When Discipline Doesn’t Work

With over 20 years of experience in child psychology, I’ve long ago lost count of the number of times I’ve been told by parents or Carers, that there are times when discipline doesn’t work with their particular child.

when discipline doesn't work

They might have tried to discipline their child with strategies such as time out, rewards charts, or withholding privileges or favourite objects.

Many times, they have already attended behaviour management programs in an attempt to learn how to effectively discipline their child, before coming to see me. Although most such programs are valid and teach helpful general approaches to behaviour management, for some reason the desired behaviour change in their child either hasn’t happened, or hasn’t been maintained.

In my experience the “one-size fits all” approach to discipline only really goes so far for some children or some situations. When behaviour problems outlast or fail to respond to these tried and tested approaches, it is time to seek more individualised behaviour interventions.

When I do this sort of work, I follow an approach informed by Functional Behaviour Analysis (FBA) to develop individualized behaviour management plans tailored to the individual child/teenager; the specific context in which the behaviours occur; and any mental health, developmental or contextual factors that are specific to the child.

Some Facts About Behaviour

Many parents, teachers, Carers and people working with children and teenagers seek help when a child or teenager’s behaviour has become very problematic for the people around the child.

Often there are problems for the child or teenager as well, although they may not always recognise or care about the problems we adults see. You may well be reading this because a child or adolescent in your life is facing similar difficulties. So let’s establish a few facts about behaviour and behaviour management.

What is Behaviour?

Behaviour refers to everything that a person does in terms of their actions. Although that seems like an obvious answer to a fairly simple question, there are many facets to what behaviour is – and what it is not – that are important to be aware of. These factors are important to keep in mind when considering behaviour problems in people.

Behaviour is ALWAYS:

  • A person’s actions and reactions used to navigate their environment – how a person interacts with their world;
  • Occurring all the time;
  • Learned, based on how the child perceives the world (perception), what the child wants/needs to achieve (function), and what has worked in the past (learning);
  • Functional – all behaviour serves a function and is a means to an end.

Behaviour MAY be:

  • Voluntary or involuntary – do you want to do it?
  • Conscious or unconscious – are you aware of doing it?
  • Effective or ineffective – does it achieve its intended/desired function?
  • Right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, problematic or non-problematic – this is subjective, depending on the environment!

Behaviour is NOT:

  • Unchangeable;
  • Something you are born with or hard-wired to do (with the exception of reflexes like swallowing and yawning);
  • Genetically passed down, such that if a parent does something, it is in the child’s genes to do the same, no matter what.

Behaviour becomes a problem when:

  • It breaks a rule or law;
  • It offends those around us;
  • It does not meet our needs;
  • It interferes with our ability to function in an environment;
  • It causes harm;
  • Those affected by the behaviour cannot tolerate the behaviour.

Problematic and non-problematic behaviour is very subjective.

Behaviour Management

Behaviour management is terminology commonly given to an ongoing process where adults help children or teenagers to learn skills and knowledge about how to navigate their world. The aim is typically to help the child to have a range of behaviour skills that work well in their environment and help them to get their needs met.

The Adult’s role in behaviour management is to:

  1. Become an accurate interpreter of the child’s behaviour

We need to try and work out what the behaviour means, or what it is trying to achieve (ie the Function of the behaviour). If we cannot work out what function the behaviour serves for the child, we are not going to be able to teach new behaviours that meet the same need.

Interpreting the behaviour can be very tricky as often times the behaviour in front of us is not what is really going on – it can mask what is actually driving the behaviour. Take the example of the child who feels pain in his hand when writing at his desk. In an effort to avoid writing tasks he may become disruptive in class and engage in silly behaviour with the children around him. On face value it looks like he is attention seeking. If we were to treat the behaviour as attention seeking, and address it that way, little positive change is likely as the function is actually avoidance of a task that he finds painful. Any behaviour we tried to get him to do instead would not likely help him avoid the pain and so he would continue to be disruptive.

  1. Help the child to do MORE of something, not stop doing something

When we try and help children to change behaviour, it is true to say that we should never take away a behaviour without replacing it with something else (ie A Replacement Behaviour). The reason for this is that all behaviour serves a function for that child. It is meeting a need. Without the behaviour, the need will not be met. It is much harder for a child to eliminate a behaviour that is meeting a need, than it is to learn a new or different behaviour that meets the same need but is not a problem. Also, if the need/function is strong enough, the child will continue to use the undesired behaviour, no matter what we do to try and eliminate it.

  1. Not aim to be the behaviour manager, but to be the facilitator of appropriate skills

Our goal should not be to control or manage the child’s behaviour. Rather we should aim for skill development. Focusing too heavily on gaining compliance from the child often misses the skill deficit that is likely at the root of the behaviour problem.

If the goal is to “make the child behave”, the adult is going to have a very difficult time and little success is likely. There is no neural link between the adult and the child, so the adult cannot be in control of the child. Again if the function is not being met apart from when the child uses the problem behaviour, they are going to continue to use the problem behaviour no matter what the adult tries to implement.

This could end up in the commonly seen and destructive cycle known as the “Power Game”. See my article on Power Struggles with your Child or Teen for more information about how to stop Power Games, and effectively address non-compliance and defiance in children and teenagers.

  1. Maintain your relationship with the child

The relationship you have with the child is probably the single most important element you have at your disposal, to affect positive change in a child or teenager’s behaviour. It is so important to maintain a positive and trusting relationship with the child so that you can work towards better behavioural outcomes together.

When behaviour problems exist and adults try and focus on compliance, control the child’s behaviour or misinterpret the function of the child’s behaviour, damage to the adult-child relationship can result. This is especially likely the longer problems exist, if Power Games ensue and/or if the child and adult “go to war” with each other. Avoid these situations at all cost.

Things go wrong when:

  • Behaviour is misinterpreted, misunderstood and then mismanaged;
  • Adults focus on “that” the child is not behaving as desired, not “why” the child is not behaving as desired;
  • Adults aim for compliance as opposed to skill development. If focus is to make the child behave, then the adult will get very frustrated and the child can “go to war” with the adult;
  • Adult gets into Power Games with the child;
  • Adults place incorrect attributions onto a child’s functioning (eg Child is doing this on purpose to upset me; Child knows better; Child has done it before so can do it again);
  • Skills deficits are not well understood or are masked (eg large vocabulary masks information processing problems; avoidance of task due to poor muscle tone and/or sensory problems).

Functional Behaviour Analysis (FBA)

Functional Behaviour Analysis is the process of looking past the behaviour to determine what is driving it – the main driving function of the behaviour. Behaviour may achieve more than one function but there will be a main driving function, and this is the one we want to target in behaviour modification.

Please remember that the child does not always know why they do things. Humans in general are bad at knowing why we do things, little humans are even less skilled at doing this, and if the little human has other issues going on (eg developmental issues, anxiety, ASD) they are even less likely to be able to accurately know what the function of their problem behaviour is. Simply asking them will not be enough in FBA and risks answers that can infuriate, like “Dunno”, or answers that make no sense and can seem like deception.

Behaviours tend to fall into one of four main driving function categories:

  1. Gain or Want – Behaviours in this category have the function of obtaining or achieving something the child wants or needs. This can be anything from an object, to a privilege, to engagement with a person, to status, to an opportunity and literally anything else you can think of.
  1. Escape or Avoid – Behaviours in this category have the function of avoiding something the person doesn’t like, finds difficult or prefers not to deal with. Alternately they may be escaping something the child cannot tolerate or finds painful or too distressing. As with the Gain or Want category, what the person is trying to Escape or Avoid can be anything from a person to an object to a situation or task or anything else you can think of.
  1. Sensory Reaction – This category refers to behaviours that are reactions to the sensory world. This may involve the child not coping with sensory aspects of the environment, or the child seeking out sensory stimulation, or the child being affected by emotional/sensory issues within themselves (eg illness, boredom, over-excitement, being overwhelmed etc).
  1. Attention Seeking – The question of whether or not a behaviour is mainly Attention Seeking is arguably the trickiest one to consider when working out the main driving function of a problem behaviour. This is because many behaviours that are both desirable and undesirable gain the attention of others. Furthermore, attention a child gets from undesirable behaviours can reinforce the problem behaviour, and make it look like the reinforcement was what the child was after all along. In actual fact attention is often misattributed as the function for problem behaviours. This is why I recommend considering all other possible functions before deciding the behaviour is Attention Seeking as its main driving function. This approach minimizes the chance you might miss other better explanations for the behaviour.

when discipline doesn't work a psychologist can help

Function of the Behaviour Determines Approach

The function of the behaviour directs what our approach to the problem behaviour should be.

We can work out the function of the behaviour by analysing the behaviour in its context, and considering the individual profile of the child and their individual make up (eg developmental, social, mental health, etc). Once we determine the function of the behaviour, the goals for addressing the problem behaviour become clear.

  • For Gain and Want behaviours – Teach a new way to get what they want/need (replacement behaviour) or help them to want something else (eg distraction), OR teach the child skills for coping with not getting that specific thing.
  • For Escape Avoid behaviours – Help them to not need to escape or avoid (eg calming strategies, modify how undesired or how distressing the thing is) or give them acceptable ways to escape/avoid or motivate them to want to engage (for avoiding non-preferred tasks).
  • For Sensory-driven behaviours – Change the environment or experience of the sensory issue AND help the child to be able to cope with ever increasing levels of the sensory issue (where appropriate).
  • For Attention-seeking behaviours – (More likely an attempt at engagement or some other function – consider this one only once you have ruled out the other three functions first) – Help the child gain engagement or feedback from others in more appropriate ways.

Intervention from an Experienced Psychologist Can Help

In my practice I create individualised behaviour modification plans with clients that are tailored to the child’s individual presentation, context and environment. I use Functional Behaviour Analysis as the basis for working out what is going on with the behaviour, and what we need to focus on, in terms of trying to facilitate behaviour change.

I also regularly conduct intervention directly with the child or teenager, aimed at helping them to understand why they engage in the behaviours they do, and how they could learn other behaviours that work better for them. This intervention may be targeted at the conditions, contextual factors or disorders that are impacting the child’s behaviour (eg bullying, peer issues, ASD, Anxiety).

Most importantly, I teach YOU how to be able to use FBA to work out what is happening with problem behaviours, why they are not changing, and what you can do about facilitating change. Feel free to make an appointment with me so we can work out why standard or program behaviour management approaches – such as rewards charts and time out – have not worked in changing your child’s problem behaviour, and design an individually tailored behaviour modification plan that meets your child’s needs.

Adam BearAuthor: Adam Bear, B Sc, B Sc (Hons App Psych), MAPS.

Brisbane Psychologist Adam Bear has over 20 years’ experience working with families, where the parents are frustrated because they have found discipline doesn’t work with their child or teenager. Adam’s warm, non-judgmental and relaxed, approachable style, allows him to form trusting and real therapeutic connections with young and older people alike. He is the Director of Extreme Behaviour Mechanics.

To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Adam Bear, you can try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.