in order to help you understand what need is not being met. Second, find constructive ways to deal with behavioral issues up front before they become ingrained so they won't be even more difficult to break later on.