A parent asks: My son is four, and we have bad days that leave me in tears. It’s so hard when I don’t understand what he’s trying to communicate. Screaming (I compare it to a car alarm) is his primary form of communication: screaming at me if I choose the wrong color of silverware for him or the wrong chair to sit in at dinner. If he’s not screaming, he’s repeating the same phrase over and over. At school they use the green-yellow-red bus system; if you are bad, you move your bus to yellow, then red. Now when he is frustrated with me for our lack of communication, he screams that I should move my bus to yellow. I am thankful he has words but so frustrated with the screaming, and so unsure how to help him. Please help.
Ellen answers: My heart goes out to both of you. I try to put myself in your son’s little shoes and imagine the helpless feeling of having inadequate functional communication skills, little control over even the smallest details of his life, and overwhelming expectations from adults but few tools to meet those expectations. Fortunately, all these things can be addressed in positive manner. A speech therapist versed in autism would be a great ally at this time; s/he could help your son and you develop acceptable means and forms of communication that will go a long way in taming his frustration. Words are only a part of how we communicate; your son may benefit from using visual forms of communication while he is learning to “use his words.” Visual supports can anchor him in times of both stress and calm. I recommend reading the work of Linda Hodgdon, widely considered a guru for visual strategies for children with autism. Her website is http://lindahodgdon.com/.
While he is developing functional communication, consider the many daily opportunities for giving him some power and control over his own life. For instance, if he’s “screaming at me for the wrong color of silverware that I choose for him,” let him choose his own color of silverware, or chair. This is not pandering or giving in to him, it’s helping him develop decision-making skills, self-confidence, trust in you, and ultimately independence.
I’m also concerned about a behavior system that tells a child he is “bad.” Children aren’t “bad,” and negative behaviors are more effectively addressed by problem-solving and skill-building than by a punitive approach. Help your son understand why his negative behavior happened, what he can do to avoid it, and how he should handle it if it happens again. It might also help to track the praise ratio at school and at home. Does he get more attention from adults for his negative behavior than he does for positive ones? Does he hear more criticism than praise? A 4:1 praise-criticism ratio is widely advocated by educators and psychologists. The screaming will decrease when he feels heard (whether through words, pictures, music, art, technology), validated and empowered.
It will help him immensely if, at a time when he is calm, you and he can agree on family guidelines, rules, expectations for how you treat each other, holding all family members to the same standards of behavior. Concurrent with teaching self-regulation skills, you will want to begin to teach perspective-taking skills as well — how his angry outbursts make you feel disrespected and sad, and that you will not allow family members to speak to each other this way. I used to put myself in time out when my young son was at his angriest. Making myself unavailable was part of teaching him that he would have to find a more appropriate way to communicate his feelings.
I hope you’ll also investigate sensory calming techniques. For instance, deep pressure input (as Temple Grandin discovered about herself) worked wonders for my son, and there are numerous creative ideas for doing it, for children of all ages.
(Originally published on my Positive Parenting Solutions guest blog appearance. Read all the questions and my answers here.)
Earlier posts in this series: