If you ask parents what they want most for their children, you’ll often hear them say, “I just want him/her to be happy.” That’s a wonderful, heartfelt sentiment. The problem is, often people don’t fully understand what it means to be happy.
One popular misconception of happiness is that it’s a static state, both unchanging and unchallenging. But research shows that the opposite is true. Humans need new learning to thrive.
As Gretchen Rubin observed in her New York Times bestselling book The Happiness Project:
“To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”
An atmosphere of growth is essential to happiness, and it’s something that you can help to cultivate.
Here at FirstPath Autism, we understand that family support contributes mightily to a child’s success and happiness. That’s why we’re providing some Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy tips for you as parents.
TIP: Practice, practice, practice!
We can’t emphasize this enough: the work that you do with your child outside of school and therapy sessions is vital. As FirstPath Autism founder Romina Kiryakous says in our free Parent Training video:
“The [ABA] treatment cannot stop when professionals are in your home and school …. It’s got to go on. Weekends, evenings, constantly. [And] parents need to know how to reinforce a behavior accurately.”
For more on this topic, check out our blog post Why ABA reinforcement at home makes a huge difference.
TIP: Team up with your child’s ABA therapist.
On one hand, you are the expert on your child. You’re the one with the most intimate knowledge of his or her habits, preferences, and problems.
On the other hand, that closeness may make it more difficult for you to view his or her behaviors with objectivity.
That’s why it’s so important to seek outside help when you’re dealing with problematic behaviors. A clinician can give invaluable input into the behavior management process.
As we wrote in our blog post Tips for getting the most out of ABA therapy:
“Behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and myriad factors influence an individual’s actions at any given moment. That’s one reason why it’s helpful to work with an ABA specialist: they are trained to see connections and deduce the functions of behaviors.”
So be open to learning from your child’s therapist. We know that it’s easier said than done and it can be challenging to hear even the most well-intentioned feedback on your home life, routines, and behaviors.
But you can do these hard things, because your child needs you to do them. So when you feel yourself getting defensive and needing to prove your worth as a parent, take a breath and refocus on your child.
Know that you don’t have to be perfect; you just need to be willing to learn. You don’t need to have all the answers, either. You’re allowed to ask for help and guidance from others!
TIP: Model appropriate emotional regulation skills.
Many parents don’t have well-developed emotional self-management skills of their own, which makes it tough for them to teach their kids.
Such parents pay too much or too little attention to their children’s emotions. And in turn, this hinders the child’s development.
You’ve probably seen it happen. One parent overreacts to the point of panic if their child expresses a hint of sadness or anger, while another prohibits any emotional reaction at all.
That first parent overreacts to their child’s emotions because they themselves are afraid.
Rather than allowing their child to take ownership of feelings, the parent swoops in and tries to fix the negative emotions. As a result, the child misses important learning opportunities.
The second parent feels threatened by strong emotions, so they shun expression. They imply that it’s not appropriate to feel very much at all! And their children struggle to name and process “off-limits” emotions.
Neither style helps children to develop an appropriate understanding of the role that emotions play. Fortunately, there is another way.
TIP: Find a balance between ignoring emotion and letting it take over.
You can model healthy emotional engagement for your child. This means naming and acknowledging emotions, making space for processing feelings, and changing course where needed.
You treat your emotional responses with respect, but you don’t imbue them with too much meaning either. It’s a balance.
In his December 2015 Harvard Business Review article You Can’t Manage Emotions Without Knowing What They Really Are, Art Markman clarifies the role emotions play in our lives:
“Emotions provide valuable information about the state of your motivational system. Ignoring them is like driving around lost, not only refusing to ask for directions, but refusing to consult the map or the GPS, or even to look out the windshield. You will still be moving forward, but who knows where you will end up. Conversely, paying too much attention to your feelings is also bad. That’s like staring at your road atlas without ever turning on the car: you can’t get anywhere that way.”
In short, don’t ignore or overemphasize emotions, but rather, heed their wisdom as navigational guides … and teach your children to do the same.
TIP: Use therapy tools to aid in transitions.
We’ve discussed the importance of honoring emotions, but what does that look like in real time? What specific techniques should you try?
One simple but powerful principle is to anticipate strong emotions in times of change and transition. When a promised play date cancels or a beloved movie draws to a close, recognize that these change points may elicit strong emotional responses from your child.
We noted this in our blog post, 10 signs you need ABA therapy support:
“ … ABA therapy is a fantastic way to practice coping with uncertainty and change. Clinicians use visual schedules and auditory prompts to train children to anticipate transitions, and they teach practical strategies for how to navigate unexpected changes too.”
If you can identify a common “pressure point” in your child’s routine—say, making the transition from school to home—then you can work to improve it.
You might create a visual schedule to illustrate the routine, or identify ways to make it a little easier.
For example, rather than asking your child questions and interacting directly after school, you could designate ten minutes as decompression time, and then converse after that.
You could also include margin time between appointments for your child to engage in relaxing solo activities, such as reading or listening to music. Even small breaks can make a big difference in stress levels!