Stop Rewarding Negative Behaviors
Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, founder of The Kid Counselor and Play Therapy Parenting. Today I wanted to share a tip with you, something I’ve noticed that many parents do. It’s very easy to not even realize that this is happening when we are interacting with our kids.
So here’s a scenario for you. You are in the grocery store, and Publix or somewhere else has strategically placed toys right at the checkout lines. So your child begins to beg and plead for the latest Pokemon card set or some chocolate bar or something right at the checkout and you tell them no. They start to cry and whine louder and you tell them no again. And then by the third time, they’re now escalating to a point where they are starting to yell and cry and it’s escalating pretty quickly into a tantrum. And what will often happen is we give in and say, “Okay, fine, you can have it, but I’m not going to do this next time” because we are trying to avoid the shame or humiliation or the embarrassment of other people and the employees and everyone around us witnessing this huge meltdown at the checkout line at Publix.
Another example: maybe you have a really good negotiator. I happen to have one of those kids! So you have a really good negotiator and you say, “It’s time for bed. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.” And they’ll say, “Well, but what if…?” And they give you this other option and they end up negotiating enough that you give in. So you don’t maybe go through the full discussion or you don’t let them stay up for a full 30 minutes, but they negotiate you to a five more minute staying out of bed or only part of the conversation that they want to have with you. And oftentimes it’s in an attempt to be nice and to be kind and maybe even to compromise a bit. They really want the whole 30 minutes. You want them to go to bed right away so you give in and give them 10 minutes.
So those are two scenarios and there are a ton more. But in those instances we often are unaware that we are programming our children to continue that behavior. Even though it’s a behavior that we do not want them to continue!
Let me explain that a little differently. So as we interact with our kids, there is a constant fluidity. There is a constant dynamic, back and forth conversation and relationship that continues and everything in the future is based on what has already happened in the past. So we learn the flow, and the back and forth exchange, based on interacting consistently. That’s true of every relationship in our lives, not just with our children. But children are very, very observant and they are aware of the dynamics. So as we give in once, they learn that when we say no it doesn’t necessarily mean no. They think: “Because last time I threw a fit and got what I wanted or last time I negotiated and I got her to meet me halfway.”So they learn that everything in the future hinges on what happens in the past.
So when we are interacting, the more that we are inconsistent with our messages and the more that we are inconsistent with the consequence of behavior, the more confusing it is for the child to know what we expect of them.
So now that you know all of that, what does that mean for fixing that? If that is a struggle that you have, one of the most effective ways to handle this scenario is to give choices. And this is a play therapy skill. I do it with children in my office and I train parents to use it with their own children.
So that would look like: You know that there’s going to be a struggle because historically it has been and I’m sure right now something popped into your head, “Oh yes, that’s always the struggle that I have with my child.” So if you know ahead of time it’s likely going to be an issue, you give a choice ahead of time to preemptively address the problematic behavior.
So let’s go back to the grocery store scenario. You know they’re likely going to beg for something in the store. Sometimes that’s food. Oftentimes they’ll beg for Captain Crunch when you want them to have Special K, so it doesn’t have to be necessarily a toy. It can be just begging for something that you would like them not to have. So you know going in this is going to be a problem. You can offer a choice.
So you say to your child, “Johnny, if you choose to come into the grocery store with me, you choose not to get upset if I tell you that you can’t have something. If you choose to get upset when I tell you you can’t have something, you choose (this consequence) later. That might be going to bed earlier. It may be loss of playtime with friends. It may be loss of game time; whatever is important to the child.
The currency is a very important element to this. So you have to be aware of what matters to the child because if you say, “If you choose that, you choose to lose your tv time tonight” and they really don’t have any need for TV, then it’s not as effective. So it is important to change the consequence based on the child and what is important to them.
So let’s go through that again, just so that you get it. So “Johnny, if you choose to come into the grocery store with me, you choose not to get upset if I tell you that you can’t have something. If you choose to get upset when I tell you no, you choose this consequence. If you choose not to get upset, you choose to keep that privilege.”
So in the scenario of friend time, you would say, “you choose to not have friend time tonight if you choose to get upset, but you choose to keep your friend time if you choose not to.” And here’s what happens with those choices: The child learns self control and the child learns to self regulate because they learn that the consequence is far more important. Meaning they want to keep what they want, rather than to have a fit over a snicker bar in Publix.
Now the first few times you do this, it may turn into a pretty big meltdown. It usually gets worse before it gets better – That’s a really good rule of thumb when you’re trying something new with your kids. But the good news is it gets better. And they learn very quickly “I’m going to see if what I’ve always done in the past will work” and when it doesn’t, they have to regroup and rethink how they’re going to handle their self control and their self regulation.
So try this week to implement choices. And the pattern of that is “if you choose, then you choose.” It’s very important to let them know that “if this behavior… then this consequence.” And the word choose is just as important as every other part. So “if you choose this, you choose this.”
It’s very clear that the responsibility lies with the child and you are no longer the one that’s trying to regulate and control for them. They learn that they have to be the one to regulate and control.
So I hope that you’re able to try that this week. When you do, please shoot me an email, let me know how that went, and I’d be happy to answer questions or dialogue with you about what that looks like with you and your children this week.
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