Operation Parenting: Using Science to Parent

Co-authored by Cheryl Fine and Lauren Comer

Military life is challenging for even the most mature adults — constant moves, uncertainty and more.  Therefore, it goes without saying that these same strains are present, if not amplified, for military children, especially those that are predisposed to behavioral challenges or have special needs.

This is not meant to guilt you — we also believe there are many positive and developmental benefits to exposing your children to these challenges and life experiences, making them more resilient and adaptable later on in life.

Thus, the question is not whether you should change your lifestyle, but rather, what tools you can incorporate into your parenting toolbox to best help your children thrive and succeed developmentally in this crazy military lifestyle.

To elaborate on those tools, I’ve collaborated with one of my best pals and fellow military spouse, Cheryl Richardson — a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, or BCBA, who holds a master’s degree in Special Education and has worked extensively with children with and without special needs in homes, schools, the community and camps for the past 12 years.  She has helped train professionals and parents how to use highly researched techniques to change behavior, some of which we will share with you in this article.

Q. So Cheryl, what is ABA?

A. ABA is short for Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA is a science that has figured out why behavior occurs and how to successfully address behavior change for a wide range of social issues. It uses experimentally tested procedures to specify how to change behavior, which can lead to an individual living a more fulfilling life.

You may have heard of ABA as an intervention used for children with autism because it is legally mandated that insurance providers cover treatment for children with autism in 48 states, as well as for the military. However, ABA is used in other areas of social concern and settings: education, business, health, and environmental issues to name a few. So, regardless of your child’s functioning, it is undoubtedly a science that YOU can use to parent your child.     

Consistency is Key

Q. Before we dive into some ABA parenting strategies, is there anything important we should know?

A. Yes, first and foremost I must stress the importance of consistency with whatever behavioral or parenting plan a family chooses to implement. Making sure everyone understands and is on board with the plan and addressing behaviors the same way will save you from future frustrations and you will see more of the desired behavior changes.

But as we all know, consistency is a tricky thing in the military — trainings, deployments, moves, multiple caregivers, etc.  Sit down with your spouse when they are home to formulate and review your plan, preferably not the days leading up to deployment when you are both stressed to the max. Discuss which areas of your parenting plan you each may struggle with and need help implementing. Be a team! This “strategy meeting” will keep you both accountable and increase your success in carrying out the plan day to day.

Q. Many times during extended training or deployments, other caregivers come into children’s everyday lives, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, babysitters, etc. How can that impact the plan?

A. Reviewing the plan with them will also help with consistency.  Try to talk to them beforehand; intervening after the fact may be more difficult. Help them see the bigger picture of your parenting plan.

That being said, nobody’s perfect, and there will inevitably be moments when your parenting plan flies right out the window — THAT’S OKAY!  You have outside factors and stressors- especially in the military– that are in play.  When things go awry, I encourage parents to do a plan post-mortem, walking through the plan step by step, identifying and discussing where it broke down. Then we can objectively review the incident and brainstorm a more feasible strategy that will work for them next time.  It will become easier over time, keep at it!

It feels like there could be textbooks — and there hopefully will be! — about how to utilize ABA to better support and rear military children. In the meantime, Cheryl provides some high-level tips and resources for parents to learn more now!