by Kerry Hart
Being a parent gives you some of the most rewarding moments of your life; however, the inescapable truth is that being a parent is tough. In that moment when you are covered in dirty laundry, the sink is filled to the brim with dirty dishes, and your children seem to be in some kind of “who can be the loudest” contest, knowing the reason behind their actions does not matter as much as getting them to stop. It can be easier for you to release your frustrations by yelling at your little angels to just stop, or perhaps to take away their video games, Barbie, or some other item they enjoy. What is the usual reaction here? Do your children thank you profusely for showing them the light? Or do they pout and stomp off creating more anxiety in your already hectic life?
You may remember the term positive reinforcement from that intro to psychology class you took freshman year, or even in those parenting books you poured over during your first pregnancy. Perhaps it is time you dusted those old texts off and gave this theory another look. Positive reinforcement is a technique used in behavioral therapy that rewards positive behaviors only, resulting in lessening unwanted behaviors. It will take a lot of patience, as your children will notice the change in your discipline style, and you will likely experience some push back. Change can be hard, but I promise if committed fully, you can do this.
Picture this: your child brings home a report card with unacceptable grades. Your instinct might be to take them out of their favorite extracurricular, or limit their interactions with friends. Perhaps this would give them more time to study, but would they be using their time wisely? It is more likely your child will use this time to plot ways to gain back the items they lost. If you embrace positive reinforcement as an alternative, you will be able to both address the unwanted behaviors as well as promote desired behaviors in your children. This method also empowers your children, as you are leaving their fate in their hands.
Using positive reinforcement will require sitting down with your child and laying out your expectations. Once you decide on your plan of action, be it the promise of a car on their 16th birthday, a vacation for spring break, or even a new outfit to wear to the school dance, you need to make your intentions clear to your child. Highlight the behavior you wish to change. If using the poor grades example, you would tell your child that you are disappointed in their report card and hope to see better grades moving forward. Then, let them know that should they comply with your request to focus on academia, they will receive the reward you have chosen.
Be aware of the setbacks you may face when attempting to alter your child’s behavior. During these times, try to revisit the previous conversation with your child. Keep them constantly in the loop of your thought process. Using the grades example, if you promised your child a certain reward for good grades and they bring home something other than expected, do not be afraid to sit them down and talk about it. Help them realize what happened with this particular exam or project that made their overall grade sub-par. Perhaps your daughter broke up with her boyfriend that week, or your son’s basketball team lost a game; regardless of the reason, it will promote positive conversation within your family unit.
As you transition your method of discipline, challenges may arise, but once positive reinforcement is established, you will see your children improving in the targeted area. Change is difficult, as it is human nature to stay in the comfort zone. If the methods you have employed for discipline are not working as effectively as you hoped, I encourage you to utilize positive reinforcement.
Kerry Hart, LLMFT is a family therapist located within Grand Rapids Natural Health. She specializes in the treatment of children, teens, couples, and families.