Poo poo! Pee pee! Poo poo! Pee pee!
If you ask your kid one more time what he wants to drink with dinner and he replies “poo poo pee pee,” are you going to lose your mind?
Before having kids, would you have guessed this type of behavior could unravel you?
Poo poo! Pee pee! Poo poo! Pee pee!
What’s this all about anyway? More importantly, what can we do about it? Let’s decode some of this craziness and figure out how to clean it up.
It’s All About the Function
In the previous post in this series, we deconstructed the elements of a behavior: Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence. We gave particular attention to identifying patterns in the way children react to situations and environments, and the consequences of their behaviors.
Now we’re ready to address what we can do to change behavioral issues. First, we need to figure out: Why is my kid behaving this way?
It’s always one of two things:
- To GET something, or
- To AVOID something.
In the field of behavior, we have kind of a wonky name for the “why.” We call it the “function of the behavior,” or FOB for short. As in, the function of the behavior is to AVOID work. It’s what the child wants, or needs.
Determining the FOB for an undesired (or “target”) behavior is the first step in knowing how to address the behavior.
You know your kid better than anyone else. So you probably already know what types of things he or she is trying to GET or AVOID by engaging in undesired behaviors.
While reducing behavior to “GET” and “AVOID” may seem like an oversimplification, it’s often just that easy. (I’ll address more complex FOBs in a future post.)
Kids want to GET things, like…
- Attention/connection with you—this is BIG for little kids.
- Social contact with other kids or adults
- Stuff (toys, food, TV time, etc.)
- Sensory stimulation/input
Kids want to AVOID things, like…
- Attention (Remember what it’s like to not know the answer when your teacher is about to call on you?)
- Undesired tasks or situations
- Sensory stimulation/aversives (Some kids love loud noisy places; some kids hate them.)
- Social interaction
Notice that the GET and AVOID lists are pretty similar? It just depends on the kid, which is why Boss Parents (like you) are best equipped to solve the behavior puzzle.
Sure, there are always going to be tough and confusing behaviors. For instance, it can be difficult to identify the FOB for young children who bite. It could be to GET attention from an adult or peer. It could be to GET sensory input. It could be to GET control over emotions, or AVOID confusing emotions. Or it could be to AVOID having to use difficult sharing language.
So, again, it’s important to give dedicated consideration to establishing all possibilities regarding a behavioral issue. But generally we have a pretty good idea what our kids are trying to accomplish with certain behaviors.
Once we know, “My kid is only saying potty words to GET my attention,” or, “My kid is making the nighttime routine miserable to AVOID bedtime and GET more connection with me,” we can make our next move.
In my experience, most parents have an accurate gut feeling about the FOB but feel overwhelmed or noncommittal about what to do about it.
How to Choose What You Do About It
Once you’ve identified the function of a problem behavior, there are specific responses (aka consequences) that will encourage more appropriate behaviors.
A. If the FOB is to GET something (and it’s something that’s OK to have)…
then you can teach your child how to request the item (or attention) in a better way.
For it to work, your child must only gain access to the desired thing when she requests it appropriately. (You’ll likely have to cue them in the beginning.)
My daughter, for example, was in the habit of acting whiny and clingy in the evening, because I put her in front of the TV a few times to give myself some space to prepare dinner. Once I recognized I had unwittingly encouraged an undesired behavior with a rewarding consequence (screen time), I had to change the dynamic.
Because she started trying (consciously or unconsciously) to GET TV time by being difficult and underfoot, I established a rule that she must request TV time in a nice, big-girl way. It goes like this: “Mommy, may I watch Daniel Tiger? When dinner is ready, I will turn off the television without arguing.” We rehearse it.
That’s our language and those are our parameters. It works for both of us.
I could just skip the dog and pony show, switch on the TV and be free of the hassle. But kids inherently know how to transfer behaviors, and soon she’d be whining and clinging for every little thing.
With our rule, she knows if she asks nicely, most of the time the answer will be yes. This not only stops the problem behavior, it also reinforces the appropriate behavior. (We’ll discuss that more in an upcoming article about incentives.)
B. If the FOB is to GET something (and it’s something that’s NOT OK to have)…
then they must not have it. Period.
It’s OK to offer alternatives. But no is no.
For example, If I’ve told my daughter she must play by herself for a certain amount of time, I set a timer. And I don’t give her any attention until the timer rings.
If I have to intervene for safety reasons, I don’t make eye contact or react with emotion. I simply walk over, remove her from the dryer and plainly state: “We only play in safe places in this house.” No eye contact, no emotion.
She’s desperately trying to get attention and engagement. But what I desperately need is for her to entertain herself sometimes. So, I wait until the timer rings. Then I SHOWER her with positive attention.
“You are such a big girl! You played all by yourself! Now I’m done with my work and we can play together!”
Being able to create space is not just a matter of sanity, it’s also a matter of safety. I can’t have her following me up a ladder while I’m cleaning light fixtures. Kids have to understand boundaries.
(Of course, the expectations have to be realistic—especially when introducing a new skill to replace an old behavior. In a future post I’ll explain how to set and rehearse reasonable expectations with kids.)
C. If the FOB is to AVOID something (and it’s fine for them to avoid it)…
then, like the first example, you can teach your child an appropriate way to leave the situation, and allow them to do so only when they’ve demonstrated the request (a.k.a. behavior).
Locker rooms and bathrooms with sensor-flushing toilets can be a nightmare for kids with auditory sensitivities. Tile walls absorb nothing and amplify every slamming metal door and footstep. It is aggressively, painfully loud to some folks. So teach them that in situations like that they can say, “this is one of those too-loud places” or something similar and let them know that you will do everything in your power to make allowances for that. Change clothes at home before swimming. Keep a roll of masking tape with you to place over the sensor.
If you do what you can to help your child avoid an uncomfortable situation, you will be rewarded with gratitude and compliance. It’s true that sometimes it’s like, “hey, kid, this is life, you gotta learn how to deal with it.” There’s oh-so-much of that in their little lives. But sometimes we can meet a need for them, reward appropriate communication of that need, and make everyone’s life so much more peaceful. Do it, boss.
D. If the FOB is to AVOID something (and it’s NOT fine for them to avoid it—usually the case)…
then focus on teaching coping skills and offering choices that allow your child to have more control over the situation without avoiding.
Try to pinpoint the source of stress by asking how he or she feels during certain points of the activity. If your kid is trying to AVOID going to church, ask why.
If it’s because church is too loud, try earplugs. If she’s shy, practice giving smiles and high-fives to adults in lieu of involved, dictated conversations or hugs. (I’m not a fan of forcing physical affection, but more on that later.)
If she gets in trouble for not being quiet through the entire service, consider lowering the expectation a bit. Or have her practice asking for a break, and then give her one as soon as possible.
You also may consider offering incentives for coping with difficult situations.
It’s important to remember that kids are human, too. Sometimes they’re grouchy, sometimes they have anxiety, sometimes they feel more or less confident. We can respect their stressors even if (especially if) skipping an activity is not an option.
We all benefit from learning coping skills. Particularly when stressful situations like grocery store trips, sibling baseball games, or church activities will be part of our lives for years to come.
A Quick Note on Tantrums
Yes, they suck. But tantrums can do the teaching for you.
In an upcoming article in this series, I’ll give you advice for managing tantrums. But for now, try to think of a tantrum as an effective part of learning and integrating a boundary.
If you are consistent in upholding that boundary, it’s unlikely that massive tantrums will continue.
Kids are smart. If they throw an exhausting tantrum and fail to GET what they want, they’ll try something else next time. (Hopefully something more appropriate.)
Let’s Not Call It “Attention”
We’ve all heard it before: “She’s just doing that to get attention.”
It’s true that trying to GET attention is one of the most common FOBs for young children. But I try to use the word “connection” instead.
The phrase “She just wants attention” sounds negative and manipulative to me, and that’s not necessarily the case. My daughter wants “connection” with me. (In fact, studies show her brain is hardwired for it.) Thinking of it this way helps me to enjoy it while it lasts. Because she’ll be a teenager soon enough…
Besides, attention is an FOB we can’t win against. Kids are brilliant at getting the attention they need. If we try to deny it, they’ll find a way, and it probably won’t be pretty.
So we may as well find a routine of connection that works for everyone. My kid loves to be a “special helper” (and she’s actually starting to gain some skill at it!) If she’s occupying herself with books or coloring, I’ve actually set a timer to remind me to give her regular praise and connection for it.
Sometimes Our Best Isn’t Good Enough. And That’s OK.
If your son or daughter has numerous behavioral issues with many different functions, it can be really hard to identify and respond appropriately.
The GET or AVOID may be associated with sensory input that your kid doesn’t have the self-awareness or language to explain. Figuring it out takes thoughtful experimentation.
You won’t always get it right. But that’s ok. Keep at it.
Maya Angelou said: “When you know better, you do better.” If you make a mistake, chalk it up to a learning experience and move forward.
When dealing with particularly difficult students as a teacher, I always told myself: “Not the same mistake twice.” That was the best I could do sometimes.
But even if you do make the same mistake twice, just move on. Your child will “generously” offer you another chance to get it right! And I’ve got lots more information to offer that can help.
You Can GET Ahead of the Behavioral Issues
So let’s revisit the Poo poo! Pee pee! dinnertime.
The potty talk pushes your buttons and your kid knows it. Is the function of the behavior to GET attention? If so, I recommend in the short term you ignore these words completely to take away their power.
In the long term, you’ll have to find a way to give the attention that works for both of you.
Perhaps on the way home from school you could say, “Look, I know those potty words are funny to you, but they are not OK at our house. Let’s practice some different silly words we can say together at home tonight!”
Then your kid is getting silly connection from you (the best kind!). I guarantee that if you’re in it together, your kid will go there with you. Because that’s all they want. Your reaction. Your focus. Your undivided connection.
This strategy for getting ahead of behavioral issues is what we call “antecedent modification,” and there’s lot’s more to say about it in a future article. But for now, keep thinking about GET and AVOID.
GET those FOBs identified and AVOID frustrating behaviors. You can do it. And when you’re ready, check out the next article on how to incentivize appropriate behavior.
If any of this is confusing, leave me a comment. And if it’s helpful, please share it with other parents. Thanks!
About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents around the world with child behavior consulting.