Goals for Oppositional Behaviour

Written by Vivienne Morris,  AES Clinical Director

This is my last blog for 2017 and for the majority of us, the impending holiday season. With many weeks of having kids away from school/ day-care, I thought I would finish the year on the challenges parents face with a non-compliant youngster during this period of too much sugar, unstructured time to fill, difference in routines, open ended situations, different environments, non-specific (autism) holiday programs, spontaneous drop-ins from family and friends (no time to prepare), relaxation of rules and follow-up during this time when the family are chilling, and so on…..

Goals and the Understanding of Oppositional Behaviour

The child I mention, who we will call Thom, presents as a high-functioning and intelligent boy with a great deal of potential.

To reach that potential and to be able to maintain his current level of functioning both at school and in the community, we need to help Thom modify and become more consistent in how he manages his emotions.

The ultimate goal is to have Thom make better choices for himself in order to self-regulate his behaviour in all conditions and under all circumstances.

Sometimes kids with ASD are not able to generalize information and in this case it is the generalisation of Thom’s behaviour that presents as an issue. Kids with autism may not be able to apply what they learn in one learning context to another learning context over the entire spectrum of their needs. They often find things difficult to understand, including social expectations or rules, cannot communicate their needs and may be hypersensitive to different aspects of the environment.

It is seen in the gaps of older children who have not had a reliable long-term behaviour plan in their early years. As an example, whilst not acceptable, Thom may hit his brother because he is angry, but he may not necessarily understand that he cannot simply hit his friend at school for the same reason. That is, once the situation changes, it can be a totally new learning experience for him.

It takes a consistent environment and many repetitions to help cement what you are attempting to teach. Expect an escalation in behaviour, as this is usual. However, do not give in at this point as the escalation is precisely for this purpose. See it through and it will become a win – win for you both.

Be persistent and enjoy every small success. He may not be the CEO of the corporate world, but he is taking small steps to become an independent and responsible person.

Below is a partial list of typical parenting strategies. Parents have found these strategies to have very little or no effect on their child's behaviour:

  • Trying to "reason" with the child and/ or using over-explanation to attempt to have them understand.
  • Bribing
  • Having "heart-to-heart" talks
  • Confrontation or being "assertive"
  • Grounding
  • Taking away privileges
  • Time-outs
  • Counselling
  • Trying to be a nicer parent
  • Trying to be a tougher parent
  • "Giving in" and letting the child have her/his way
  • Verbal warnings without consequences
  • Medication
  • and so on...

Making Changes

There is no magic wand here. It requires hard work and dedication towards change, if change is to happen. Bribery is totally unacceptable and only provokes more non-compliance. It is a Band-Aid and therefore short-lived.

The only way for permanent change to occur is the development of a unique professional relationship between all parties dealing with Thom and his behaviour. Without this vital option, the entire process is a waste of time and also your finances.

First of all, let’s define the difference between Tantrum/ Challenging Behaviour and an Anxiety-Based Meltdown. There is much confusion from parents as to what constitutes the two. It is very important to understand this difference and to not be frightened or embarrassed to own up to the fact that it is actually behaviour rather than anxiety; as if anxiety in a child with autism, somehow strangely seems more acceptable.

The problem with this mindset is that the behaviour continues and escalates. What might have been reasonably manageable at this earlier stage in life, will as your child grows and matures, become habitual, so behavioural change will become a major hurdle.

Tantrums are straight forward

  • The child having the tantrum will ‘look’ occasionally to see if their behaviour is getting a reaction – or they will yell out, scream, repeat loudly and insistently for what they want, and so on,
  • They will take precautions (unless underlying there is something else going on) to make sure they are not putting themselves in danger or able to get hurt
  •  They will attempt to use the social interaction that results from the ‘attention,’ to their benefit (negative attention is as equally rewarding – Dad yells when child did something that was a total no-no– the  behaviour is then repeated for more attention).
  • The tantrum is thrown to achieve a specific goal and once the goal is met, things return to normal (getting their own way).
  • The tantrum will give the feeling that the child is in control although he would like for you to think otherwise (not fair, manipulating, insisting).
  • When the situation is resolved and the child has succeeded in his quest, the tantrum will disappear as quickly as it began (got what he wanted).

Note: A temper tantrum is a power play by a child who is not mature enough to play the subtle game of internal politics – so hold your ground and remember who is in charge. Ignore the behaviour and refuse to give the child what he is demanding. A temper tantrum usually occurs when a child makes a request or demand – the parent says ‘no,’ then the tantrum is their ‘go to’ strategy.

Anxiety/meldown on the the other hand (result in a child unable to regain control)

  • A child having a ‘meltdown’ behaviour has no interest or involvement in the social situation going on around him i.e. as per the attention seeking behaviour of a tantrum.
  • Does not consider his own safety and therefore may well injure himself or someone else in the process.
  • The behaviour conveys the feeling that no-one is in control (cannot discuss or have child perform calming techniques during this period).
  • During the behaviour a child does not look, nor care, if those around him are reacting to his behaviour (oblivious to all situations).
  • The behaviour will usually continue as though they have been swept up in a situation they have no control over i.e. without the ability to regulate themselves in any way. Once this peaks, there is a slow

Note: anxiety/ ‘meltdown’ behaviour will usually present as a total loss of behavioural control, very loud and risky at times and the child ends up exhausted. This behaviour is preceded by what I can best describe as ‘silent seizures,’ that is, a brief period before onset where the child spaces out and it is likely that he has moments of time when he is totally uninvolved (switched off) with his environment.

Behaviour management is about teaching good and appropriate behaviour. It is about helping the child to become an independent, responsible and well accepted person in his community.

Adhering to a consistent teaching environment and behaviour plan with many repetitions to practice the skill that needs to be acquired, will help Thom to learn and remember the differences between the ‘right and wrong’ mindset.

I list 10 questions to ask yourselves to evaluate where you think you are and where you might need to be:

  1. What do you want from Thom?
  2. How does Thom’s behaviour make you feel?
  3. How does Thom’s behaviour impact on your family life?
  4. What does the immediate future look like for you and for Thom?
  5. What does the long-term future look like for you and for Thom?
  6. Do you have fears for Thom’s education ie his behaviour impacting his learning? 
  7. What are you willing to contribute towards a solution ie how invested are you in a solution?
  8. If you are unable to resolve the issues yourself with only scant support are you able to work together with an ABA consultant towards a solution?
  9. As parents are you able to work together as a team towards a solution (differences in parenting styles)?
  10. Are you willing to trust an ABA consultant to support you to make better choices towards a management

It is known when working with behaviour that the reinforcement schedule needs to be powerful enough to keep Thom working and to maintain the desired behaviour. It takes time, patience and a good behaviour system to begin to ‘undo’ the ingrained behaviours that have built up over time.

The best behaviour plan in the world will not produce the results required for the permanent change to happen, unless all parties are totally engaged in the solution. Working together as one, to produce the desired results.

The ultimate goal is to have Thom make better choices for himself in order to self-regulate his behaviour, not on occasion but consistently.

I'm not offering a complete cure for ALL behaviour problems, but if you are looking for rock solid and proven solutions to a whole bunch of problems associated with parenting a child in Thom’s position, there is a chance to break the cycle and to bring harmony back into your life - and to keep your child from years of suffering. I say this because it is important to remember that children with ASD do not set out to create a problem, rather their challenging behaviour is a symptom of the disorder.

These are my concerns moving forward for all children with challenging behaviour, be ASD or not. After almost 30 years of working with kids on the spectrum, many of whom are now adults, doing the hard-yards now is well worth it. Later is too late!

You can reach us on our website, Facebook page, email or by phone.

In the meantime, I wish, for those of you who celebrate Christmas a very merry and joyous one and for those who do not, I wish you an equally wonderful holiday period. To all of you I wish a happy and very safe New Year full of hope and excitement towards your children’s futures.


Goals for Oppositional Behaviour