Mailbag questions sometimes come in waves around here, and recently I’ve gotten a slew of them on the same topic: How to get your kid to stop a certain entrenched behavior. Hitting, fighting, throwing tantrums, refusing to go to school in the morning, and screaming . . . MANY of you are wondering about screaming, especially in the car.

It’s maddening, I know. Your buttons are being pushed. It seems impossible to manage because of how emotionally charged the situation already is. And if you’re in the car, what are you supposed to do? Stop the car and have it out every time? Get ear plugs and just hope he’ll grow out of it?

Well, I do have some ideas for you, that have worked for us.

It’s basically behavior modification, right? Your kid has a habit, a way he’s become used to reacting in a particular situation. In the moment, it’s not really a mindful thing he’s doing. He just does it. He’s mad, so he hits. She’s worried, so she throws a fit. They’re happy or sad or angry or excited or hungry or Tuesday so they scream and scream and SCREAM.

The details will vary significantly depending on the age of the child, but my basic technique is:

1. I call attention to the behavior (privately if possible) and explain why it’s not appropriate.
2. I give them a warning and let them know what the consequence will be if they do it again.
3. I follow through with my threat if necessary. 

So, to a screaming one and a half year old, I’d say: “No, no screaming. Please use words or ask for help. If you scream again you will go sit in your crib.” 

Then EVERY TIME she screams, I follow through and put her in her crib. After all, Cryin’ Babies Go to Bed.

To a sassy middle schooler year old, I’d say: “That tone of voice is rude and it’s not an acceptable way to speak to your mother. If you speak to me in that tone again, you’ll have to go sit in your room/write an essay on the 4th commandment/scrub out the trash cans/etc.”

Standard Always Mean What You Say-type stuff. Age appropriate expectations, consistent application of consequences. Calm but firm. It works really well.

Except when it doesn’t. What if you didn’t start always meaning what you say until kinda recently and the kids aren’t quite sold on it? What if you’ve tried giving them consequences but it seems like it’s still happening all the time? Or the whole problem is that they’re not complying with punishments! What then?

Then, it’s time to pull out the big guns. Or, rather, the bean jars.

We have had a lot of success with our Lenten Bean Jar and Straw for Baby Jesus during Advent. It’s a huge motivator for my kids. It’s a set time period, so they don’t get bored with it or forget about it.

I’ve had success using the same technique to change a particular habit over a set period of time in a particular kid, or in all of them at once.

They key aspects are:

1.  To really call attention to the particular habit (or habits) you are trying to break, use the bean jar for those behaviors ONLY. Kids being kids, they’ll do other things wrong (and right), but the bean jar is just for that habit.
2. Start by taking away beans for bad behavior. Eventually switch over to rewarding beans for good behavior.
3. Keep the bean jar system in use for a finite amount of time.

Here are a few individual situations, from the mailbag.

How to get your kid to stop . . . hitting and screaming and refusing punishments.

Question:

My three year old’s very first reaction to
something he doesn’t like or to something that makes him upset is to
hit. Like, a millisecond after I tell him no, he is hitting. I have
tried just calmly taking him to his room and telling him he can come out
when he is ready to apologize and be gentle, but more often than not he
runs out right away, before he is calm. Basically, unlike with my 1
year old there is nowhere I can put him where he will actually stay long
enough to calm down. He also screams at the top of his lungs when he is
angry, and nothing will stop him. Not crying, just screaming. We are
always talking to him about gentle hands, being kind and using our
words, and not hitting, or screaming, but I don’t know what to do to
actually get rid of this behavior. He is a very sweet boy, super
loving…but I can’t be a punching bag for when he’s mad.

Answer:

I was JUST talking about this with some friends
today. Everyone warns you about two year olds, but it’s THREE year olds
that are hardest for me. Two year olds are just looking for boundaries.
You give them the boundaries, everything is cool. But three year olds
are ALL super emotional. Which is hard. And it sounds like your little
guy has particularly wild emotions. And that’s harder.

But since your issue is behavioral AND emotional, it’s not enough to just wait it out until he’s four or five.

I really recommend a book called How to Really Love your Angry Child.
It looks like it’s out of print and therefore expensive. I’d still try
to find it, maybe used, maybe at the library? I would send you my copy,
but I must have lent it out to someone else, because it’s not on my
shelf. It’s a great resource for understanding how things escalate with
this kind of kid. (I have two of this kind of kid.)

But,
practically, you need to get him to believe that you mean what you say,
without it escalating too badly. I would try sitting him down at a time
when he is calm and saying: We are going to work on three things, 1. not
hitting, 2. not screaming, 3. staying in your room when mommy sends you
to your room.

To modify his behavior, I would try a bean jar system.
I’d start with a number of beans in a jar that’s a little less than the
number of times he hits/screams/runs for it each day. So, ten, twenty,
whatever. Then, each time he does one of those three behaviors, a bean
goes from the good jar to the naughty jar. He should see you calmly move
the bean over, ONLY for these three infractions, not other misbehaviors
not on the list. You tie an immediate, daily reward to the jar system.
If there is ONE bean left at the end of the day he gets dessert or an
hour of screen time or whatever would motivate him. If no beans are
left, he doesn’t get the reward. Either way, after whenever the prize
would be given, (in the afternoon for screens, or after dinner for a
treat, or whatever you choose) all the beans go back in the good jar and
it starts over for the next day. Each time he gets the reward, I would
put one less bean back in the good jar. Then, ideally, you’ll get down
to maybe only two or three beans.

THEN, I’d try to figure
out how to switch it from bad behavior moving the beans, to good
behavior moving the beans. And HE gets to be the one to move them. Maybe
something like every hour that he doesn’t break one of the three rules,
he gets to put a bean in the good jar, and once he fills up the jar
there’s a big reward, like going to the movies or Chuck E Cheese or
getting a new toy he wants. Then, ideally, the bad habits are broken and
he’s more in control of his emotions, and the bean system can be
retired.

I hope it would work. We’ve had a lot of success short term with the bean jar. It’s really motivational for my kids.

How to get your kids to stop . . . fighting at mealtimes.

Question:

We decided when our oldest child was 2, that family meals were a
big deal in our family culture. It’s the only meal of the day that our
entire family shares and we enjoy talking about our days and catching
up. We explained the rules, we’ve applied them consistently, older kids
modeled good behavior, and behavior expectations are age appropriate.
Basically, everyone has to sit, everyone gets a chance to share, you may
choose to eat or not but you must drink you milk and sit quietly. 
I’m
not entirely sure what happened, but this summer things have completely
spiraled out of control. My husband and I spend the entire dinner
telling children to get back in their chairs, sit on their bottoms,
stop kicking people, stop shouting, stop fighting etc. I tried sending
them to eat by themselves in the kitchen as a punishment, but we ended
up with enough kids in there that is was more of a party. We sent kids
to their rooms and to bed. We even tried having a family meeting on the
topic. Of late, dinner has devolved into a shouting grudge match that makes us all sad.

Answer:

Ugh. That sounds really frustrating. And you’ve already tried all my go to stuff!

First,
I’d say that for us, family meals are always a work in progress. There
are always going to be set backs and frustrations. There will be
bickering over seats, and spilled milk, and elbows on the table. No
matter how much we try to prevent it. And we try REALLY hard. But, it’s
important enough to us and to our family culture that we’re willing to
keep at it. We’re willing to endure the frustrations because there are
also joys: family togetherness, conversation, shared jokes, a general
understanding of table manners, etc.

I’ve never yet been
able to find the concoction of rules that makes dinnertime perfect, it’s
just still worth doing even if it’s not perfect.

But it sounds like your dinners have devolved to the point where they’re not liveable.

Since
you’ve already tried stuff that usually works well in these situations,
like removing kids from the table, sending them to bed, and having a
family meeting . . . we’re down to the bottom of my bag of tricks, which
is always: the bean jar. It’s what we do during Lent (and in Advent
with straw for baby Jesus). My kids find it very motivational, and I
think it works well over a short period of time to snap kids out of
particular bad habits by bringing attention to them.

I’d make a list in writing of rules and expectations for family dinner
behavior, and put it in the middle of the table along with two jars,
one empty, and one with thirty (or whatever the correct number would be)
beans, or buttons, or nails, or paper clips or whatever. I’d say that
for the next two weeks, or month (or whatever period of time you think
is best) we’re going to work on table manners, and pleasant family dinners. Transgressions against the list means you move a bean to the other jar. At the end of dinner,
you count up the good beans left. For the first three days, 15 beans
left gets the whole family a reward, like dessert or screentime or
family game night. Each three days after that five more beans are
required to get the reward, until you get up to 25. I wouldn’t expect
perfection.

You can customize it, of course, starting with
more or fewer beans, allowing good behaviors to move beans back to the
starting jar, etc.

Having a family goal, and a reward to
work towards, just for a set amount of time hopefully will help. Then,
ideally, long term, you can get back to pleasant family dinners without a crutch or rewards.

Follow-up Question:

I just wanted to check in and let you know the bean jar is
going great! We’ve had dessert 3 nights this week- including last night
when I decreased the number of beans allowed.

Any tips for how long we should continue with the beans and/or how to move away from using them?

Thanks again, I can’t tell you how this small gesture has improved the atmosphere of our meals and the rest of the evening.

Follow-up Answer:

I’m so glad to hear it!

I would probably pick an upcoming feast day and have a little family party that day, and be done with the bean jar.
I’d also announce that any slipping back into old habits will be
rewarded with opportunities to write essays, or copy lines out of an
inspirational book. I like this one: George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation

How to get your kid to stop . . . screaming in the car.

Question:

How would you handle a three year old who screams in the car, all the time? I’ve tried stopping the car and telling her we can’t go until she stops, but then she just does it again later.

Answer:

That’s tough. Tough because she’s three, which is very emotional and
screamy to begin with, and because you’re stuck in the car and
disciplining is hard in the car. I might try a behavior modification system, like the bean jar we do during Lent. But JUST for screaming in the car. I’d explain that screaming in the car is not
allowed, and we are going to really focus on remembering not to scream
in the car. So I’d have one jar with beans in it (or beads or whatever)
about one bean per screaming incident per day, and one empty jar. Then
every time she screams in the car, you move one bean from the good jar to the naughty jar. Calmly, making she she can see it. But not crashing the car.

Maybe
you could make a ribbon to stretch between the seats or the sun visors
or something, so you could slide a bead from the good side to the
naughty side? And not be fumbling with jars? 
Say
she usually screams five times a day, if all five beads get moved, then
she doesn’t get a reward at the end of the day. But if there’s even one
bead left, she gets dessert after dinner, or screen time, or a single
m&m, or whatever is going to be motivational.
If
that’s working, after a week or two, you move to a positive reward
system, where every time you have a car ride where she does NOT scream,
SHE gets to move a bead over, then once MANY beads are moved over (twenty or thirty or fifty) she gets a BIG reward, like a trip to the movies or a toy she wants.
THEN, hopefully you can be done with it, and can get away with just
verbal reminders. 

How to get your kid to stop . . . refusing homeschool.

Question:

We have started the homeschooling year and let’s just say that it looks
different than I expected and I have been forced to adjust my
expectations to meet my five year old where he is at. Its going okay, but he is
SO stubborn. He seems lazy and unmotivated (I am hoping it’s just
perception!) and really only wants to play and go out and do things (like museums, parks, beach, etc.) or watch a show/video games. He wakes
up wanting to know what we are doing today and wants to know the plan
for the next day. It can be exhausting. Our school time is very short and
I don’t think it is too much to ask for him to be able to sit and do
15-20 minutes worth of work before he can do something “fun”. Have you ever
had a kid that has to be incentivized at every turn? If I want him to
sit and listen to me read/practice handwriting/numbers he needs to have
the “carrot dangling in front of him” so to speak…. Is this normal to be
so externally motivated? Is it okay to have rewards for everything? Its
so frustrating!

Answer:

Oh yes, I have experience with it! I have a kid who is always wanting to know what’s in it for him before he’ll do anything. Part of me thinks, “Well, humans mostly require external motivation to do things they don’t want to do. My husband wouldn’t go to work if they didn’t pay him to do it.” But on the other hand, “Good gracious, child! I don’t have to reward you for every little thing. Your REWARD is not being an idiot. You’re welcome.”

The thing that ended up working well for us was having very clear expectations. Eventually we got to the point where I had exact rules for daily school expectations printed out, framed, and sitting on his desk in front of him. (I called it The System.) I also had our weekly calendar out, in writing on the kitchen counter. That way, he was less inclined to feel that things were unfair, or to come up with things he wanted to do, then be furious when it turned out that was never a possibility.

If he met his expectations for the day, AND we didn’t have other family obligations, I did reward him with screen time. It was something he could count on, if he held up his end of the bargain, and it gave me a daily something with which to threaten him. And I required, not JUST that the work be accomplished, but that it be accomplished with a good attitude.

So, 1. clear, age-appropriate expectations for his behavior and what he needs to get done. 2. access to the weekly schedule and an understanding of when he’ll have to/get to do what (with the understanding that sometimes plans change). 3. consistent rewards that he can earn by accomplishment AND attitude.

I would think that 30-45 minutes or so of direct instruction per day, plus a little activity or project is the most most boys can handle. I would probably offer 30 minutes of screen time for a GOOD 45 minutes to a hour of school work. If you need something tangible, you could do a bean jar system, where he’s got 30 beans in there for 30 minutes of screen time and any infraction against The System gets one bean moved to the naughty jar. When school’s done, however many beans are left in the good jar, that’s how many minutes of screen time he gets that day.

Sooo . . . many different issues, one potential solution: The Bean Jar. I hope it works for you!


Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)
If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching,
please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an
expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of
experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in
marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you’ve got a question,
please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me
know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the
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