Changing the Course of Automatic Behavior

Jul 08, 2011

The idea of correcting automatic behavior has become a brand new theme for me.  I’ve been applying it in my personal life, applying it to my parenting, and now helping others see and break their ongoing patterns serving as barriers to attaining goals.

I had half of today to apply some of my lessons learned while communicating with my 7-year-old son. His teacher pulled me aside to discuss some recent less-than-satisfactory behavior at school. It all pretty much has to do with how he socializes with other kids in the class, particular the boy who sits next to him.

This happened before, and my (and his father’s) automatic response was to discuss the matter at length with him (i.e tell him what we think he should be doing differently), and then think of an appropriate punishment, so that he’d know where our boundaries lie. Hmm, not so sure that worked for the long term!

This time, I had him to myself all afternoon, and decided to not even broach the subject of punishment. Instead we talked about what automatic behavior is, and what he notices about his own moments of “acting without thinking.” He acknowledged that he didn’t feel good about his physical reactions at school lately, and he clearly felt bad that he disappointed his teacher and me.

So the big question of course is what to DO about it?

It hit me that this was an excellent opportunity to do some modeling for him. I explained that in the past during similar moments (e.g. witnessing him engage in physical aggression with his younger sister) my automatic behavior was to feel not only disappointment but also anger. I told him that the first reaction is o.k. and natural, but the second one isn’t exactly the appropriate response in this situation (one could argue in any situation, of course). So today, I told him I was making a clear choice – to stay really calm and focus on helping him, rather than punishing him. I was redirecting my “behind-the-scenes” thinking away from whatever it is that makes me feel extreme disappointment and anger, and guiding my thoughts along NEW convictions, e.g. “punishment isn’t always the answer; he needs my help more than anything right now.”

His eyes lit up from understanding, I think, and not just relief from not having his Pokemon cards being taken away. He wasn’t sure what his own “behind-the-scenes” thinking was that led him to engage in physical aggression as an automatic reaction to his deskmate’s behavior. But we did talk about replacing them with new ideas, like “I have a choice to stay in control now.” “Use words before anything else.” “Ignoring can help me through this and probably even halt his annoying behavior.” “I do not want to be thought of as a bully.”

Who knows if any of these will work or stick. But I’m fairly certain that talking with my son about how we ALL have some less-than-desirable automatic behavior was helpful. I’m sure that discussing what it means and how to go about correcting it was helpful and more effective than any punishment without learning principles. My hope of course is to provide him with life-long skills that will help him correct his own less than desirable automatic behavior.


Cara Crisler
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