Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Anger-Control Contracts for Frustrated Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Would you say your child has frequent mood swings and an anger-management problem? If so, then read on…

As a parent of a child with Asperger’s (AS) or High Functioning Autism (HFA), it’s a very good idea to draw up a written contract detailing the things you want your child to practice in the course of his anger-management program. Drafting such a contract is a way of providing structure and support, which is crucial for children on the autism spectrum since they need and crave structure.

The items included in the contract should be written from the perspective of the child (i.e., phrased in the first person). For example, “When I get angry, I will stop what I’m doing and go get my favorite stuffed toy to hug” …rather than, “When Michael gets angry, he will stop what he’s doing and go get his favorite stuffed toy to hug.”

The details of the contract are important. You want to be very specific in describing:
  • The goals for the anger-control program (i.e., what you hope to accomplish)
  • What your child agrees to do in the service of those goals 
  • How and when your child will practice those things he has agreed to do

Do not include any obvious generalities as a program goal. For example (again, phrased from the child’s perspective), "I will stop over-reacting when my sister annoys me." Vague goals are impossible to measure and leave too much wiggle-room to compel real change. Instead of vague goals, describe specific situations that are upsetting to your child, and the specific behavioral techniques he will practice and use when confronted with those situations. For example, “I will take 10 deep breaths instead of hitting my sister.”

The contract you draw up should only cover a short span of time (1 to 3 days works best). Holding your child accountable over shorter periods of time will allow him to adapt to the contract as he learns to put anger-management techniques into practice. Shorter contract terms also help him to feel successful. You can reward your child upon successful completion of a short contract, feel good about that, and then create a new contract (also for a short time). Contrast this with a long contract where the child doesn’t get rewarded for weeks! Shorter contract terms and frequent small rewards for success make for the best, most effective contracts.

Examples of items to include in your child’s anger-control contract:

1. Timeouts: Have your child agree that he will take a temporary break (i.e., timeout) when confronted with angering situations, whenever this is possible to do. Taking the opportunity to step away from an angering situation will give him the space and time he needs to calm and gather himself, and to evaluate the situation from a more cool-minded perspective. He can return to the situation when he is done with his time-out. Often, a few minutes of “alone-time” can help AS and HFA children to better handle stressful situations.

2. Examining Angry Thoughts: The first thoughts that come into your AS or HFA child’s mind when he is angry are likely to be judgmental and based on incomplete information. If he simply reacts to these incomplete impressions, he will end up attacking the people he is upset with. Instead of just “going off,” have your child agree that he will carefully look at each circumstance that provokes his anger. The best time to do this is during the time-out that he should take before his anger gets out of control. Help your child learn to recognize the types of situations that trigger him, and the types of characteristic angry thoughts that tend to occur to him when he is faced with those triggers. He can take a timeout to decide whether or not reacting in anger will be his best choice. Help your child to retrain himself to think about provocative situations that would otherwise be guided by his automatic (and frequently wrong-headed) emotional reactions.

3. Listening Skills: Becoming a skillful active listener will improve your child’s communication abilities, thereby expanding his options for getting what he wants from other people. Thus, consider add a “listening skills” item to the contract, such as “I will stop what I’m doing and listen to my mother when she says she has something important to tell me.”

4. Relaxation Exercises: Have your child agree that he will practice relaxation exercises on a regular basis (preferably on a daily basis). Since learning to control his anger often means learning to react less violently during stressful situations, it will be beneficial for him to become skillful at relaxing himself. Relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing exercises, meditation, physical exercise, etc.) are an effective means of calming down. When practiced daily, relaxation techniques become a proactive means of reducing general overall arousal.

5. Signaling: Agree on a signal that you can give your child (e.g., hand gesture) when you see him starting to slide into old aggressive patterns. Once he receives the signal, he will know he needs to change his behavior to avoid escalating his anger. He may want to take a time-out, or agree to postpone an argument until he can speak about it from a more calm and rational place.

6. Speaking Assertively: Have your child agree that he will spend some time each day practicing assertive communication skills. He can write down the aggressive things he would like to say to people who make him mad (e.g., “I hate you for saying that”), and then re-write them in more assertive ways (e.g., “When you said _______, it hurts my feeling”). Have your child practice speaking the more assertive statements out loud in front of the mirror, or with you during role-playing. Practicing these statements in advance of angering situations will make them easier to use when he is confronted with the real thing.

7. Rewards: Write rewards for your child into the anger contract. He should receive a small reward each time he successfully does the things he said he would do during each short contract. The reward he chooses should be simple and reasonably healthy (something he won't mind going without if he has a setback in working his program, but nonetheless, something he really wants, is willing to work for, and can feel good about enjoying when he succeeds). Small, frequent rewards are more useful than infrequent, larger rewards.

Example of an anger-control contract:

Rule #1: I will treat family members respectfully. This means no kicking, pushing, shoving, hitting, throwing things, spitting at someone. No verbal (e.g., threatening to hit, kill, hurt) or physical threats or gestures of harm (e.g., holding up a fist, moving to push, shove) toward family members. No swearing at - or about - family members.

Consequences for violating Rule #1 within a 24-hour period: On the first violation, I lose my computer privileges for 24 hours. On the second violation, I also lose my iPhone for 24 hours. On the third violation, I also lose television privileges for 24 hours. On the fourth violation, I also lose my snacks for the day. On the fifth violation, I also get grounded FROM my bedroom until bed time. If I violate Rule #1 more than 5 times within a 24-hour period, I lose all the above privileges for 48 hours.

Rewards for following Rule #1: If I am respectful for three days in a row (i.e., no violations), I can choose one of the following rewards approved by my mom and dad:
1. Go to a movie on the weekend with an approved friend.
2. Have an approved friend spend the night on the weekend.
3. Have a pizza night. 

The short contract above is just one example of how consequences and rewards can be applied to a particular rule violation. There are as many variations as there are families. But let's discuss the example above for a moment...

Some parents may be look at this example and decide that it is simply too strict. They may believe that if they take away this many privileges for this long, it will create more problems than it solves. To those parents, I have a few very important points to make:

First of all, it is not likely that your child will push the envelope to the point where he has lost everything for two days. That is the exception rather than the rule. He's probably much smarter than that.

Secondly, AS and HFA children are notorious for testing the limits. They want to see just how far they can push their parents and bend the rules. If the parent is of the mindset that it's simply easier to give in and let the child have his way in order to keep the peace, the child learns the following destructive lesson: "All I have to do is make a fuss, and my mom backtracks on the consequences." As you can imagine, this lesson will cause huge problems for the child in the future, because the real world does not operate like this, which brings me to my third point.

Thirdly, your child needs to understand the concept of "stacking the consequences." Let me explain: Imagine that you got pulled over by a police officer who accused you of speeding and is preparing to write you a very expensive speeding ticket. You are outraged and believe strongly that the officer is wrong in his assessment of how fast you were going. The officer asks you for your driver's license, but you refuse to show it to him. Then he “insists” that you produce a driver's license immediately! So you take it out of your purse and throw it in his face, which inadvertently hits him in the eye. Then the officer tells you to get out of the car and put your hands behind your back because you're now under arrest. Now, you believe the officer is out to get you, so you take off running. What just happened here? Well, you turned one charge (speeding) into three charges (speeding, assaulting an officer, and fleeing). You "stacked the charges." And you are going to pay the price for "stacking."

This is just one example of how the real world operates. In the real world, if you decide to make a series of poor choices, you also decide to receive a series of negative consequences associated with those choices. So, we as parents want to set up a system at home that is representative of the real world, because your child is going to have to deal with the real world eventually. And if you don't teach your child that violating rules results in negative consequences EACH AND EVERY TIME, the world will teach your child this lesson. But, unfortunately, the world doesn’t care about what is right or fair – and will teach this lesson in a very harsh and abrupt manner that may send your “naïve” child into a state of shock.

Lastly, consequences have to hurt to be effective. Let me repeat that: consequences have to hurt to be effective. Unfortunately, I see too many parents of children on the autism spectrum who are afraid to allow their child to experience uncomfortable emotions associated with poor choices. They believe that their child will simply crumble under the weight of their discipline. This is called overprotective or overindulgent parenting. As a therapist, I have to tell you that this is the #1 parenting mistake I see in my practice, and it does more damage than I have time to discuss in this post. (Additional information can be found here).

The overprotective parent does tend to be a good advocate for her child, but unfortunately, this parent has moved from advocacy to enabling. If this sounds like you, then please understand that you are underestimating your child’s strengths and intelligence. He is capable of learning anything – and yes – this even includes learning how to receive consequences without tantrums or meltdowns.

Why anger-control contracts work for children on the autism spectrum:
  • A vital skill that every responsible youngster needs to learn is accountability. Anger-control contracts can help AS and HFA kids learn this critical principle early in life, and that will serve them well as grown-ups.
  • AS and HFA kids are highly motivated by anger-control contracts because they bring clarity to the situation. Oftentimes, these young people find themselves caught in a situation where they are not sure whether the behavior is acceptable or not, or whether it is worth it to them to make an appropriate choice (e.g., if the youngster throws a dinner plate and breaks it, he may or may not have understood the value of the plate or the consequence for breaking it). An anger-control contract helps both the parent and the child clearly understand what is expected. 
  • One of the key elements of a good anger-control contract is that it brings structure to the discipline process. Whether they admit it or not, AS and HFA kids are best served when there is clear structure. Specific rules and expectations, written down and associated with positive and negative consequences, provide a level of structure that helps these “special needs” kids feel more secure.

Summary of an effective anger-control contract:
  1. Have clear goals for the contract. You can't write an effective contract if you're not clear on exactly what you want your child to accomplish. Know what behaviors you want your youngster to change, and what you want him to do instead.
  2. Allow your youngster to have some input. Kids will be more likely to follow the terms of a contract when they have a hand in its creation. While you need to be the one to prepare the main aspects, leave some room for negotiation (e.g., allow your youngster to help you choose the consequences for breaking the contract rather than simply dictating the disciplinary measures yourself).
  3. Write out the contract, spelling out the goals, expectations and consequences very clearly. An AS or HFA youngster can’t abide by a contract if it's too vague or unclear. Be as specific as possible to reduce the chance of any misunderstandings.
  4. Go over the contract with your youngster and have him sign-off on it. This gives him a chance to ask questions or to seek clarification. By having him sign it, you get a concrete sign that he is agreeing to the terms. This also gives him subconscious “buy-in” because he is making that agreement in a tangible way.
  5. Get one or more people who want to support your child’s anger-management progress to co-sign as witnesses. Other caretakers, teachers, and even siblings (especially if they are older) can often recognize when the AS or HFA child is getting worked-up better than he can, so it is a good idea to include them in the anger plan, if possible.
  6. Keep the contract in a conspicuous place so you can easily refer to it. If your youngster is on the verge of breaking it, you can take it out and remind him of his agreement in concrete terms. If he still violates the contract, you can use it as a neutral touchstone by saying, "Remember when you signed your anger contract and agreed to follow these rules? You also agreed to these consequences if you broke the contract." This will help reduce anger and defensiveness when the consequences are issued.

Have you ever had a day where it seems that everything goes wrong? For example, you forgot to set your alarm clock. As a result, you really need to rush to work (and break the speed limit a bit - or a lot!). But there's a bad car accident on your usual commute, so that makes you even later. Then when you finally pull in the parking lot, you notice the place is unusually busy and congested, so you have to park 3 blocks away - now you're really late!! But this is just the beginning!!! The day doesn't get any better from that point on. When you finally get home, all you want to do is take a sleeping pill and hit the sack.

Imagine if most days were like this one. Unfortunately, for a lot of kids on the autism spectrum, many days feel this overwhelming. Little wonder why some may have more than their fair share of moodiness and meltdowns. But, as a parent, you can make life less stressful for your child by drafting a contract that will help him find some structure and support in an otherwise chaotic and unfriendly world.

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