This blog is my place to vent and share resources with other parents of children of trauma. I try to be open and honest about my feelings in order to help others know they are not alone. Therapeutic parenting of adopted teenagers with RAD and other severe mental illnesses and issues (plus "neurotypical" teens) , is not easy, and there are time when I say what I feel... at the moment. We're all human!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Reward or point systems and "age-appropriate" expectations

STICKER CHARTS DON'T WORK WITH OUR KIDS!!




Excerpts from my new favorite book Can This Child Be Saved - Solutions for Adoptive and Foster Families by Foster W. Cline and Cathy Helding.

I love that this book takes all sorts of different discipline techniques, explains them and then tells you how they work (or don't) with kids of trauma.  Here's an example of their assessment of how the reward and point system aka star charts and level systems do/don't work with our kids:

Reward and Point Systems


"Many disturbed children have not learned to take satisfaction from their own accomplishments, or have no internalized values, a reward system can help them develop both.  Provided, that is, that the rewards are something they care to work for."

Advantages:
  • A reward program forces consistency.
  • A well thought-out program forces parents to be logical and consequential, and encourages non-emotional responses to the children's misbehavior.  Rather than becoming angry about a job being forgotten, a parent {gets to} becomes empathetic and understanding:  "What a bummer!  I know you were looking forward to going skiing with us this weekend.  But if this job gets done this weekend, we'll sure enjoy your company next weekend."
  • Reward systems encourage parents to be consistent.
  • Reward systems are generally concrete and immediate, and many children {like mine!} have a difficult time conceptualizing long-term and abstract goals.  Most disturbed children have a hard time understanding statements like "grades are important so you can grow up to be a productive person."
  • When children are encouraged to help design the reward system, they take ownership and are more likely to become invested in doing well.
Disadvantages: 
  • Cause and Effect - Many of our children have limited ability to connect cause and effect.  A point system that requires saving up for a reward will be meaningless to them.
  • Capable of Reaching the Next Level - These systems are usually designed for neurotypical children capable of achieving and handling higher levels. It is a punishment and constant reminder of failure to children incapable of achieving or handling higher levels long-term.
    {We succumbed to the pressure from school, psych hospitals and skills trainers and made a level system for Kitty.  But quickly discovered that it wasn't working, and she wasn't capable of achieving higher levels and it was downright cruel to dangle the higher level privileges over her head.}
  • Parents cannot make the child buy into the system.
  • Dysregulated children cannot control themselves consistently.  Reward/ point systems require higher level thought and decision making skills (if I do this, then I will lose the level/privileges I've earned). When in fight/ flight/ freeze mode the thinking part of the brain is not functioning - life or death survival kicks in.
  • Some children become extremely adept at manipulating this kind of system.
    {Bear did GREAT at level systems in residential treatment centers (where he was usually very regulated due to the extreme structure and low expectations).  When he wanted something, he would weigh it against the advantage of being at a higher level.  Lower levels were not really punishments for him - he'd been through MUCH worse.}  
  • The system depends on a certain amount of motivation on the child's part.
    {Many of our children don't feel they deserve the rewards. They truly believe they are unlovable and unworthy of any rewards. They will self-sabotage to prove this point and protect themselves. They know they "can't" do it, so this way they get to control the outcome.}
  • Some disturbed children will sabotage themselves by never allowing themselves to achieve the reward.  They may come very close, then deliberately, or subconsciously blow it.
    {I have a friend whose private school allowed children who'd achieved a certain level to go on a field trip to Washington DC - 7th graders!  This child of trauma would never have been able to emotionally handle the trip (I don't know many 7th graders who could!), but wasn't able to let her teachers know this, so she simply sabotaged herself. Unfortunately for the child, the teachers kept giving her second chances so she wouldn't lose out on the trip!  As she escalated her behaviors in a desperate attempt to get out of this situation she couldn't handle, her mother finally had to step in and forbid the trip.}
  • It is a lot of work for parents.  Parents must keep track of the points, monitor the children's performance, follow up, and so on.
  • This system is used most successfully in institutions where the children have constant supervision and consistency and can't opt out of the program during part of the day.  They do not leave to attend school, etc.  Everyone they are involved with is also involved with the point system.  This is not true {or possible} in most home situations, which can make this kind of system less effective there. Why does my child act differently away from home?
  • The children may become dependent on the system Some children never seem to internalize the controls they need to manage their behavior without earning rewards or points.
    {The system only works when it is in place and actively enforced by an outside source. Progress made while under this structure immediately disappears when the structure is removed.}
  • "Blank Slate." Well-designed point systems never allow children to dig themselves into a hole so deep they cannot climb out.  A child who has just stabbed a hole in a sofa, and cursed at the parents will be docked 50,000 points for the damage and bad language.  If he follows his bad behavior by sitting down calmly on that same sofa, he will immediately be awarded 15,000 points for regaining control.  "Hey, you've just earned back 15,000 points.  You'll be out of the hole in no time."
    {Bear's favorite part of these systems was the "blank slate" you got each day.  No one held previous issues against you.  You could ALWAYS earn your way up to the next level.  Even if you couldn't handle that level of freedom and did something awful last time.}
  • Not Attachment, Family or Therapeutic focused. Focused more on the individual child and their goals. Have you earned this privilege? Should the rest of the family not get to go somewhere fun because this one child hasn't earned it? If a child is always in trouble or on too low a level to get to do anything fun, where does attachment come in? Who wants to attach to a warden.
  • No Logical Consequences Most systems have built in consequences and privileges that are not based on what's going on. If a child has earned enough stickers to get a treat, but just smacked the hell out of a sibling, do they still get their reward? 
  • Why Bother? If you think you can't achieve it anyway, because you're a "worthless loser" or you lose your rewards because of impulsive behaviors that are not necessarily something you have consistent control over, then what's the motivation to keep trying?

I thought I'd written a post on my decision to throw out the level system and expectations that Kitty can ever be expected to be treated like a 17yo, but apparently I hadn't.  We had a long discussion with Kitty about being emotionally 6 (still ticks her off to hear that), and that it wasn't fair to expect her to be able to handle certain things and we felt it was cruel to dangle higher level privileges she couldn't achieve over her head.  So therefore I was going to stop "punishing" her for not being able to do things she wasn't ready for yet.  This wasn't a punishment and it would have a lot of rewards.

So now I have "age appropriate" expectations for her, and she is doing better.  Every now and then she'll want something her siblings have (like any younger sibling would!) and we gently explain she's not ready for that.  She doesn't like it, but it is what it is.  

  • She has fewer chores and they are very simple and concrete.  
  • She does the same chores every day instead of rotating like the other kids.  
  • She gets to go places even if she'd had a fit recently, because I don't hold her accountable for her behavior like I would a teen.  
  • If I go places like the grocery store I take her with me.  Period.  The other kids frequently have the option to go, but you don't leave a 6 year old at home alone.
  • She can have "playdates," but they are well supervised.  

It has helped ME immensely.  I'm less frustrated by her inability to do things that would be "normal" for a teen.  I do have to constantly remind myself "She's only 6!  She's only 6!  She's only 6!"

A couple of months ago, Hubby gave Ponito his old phone, which has internet access, so we decided to give Kitty Ponito's old iPod.  I debated long and hard because it has texting and internet access.  I didn't think she was ready.  

I was right.

Now we have to decide how to fix it.  But I'll leave that for another post.  (REMIND ME IF I FORGET!)


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