Catch Them Being Good: How to Help Kids During Stressful Times

As a follow up to our last blog, Guest Blogger and Behavior Analyst Kristen Stine, M.ED provides some helpful strategies and tactics for parents to use with kids dealing with trauma and stress after a disaster.

kid playing

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Disasters impose many life stressors, and often require families to leave their homes and disrupt important routines.  This can be a sudden and traumatic experience for both adults and children of all ages, resulting in a range of emotions including confusion, anxiousness, and/or fear.  Child reactions, feelings, and behaviors vary depending on a variety of factors including their development, chronological age, and the nature of the disaster.  There are many helpful resources that identify typical child behaviors and challenges that may occur after a disaster or crisis, as well as indicators that help from a professional may be needed:

Helpful Parent tips to increase positive behavior/reduce challenging behaviors:

Try to establish some structure/routines with your child  These can be embedded throughout the day around meal times, after school activities, play, and hygiene routines.  Some children may benefit from a visual schedule, especially if they are exhibiting anxious behaviors. Your child may want to participate in making the schedule – offer for them to help create the visual (e.g. what color to make it, how to decorate it, where to put it, etc.).  Schedules can help to increase structure, consistency, and child independence.  Note: schedules and routines should have a degree of flexibility as appropriate (e.g. child’s choices, preferred activities, etc).   

“Grandma’s Law”  You may remember Grandma saying, “eat your peas first, then you can have dessert.”  We may not realize it, but many of us schedule our day this way.  Clean up the dishes, then watch television.  Make the bed, then get a cup of coffee.  This is a natural way to reward ourselves for completing less-preferred activities.  When possible, try to alternate lower and higher preference activities for your child.  Here are some examples: First finish your homework, then go outside and play.  First clean up dinner, then play a game.     

“Catch them being good”  Praise can go a long way in increasing the behaviors we want to see (instead of focusing on the negative behaviors). Some children enjoy public recognition and praise for their actions, while others may prefer private acknowledgement.  Provide positive praise to your child in a way that is meaningful to them.  It is important that praise be authentic, and specific when possible.  For example, instead of just saying “Thank you!” you might say, “Thank you for setting the table, it was a big help!”

Be mindful of how many corrective statements you give your child.  If you can, try to follow a 1:5 ratio- for every 1 negative/corrective statement you give, try to give 5 praise/positive statements for the behaviors you want to see.  This can help improve your relationship, increase positive behaviors, and when you do need to correct your child’s behavior, they will be more likely to respond favorably.

Establish rules and expectations  Make expectations clear, consistent, and set them in advance.  Be reasonable with the expectations and demands you put into place, and do not set rules/limits that you are not able to follow through with (remember to praise your children for the behaviors you like to see!).  Some children may require an increase in supports, especially after experiencing a significant disruption in their typical routines.  Some examples include placing a visual of the rules in a common area for reference (try to keep it between 3-5), and/or setting small incentives to increase motivation for rule following.  This can be accomplished by setting up contingencies in advance with your child.  Let them know the behavior you want to see (e.g. going to bed when asked, playing nicely with siblings, etc.) and the reward for following the instruction (e.g. extra bedtime story, stickers, etc.).  When possible, try to frame the behavior in a positive way, and provide the reward as close in proximity to the behavior you want to see as possible.   Try to save this tool for behaviors that your child is having the most difficulty with. 

~Kristen Stine, M.ED (Behavior Analyst)

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