Dealing With Unacceptable Behavior

Discipline Issues with FASD-Affected Persons

Consistent discipline and structure are key because:

  • People with alcohol-related disabilities have trouble learning or following societal rules.
  • People with FASD generally cannot internalize morals, ethics or values (all of which are abstract and situational) like neurotypical (NT) individuals; therefore, they cannot modify their behavior to meet society’s expectations.
  • Some individuals with FASD are unable to learn from past experience, and they are bound to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Effective discipline delivered consistently and predictably may help break this pattern.
  • Learning to live with and abide by society’s rules, laws and expectations is a life-long process for people affected by maternal alcohol use. Teaching and discipline must start in early childhood and continue through adulthood. The process and need for structure never ends.
toddler and mom at lacma

Discipline Techniques with FASD-Affected Persons

A rule of thumb for parents and teachers is to “think younger” when someone with FASD seems unable to complete tasks or displays inappropriate behaviors.

  • Establish and maintain the same rules for everyone (in a household, a classroom, etc.). Consequences can be adapted or changed, but not the rules themselves.
  • Remember that no single discipline technique will work all the time with any person affected by FASD.
  •  If a technique is NOT working, don’t try harder. Change what you are doing. Redirect the individual’s inappropriate activity to something safer and/or more acceptable.
  • Devise a prearranged gesture or signal as an automatic intervention to help a child understand that they need to stop whatever he or she is doing.
  • Be consistent and pick techniques that YOU are able to follow through with.
  • Keep corrective instructions concrete. For example, instead of saying, “Clean up this mess!”, say, “”Please pick up the socks on the floor and put them into the hamper now.”
  • Discipline should be immediate, not delayed. For example, if an individual misbehaves on Tuesday, don’t take away a reward on Saturday. The FASD-affected person will have trouble making a connection between the behavior and the punishment in any case, and certainly won’t be able to relate a punishment delivered for a rule broken on Tuesday with an event planned for Saturday.
  • Make eye contact with the individual when you are giving directions to correct behavior
  • Use a calm voice. Many individuals with FASD will interpret discipline, even when the parent, teacher, or other authority figure uses a quiet tone of voice, as “yelling”, and will react in a defensive and upset manner. Staying calm is very important so the situation does not escalate.
  • Avoid threats. Be brief, not lecturing.
  • Never use physical discipline. People with FASD model what they experience.
  • Negative or inappropriate behavior may be a symptom of a physical unmet need (acting out).
  • Anticipate dangerous situations where the person with FASD could get into trouble; learn to recognize early signs of trouble, and always plan ahead.
  • Avoiding problem situations is always better than having to react to a bad situation. For example, if a child with FASD always becomes over-stimulated and violent when she attends large family gatherings, don’t put her in that kind of situation. Leave her home with a sitter, or make some other arrangement.Don’t debate rules or consequences.Constantly review and repeat consequences of behavior.Use visual reminders (such as a picture of a cigarette with a line through it, indicating “no smoking”), so everyone knows the rules.Don’t let sympathy interfere with discipline.Don’t use chronological age as a measurement of maturity. Monitor the friends, activities, and free time of the individual with FASD.Protect for as long as possible.

Don’t expect consequences to work effectively all the time. Consequences must be concrete and simple and must be applied immediately and consistently.

Even then, the individual may not learn, or may forget and make the same mistake again.

Discipline Strategies that Can Be Effective

Time-outs can work in some cases. However, this method could be disastrous if an individual responds by “trashing” the time-out area. If a person can’t be trusted alone, time-out must occur in a more public area. Also, don’t make the time period too long. Five minutes of time-out can be as effective (or more so) than 25 minutes.

Ignoring behavior can be effective,as long as the behavior is not injurious or damaging for the individual or others. Some negative behavior is for “effect” and if you don’t respond, the person behaving in a certain way may just stop.

In some circumstances, using a prearranged gesture or signal can intervene. This could be a touch, hand sign or other cue which helps an individual understand they need to change their behavior. Sometimes, individuals are simply unaware of their behavior and, if signal or cue is prearranged, meaningful and understood, they may be able to change what they are doing without further action.

Behavior can also be altered by redirecting activity, offering another option, etc. This can be very effective in breaking up patterns & intervening with problems. Don’t, however, offer too many choices. This can result in confusion or over-stimulation, poor decision-making & frustration, which can lead to more negative behavior.

Reward completion of tasks and good behaviors with a “token” system. Yes, this is bribery. But it can be effective. Determine with the individual (as appropriate) what the token/s will be and under what circumstances the token/s will be awarded. Keep in mind that the token or reward must be appropriate to the individual’s situation. For example, if the person has a problem separating fantasy from reality, an hour of playing the “Grand Theft Auto” video game would not be an appropriate “reward”.

Withdrawal of privileges can also work for some people. Just be sure that the privilege used is something the individual truly values, not something you value. In order for this method to work, the individual must really value or enjoy the item or activity being taken away.

About “Tough Love”

Don’t Use “Tough Love” with a child or teenager with FASD. It almost never works. This method assumes that the individual has the ability to make wise choices if the consequences are severe enough. The child with FASD has impaired judgment caused by organic brain damage that is permanent, and makes the same mistakes over and over, even when strict consequences are applied consistently.  The child’s ability to make a wise choice depends on how well his/her brain is functioning at the moment.

It is understanding the anxiety that has helped me. Trying to go back far enough in the day, or predicting into the future, to pinpoint what is causing their stress. Unfortunately, it took me a while to realize a certain pattern of behavior, the frustration, acting out, irritability, picking fights, before I learned to speak calmly to try to tease out what the real fear was behind the behaviors. Knowing what the stressor is can help me make (my son) aware of what he's feeling, and to try to help him learn coping strategies.
a mom