As usual, this blog starts with a tantrum. This particular tantrum is occurring 5 metres off the ground in the local climbing wall, where a 'HALTed'* Adrian is furiously crying that he can't unclip the quickdraw preventing him from climbing higher. For the sake of the other climbers in the hall, we lower him down and attempt to console and calm him down.
After a couple of minutes of Adrian screaming to be winched back up, we decide to untie him from the 70 metre umbilical cord that is tethering him to the wall. As I am undoing the knot on his harness, Adrian clamps his teeth down hard on Jur's bare forearm. As I finish untying him, I have tears in my eyes that my son has bitten his father so hard he's drawn blood. Jur, careful not to escalate the situation, has remained cool and calm. I carry a crying and angry Adrian out of the hall.
We sit amongst the bike racks, me on the floor and Adrian on my lap. Adrian is quiet. He's shocked. "You bit your dad so hard that you made him bleed!" I say sadly, my eyes still glistening. "Biting people is wrong", I follow up.
"Do I have blood on me?" he asks, genuinely anxious.
"No", I say. We both sit there in silence.
After a few minutes, when I'm feeling less emotional and he's in less of a trance, I bring up the Problem Solving strategy we've been using in the How to Talk So Kids Will Listen course I teach.
"How can we stop you biting people?" I ask. (As a toddler Adrian would bite other kids, but he has learnt to control himself now so that he mostly only bites Jur these days, either because he gets too excited while playing or occasionally when he's angry).
"I know", he says, brightening up, "You can buy me a new bear!"
"WTF! You want me to buy you a TOY!?" says the voice inside my head. Fortunately I manage a calm, sceptical, "You want me to buy you a bear?".
"Yes, when I stopped drinking mummy milk, we got Baby Adi Bear. Now I'm stopping biting, I should go make a new bear [from the local painfully expensive Build-a-Bear shop that he's only been allowed to buy from once before]."
Still with reservations, I clarify his thoughts (including how he is going to show he is sorry to Jur) and we then return to the climbing hall. Having checked that Jur wants to continue, I set Adrian up with some food and a distraction while we get back to climbing.
At this point, you might be wondering why I'm not punishing Adrian by going home. Well, that would punish me, not Adrian. We'd paid to go climbing and climbing is our couple-time. We don't have childcare at weekends so Adrian has to come with us. The climbing wall isn't a treat to Adrian. It's more like a trip to the supermarket - stimulating but boring at the same time.
Back to the story... After school the next day we drive to the Bear Shop. Adrian chooses a bear, selects a noise for it (a 'bong, bong, carrot munching' sound) and presses the lever while the shop assistant fills it with stuffing. I don't elaborate when she asks if the bear is for him. "Yes, I'm buying my son a teddy because he bit his father" sounds as wrong to me as it sounds to everyone else so I just agree with her that the bear is indeed for Adrian. The newly christened 'Bunny' is taken home where Adrian shows it to Jur and tells him what it is for. Problem solved.
No really! Problem solved!!!
Adrian hasn't bitten anyone since we bought Bunny. I've seen him go to do it a few times, and then restrain himself. I'm sure there'll still be the odd incident again in the future, but he is very clear in his head now that he does not bite people.
So, will buying your child a teddy stop them biting people? NO!
When Adrian freaked himself out by making Jur bleed, he finally internalised the message that biting is wrong. That was a significant shift from our previous 'external' efforts to stop him biting. (Keep in mind that, at this stage, biting was a habit for Adrian since he was mostly only doing it to Jur. It was therefore an action that he had some control over.)
After the climbing wall incident, Adrian 'wanted' to stop biting. That was his goal, his 'intention'.
When he chose Bunny as a symbol of his intention to stop biting, he increased his likelihood of success. Bunny is what is called an 'Implementation Intention'. When Adrian sees Bunny, or thinks about Bunny, it reminds him to take action to achieve his goal. Implementation Intention objects or actions help us cue a new behaviour we wish to achieve.
It works like this: You make a plan that if Situation (or Object) A is encountered, then initiate Behaviour B in order to achieve Goal C.
Adrian could also have chosen another object, or an action, to help him achieve his goal. For example, "If I notice myself opening my mouth to bite someone, I'll close it and breath through my nose to calm down" would also work (if it elicited the same internal motivation).
Another example of an implementation intention I've come across was a father on the radio describing how his placing of the front door key in the lock was his cue to to make himself switch from 'work' to 'parent' mode before crossing the threshold into the house.
My own dad has told me the story of a childhood friend who lived with him and my grandparents during term time so that she could go to school in Dublin. Apparently she used to 'hang' her country accent on a tree that was visible out of the train window on the way to Dublin.. Several months later, she'd then swap it with her Dublin accent on the way back home.
So, over to you. Which objects or actions do you, or could you, use to achieve your parenting goals?
* HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. When one or more of these factors applies to you or your child, you can expect self-regulation to be compromised i.e. behaviour will deteriorate.