A Little Frustration CAN Go A Long Way …..Using Sabotage And Withholding Effectively to Entice Your Toddler To Talk

As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to see your child suffer when he’s frustrated. This seems to be especially true when that frustration revolves around communication, or the lack of it.

However, as an SLP, I sometimes want a child to be frustrated. I often purposefully set up situations like this during therapy sessions because I think it might make a kid try a little harder. Actually I know it makes lots of children try harder. Sometimes the extra emotional burst that a child feels when he’s a little frustrated is just enough to propel him over a hurdle he’s needed to conquer for a long time.

I read this quote on a parenting message board a few weeks ago. I loved it so much that I copied it, and I’d like to share it here –

” I think it is a truth for humankind that FRUSTRATION helps the learning process and builds determination, but FAILURE does not. In general, of course. Difficulty can build character and discipline and commitment to one’s goal, but FAILURE repeated over and over is defeating, and especially for children, can be damaging to one’s self-concept and self-efficacy…..I try to keep that in mind when Sam has frustration as well. I want him to learn to strive, not learn to fail.”

(By the way, I have tried and failed to find the specific post I copied this from so that I could attribute it to the insightful mom who wrote such eloquent words. If you know her or ARE her, please send me a comment so that I can give you proper credit for your wonderful advice!)

So after contemplating this quote for the last few weeks, I wanted to share with you how I’ve learned to set up situations that may cause a little communication FRUSTRATION, but not result in communication FAILURE.

Setting up situations so that a child is more likely to communicate is commonly referred to in the speech-language and early intervention literature as “environmental sabotage.” Using environmental sabotage is not a new technique to speech therapy. The idea has been around since I went to school back in the ’80’s. My very old professor talked about it like she’d used it forever. Back then she called it, “Communication Temptations.” I probably prefer that term to “sabotage” since some parents tend to interpret the word negatively and then carry it out in the same mean-spirited way.

Actually, I know that I was guilty of this a time or two when I first started seeing children professionally. I remember one cute little blonde-headed boy in particular. I would hold out for a word waaaaaaay beyond what I would dream of doing now. He did cross the divide between frustration and failure on more than one occasion, and for that I am now deeply sorry. I was sorry even then, and so much so that I would walk back to my car on the verge of tears myself thinking, “There’s got to be a better way.” It did make me start to find things to do to “sabotage” in a more kid- friendly way.

Besides, what’s the purpose of using a technique if the end result is a two-year-old who’s rolling around on the floor kicking and screaming? In my opinion, no child learns anything at that point, except for maybe, “That lady is mean, and I don’t ever want to play with her again!”

If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, you already know that I will move heaven and earth to make a connection with a kid. In my opinion, and many “experts,” you must first establish a relationship with a child so that you build a foundation of social connectedness. All communication, all the back-and-forth and give-and-take that we use in conversation is built upon the idea, “I’m important. You’re important.” You talk – I talk. I ask – you answer. I want to get to know and like you – I want you to get to know me and like me.

Withholding and sabotaging a kid past the point of him knowing you and liking you defeats this purpose. BUT sabotage can be done in a fun, animated, teasingly way so that a child feels like, “She gets me. She knows I can do this.”

Basic explanations for withholding and sabotage are written below. In my mind these are very similar, but for you purists, here are definitions.

Withholding is purposefully keeping something away from a child until he says the word (or signs or gestures) to request the object. I always use a model (by saying or signing what I want the kid to say) during withholding.

Sabotaging is setting up situations or problems that a child has to solve so that he can get what he wants. I don’t give a model during sabotage until I know the child can’t say what he needs to say in order to get what he wants.

For example, I playfully guard a plastic, see-through bag full of snacks and teasingly say, “What do you want?”

Or I set up a race track but don’t provide race cars and then act surprised (and stupid) until a child asks for “Cars.”

At home you might put a child in a bathtub and not run the water yet to see if he will ask for it.

Or you might give him an empty cup.

Or give everyone else but him a cookie.

You might put one sock and one shoe on him and then proceed to go outside.

You might stand in front of him and visibly eat his favorite Skittles.

Get the idea? Set up obvious situations so that it is darn near impossible for him NOT to ask for something.

These are pretty effective techniques, but I have seen well-meaning parents (and professionals) use them in the wrong ways. For example, a father standing over a screaming child withholding his cup telling him, “You can’t have it until you say it,” when the child hasn’t uttered any vocalization that comes close to the word milk in his whole life. A therapist who digs in her heels and thinks, “He’s got to learn,” as she watches a sobbing toddler run repeatedly to his mother for consolation because he’s not yet said the target word is another ineffective example.

Here are the basics for effectively and correctly using these techniques with children –

1.  Approach the situation with a FUN attitude, not, “I-am-going-to-make-you-ask-for-this-or-else!”

Purposefully make yourself look and sound FUN and HAPPY before, during, and after you’re using this technique. If you feel yourself crossing over the line to not-fun, not-happy, and plain old mean, stop the game immediately and just give the kid what he wants.

2. Hold out for your intended word, sign, or gesture only 3-5 times.

This is according to research done by the National Institutes of Health. (I wish I could remember the name and year of the study, but I don’t.  Sorry to those of you who are perfectionists and “Says Who?” types.) According to this information, no learning takes place after this point. This may be true even earlier for a kid who is borderline hysterical after just one “try.” If the child you are trying to entice to communicate is DONE, then you need to be done too.

3. If the child gives you a word or “try” that’s acceptable, but not perfect, reward the effort.

Effort counts, especially for late talking toddlers. When you reward the effort, he’s going to continue to try again. Remember practice makes perfect. Sometimes I will give the child the object even if he uses an all-purpose word like “more” or “please” even when I’ve intended for him to say another word. I’d rather him WANT to try again than to risk alienating him. But if he can handle it, I hold out for the specific word, at least for a little while longer.

4. Don’t overuse sabotage so that he feels like he shouldn’t even try.

If you find your child walking away or giving up, you’re not being flexible enough or starting at a place when he can succeed. This would be the failure part. Analyze what you’re sabotaging and how often you’re using this technique. I have some children on my caseload right now that I can “sabotage” or “withhold” with for a whole hour-long session, and they’re fine and happy. I have some that I might try once or twice in a session. I have a few that I won’t use this with for a very long time because of temperament issues (It makes them too darn mad!) and/or cognitive issues (They don’t get what I’m doing).

FYI – Kids who NEVER initiate and seek out anyone to help them with tasks may not understand this concept for a while. This would be the kid who radar-locks his vision on the toy or snack you’re holding rather than glancing up at your face for even a moment. You might as well not be in the room as far as he’s concerned. He hasn’t learned the JOINT part of joint-attention yet. If you’re trying this with a kid who is pretty self-absorbed, you may want to measure his progress and “reward” him for even noticing that you are part of the game. When I withhold a treasured object from a kid like this and he makes eye contact for a millisecond, I give him what he wants.

5. Use true withholding and sabotage only for words or signs kids can already say or do on their own.

If you’ve never heard your child ask for “milk,” stick to modeling it and waiting for him to imitate you, even while he’s drinking the milk, rather than withholding until he does say it. Holding out for a brand new word without a model and with no hope of them getting it is just plain mean. Save this technique to help your child spontaneously ask for something with a word he’s been imitating or using for a while.

Bottom line –

Model to get kids to imitate new words.

Withhold to make those easily imitated words more spontaneous.

Sabotage to work on initiating communication.

Good luck!!


Read more about ways to help a child learn to initiate in Let’s Talk About Talking. There’s a whole chapter full of great ideas!

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