Behavioral Techniques In Parenting Part I: Reinforcement

Many of us use behavioral psychology every day in responding to the behaviors of our children.  Many times, however, we may not fully understand our options and how they are most effectively applied, so when we are confronted with difficult and persistent behaviors, our attempts may sometimes be ineffective. A deeper understanding of behavioral techniques can lead to more effective methods of behavior change and fewer power struggles.

Another barrier is that many of us parent from what we learned as children or from books or self-help programs that provide formulas.  Sometimes what we learn can be effective but we may also find ourselves feeling frustrated when they are not and we may end up believing we are out of options.

The series will explore different concepts in behavioral theory and how they may fit into a real world application to parenting. This is not so much about how you should parent but more about what options are available to you as a parent, from a behavioral perspective, so that you can make your own decisions.  Also, keep in mind, we will never be perfect in parenting – this is about being flexible and informed.

We’re going to start with reinforcements, of which there are two types – positive and negative. Both types of reinforcement seek to increase the desired behavior in different ways.

Positive reinforcement simply involves introducing something your child likes or enjoys each time they demonstrate a behavior you would like to increase. We are adding something in order to increase a behavior. An example of this would be praising your child (positive reinforcer) every time they get ready for school on time (desired behavior). Positive reinforcement ought to be consistently applied to the behavior we are seeking to increase until it becomes a habit. After that point, we can begin to reduce the reinforcement gradually (rewarding every other time instead of every time as an example).

Negative reinforcement, often confused with punishment, is removing something that your child does not like to increase the desired behavior. We are subtracting something in order to increase a behavior. For example, your child decides they do not want to wear a coat on a cold day. Instead of getting into a power struggle you let them out and she begins to express discomfort. The child asks for a coat (desired behavior) which then removes the discomfort (negative reinforcement). The coat removes the cold which leads to an increase in your child’s willingness to wear it.

Sometimes we may inadvertently use both types of reinforcers to promote behaviors that we would rather not see occur.  A mother buying her child a toy (positive reinforcer) to stop a tantrum (behavior) while shopping may lead to an association between tantrums and obtaining a toy.  A father preventing his child’s school from enforcing a detention (negative reinforcer) for talking in class (behavior) may lead to an increase in behavioral issues as it removes the detention (punishment) as a consequence of the undesired behavior (talking in class).  In both cases, undesired behaviors are rewarded.

The key with both of these is consistency and moderation. Lavish positive reinforcement can lead to a problem with regard to reducing the need for reinforcement over time and expectations surrounding future desired behavior changes. Not being consistent with reinforcement may lead to the reinforcement not being properly associated with the desired behavior. Lastly, being too aggressive with the tapering down of the positive reinforcement can prompt a set back in the desired behavior.

I should add that we are talking about changing behaviors in a way that might come across as cold and clinical.  This leads to clarity in understanding the material but it is not how it should be approached. Warmth, understanding, and empathy are keys to improving the efficacy of any behavioral technique.  Also, keep in mind that the efficacy of a technique is individual to the child and context.

The next article will focus on techniques that seek to decrease behaviors. Until then, be mindful of how you approach behavior changes – notice if reinforcements fit your style and track your consistency.

Part 2 – Punishment

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