As a BCBA and a mom of five kids, I know too well that using ABA in real life every day situations is important, helpful, exciting, and HARD! In this post I’ll tell you about a holiday-related tantrum that maybe could have been prevented, but maybe it’s okay that it happened, too.
The Setting Event, Antecedent and Behavior
A couple of weeks ago, my three older kids wanted to “Boo” one of their neighborhood friends. If you aren’t familiar with “Boo-ing,” the process involves putting together a little bag of treats, writing an anonymous note that says “You’ve been booed,” leaving the package on the neighbor’s front step, ringing the bell, and running away. My 2-year-old twins got caught up in the excitement of the plan and they eagerly helped to pick out the treats and sneak up on the neighbor’s house–to the extent that five giddy children can sneak. When they got back from the excursion, one of my twins said, “Halloween was fun. I do Halloween again?” He was confused and not happy to hear that a) that wasn’t Halloween and b) we did not have time (and Mommy did not have the energy) to “Boo” anyone else that day. His disappointment unfolded in a tearful tantrum that eventually faded when we talked a bit more about his Buzz Lightyear Costume, trick-or-treating soon, and his noisy distracting siblings got back to the house. If you’re keeping track of the ABC’s here, the consequence was that he could not have what he wanted, I gave him some attention, and I presented alternatives to what he wanted right then.
I’ve experienced holidays, vacations, and special events with my kids for almost ten years now. Leading up to those events, I use some ABA strategies to manage their expectations, to help them anticipate what those special or different days will look like, and to help them process big emotions like excitement, disappointment, even sadness when the special time ends. With the older children, I give firm guidelines on costumes and what we will and won’t do for house decorations, for example. We explain family rules about gifts and manners. We pick dates and stick with them for important events that go along with the holiday (if I promise the kids can help me make pies for Thanksgiving, I have to follow through!) No matter how hard I try, though, something unexpected always arises to remind me that I never have it all figured out! In our Boo-ing scenario, I didn’t know that my little guy would think that was Halloween. He didn’t know that Boo-ing the neighbor was a spontaneous (and mildly inconvenient) plan. His confusion and disappointment made sense, and his resulting crying and demanding a repeat of Boo-ing were his way of communicating his confusion and disappointment. As a BCBA, maybe next year I’ll add Boo-ing (once, to one neighbor, on a weekend afternoon) to our plan for Halloween. Maybe I could use a first-then explanation or visual to help the twins understand that Boo-ing will end and we will move on to the next thing. I might not have prevented the tantrum this time, but I have more information to do better next time.
As a mom, I wish it didn’t happen. First, I was trying to make dinner, get homework started, and prepare to get out the door to an activity. I already had been flexible by allowing the kids to Boo someone (which required me to open our Halloween candy, find a gift bag, get everyone’s jackets on…) and now I needed and wanted to spend time comforting and explaining to the two-year-old that there was still more Halloween to come, just not that day. Also, it breaks my heart a little bit any time one of my kids thinks one thing is going to happen but the reality is different from that expectation. If I had just said no to Boo-ing in the first place, none of the negative outcomes would have happened, and it crossed my mind that I should have just put a stop to it and asked everyone to do homework instead. Or (and yes, this is how I think sometimes), if I were a better mom, I would have carefully planned out five different neighbors to Boo, one for each of my children, and we would have hand-crafted cute “You’ve Been Booed” notes, decorated the bags, and delivered each spooky package with delighted tiptoeing and sneaking away. Next time, saying no, or saying “We’ll do it later” to the big kids might have been the better plan.
What Did I Learn?
From a BCBA perspective and from a mom perspective, there are plenty of things I could have done differently that might have helped us avoid the Boo-ing tantrum. On the other hand, despite the inconvenience and minor heartbreak, there were plenty of positive outcomes! My two-year-olds were part of a new, fun, silly experience with their siblings. I practiced flexibility and my older kids practiced patience with their baby brothers. I added to my running list of Things to Explain More Thoroughly to Toddlers. And my disappointed toddler learned that sometimes he will not always get exactly what he wants when he wants it; that’s hard; but he’ll be okay AND something fun will come at another time.
At this time of year, you probably are going to be faced with many opportunities to do something fun, exciting, and different. It’s very possible that some of those choices aren’t right or safe for your family or your child, and you wisely will opt out. You also might choose or even have to take part in certain unplanned or unavoidable activities or events, and you will do your best to strategize so that everything goes smoothly and your child or children feel well-supported. And sometimes everything will go smoothly! At other times, there will be unpredictable disruptions or responses to the plan, and suddenly you and your child feel thrown off, frustrated, and upset. Try not to let that possibility deter you from trying. It’s okay for us to grow as a result of the less pleasant outcomes. Often the negative is accompanied by something, positive, too, something to build upon for next time. All of this aligns with ABA in real life–we make plans and we prepare, we do our best with the tools and experience we have, and then we make adjustments as needed. Always, though, be kind to yourself–we are all just learning along the way.