The Four C’s for Discipline of Kids with Executive Dysfunction

A big thank you to those of you asking questions on the blog. You guys have some good ones. I’ll need to do some thinking and researching tonight to answer them tomorrow!

Today’s article focuses on discipline strategies for kids who have executive deficits. It is important to remember that discipline is a teaching tool and not simply punishment for punishment’s sake.  Any time your child misbehaves or misperceives is an opportunity to teach new skills and understanding of the bigger picture.

Sometimes it is hard to tell what behaviors are part of your child’s disability and what behaviors are part of just being a kid trying to get your own way.  The truth is, it doesn’t matter why your child is acting out, what matters is that you teach him to behave differently and more appropriately. My rule of thumb is this:  If you would discipline a “typical” child for the same behavior, then you need to discipline your child with executive dysfunction.   What might be different is HOW you discipline a child with a neurodevelopmental difference.

Some parents struggle with this advice.  They say, “My child tries so hard to be good in school all day, he just needs to let off steam at home. He can’t help his tantrums, acting out, lying, rude comments, biting, taking toys.”  If that is your opinion, your child is very lucky to have you as a parent. However, allowing inappropriate behavior at home or in the community does your child no favors. Why?  The rest of the world will not cut him a break.  His disability is mostly invisible. People who do not know him will not immediately guess he has a developmental difference, so they will expect appropriate behavior.

I gave this example to one family whose son with Asperger’s could be very rude and explosive to those in authority: If your child does not learn to manage his explosions to adults, what is going to happen if one day he is driving to work and a police officer pulls him over for a broken tail light on his car? Will he have the skills to manage this situation, or is he going to yell, scream and threaten the police?”  We can imagine what might happen if a young person began to mouth off at a police officer.  The outcome would not be good.  There is not “I can’t help it” excuse when it comes to the law.

If you want your child to be functional and included in the “real world,” he has to have real coping skills and know how to behave appropriately. We teach this through discipline.

The first step to developing your discipline strategy is to decide what actions, behaviors, or comments you are going to discipline for. Kids with neurodevelopmental differences often have behaviors that can be annoying (such as repetitive behaviors, disorganization, difficulty following directions), but these may not be discipline-worthy. Discipline should focus on those things that you would consider necessary life skills that can impact relationships, safety, and legal outcomes.  Examples are, blatant rudeness, using threatening words or phrases, any physical acting out, lying.

Next, discipline needs to be clear, consicise, consistent, and calm (the 4 C’s of discipline).

Clear consequences are necessary so your child knows that the behavior is unacceptable.  Consequences should be closely related to the poor behavior in terms of time and outcome. For example, a consequence of no TV tomorrow for poor behavior today will have no meaning.  The consequence should be immediate and have meaning.

Concise discipline is straightforward, simple and has a beginning and an end. Children who do not process information quickly or efficiently will not understand complex consequences or a verbal lecture.  When you go on and on about your child’s transgressions they tune you out, or don’t understand you.  Just this week a 13 year old client of mine said to me, “Mom and Dad were talking and I was there, but I wasn’t listening.” The poor parents thought they were getting through to  her!  Keep discipline short and sweet.

Always be consistent with discipline. It will never be effective if one day you consequence a behavior and the next day you don’t. Also, when you give a consequence, such as taking away a phone, toy, or access to a car don’t give your child “exceptions.”  For example I once worked with a family who would discipline by limiting  their daughter’s access to the family car, but then would make the “exception” that she could run errands for them around town.  Then they would wonder why she kept repeating poor behavior. Well, she never felt any consequence because she had access to the car!

Finally, effective discipline is given in a calm, controlled manner.  I know this is hard, but if you are overly emotional, yelling, lecturing, ranting and raving while giving discipline your child will feel resentful and less likely to accept consequences. You also have very little credibility  if you can’t manage your emotions, but are asking your child to manage his.

Disciplining a child with executive dysfunction does not need to be complex or overwhelming. It does require a little advanced planning and the fortitude to stay consistent and calm.  But a good discipline plan that is Clear, Concise, Consistent and Calm will help your child learn new behaviors and manage his emotions.