Part 1 in a series on effectively managing challenging behavior in children
By Emily Berner, LMFT
Partner, San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy
Most children have their fair share of behavioral challenges, but for some, these can be especially intense, leaving the whole family exasperated. Difficult behaviors like backtalk, incessant arguing, attention-seeking, lying, and even swearing, hitting, and outright defiance can be incredibly stressful for even the most patient and well-intentioned parents. By the time many parents get to my office, they’re often so fed up that they want effective discipline strategies yesterday. They believe the first step to getting these behaviors under control is through consequences and punishment. Well, not so fast. Experts all agree, the first step in managing difficult behavior is often the last thing parents might expect: reinforcing the positive.
If your child has been exhibiting challenging behaviors for awhile, chances are you’ve tried a lot already, including ever-more strict consequences. No privileges for a month! Sound familiar? Well, if you can relate to this, you probably also know that harsh punishments usually don’t work (at least not for long), and they usually just lead to more anger—both for your child and for you. To make matters worse, when over-the-top consequences are given in the heat of the moment, parents often find they can’t actually follow through, thereby breaking down integrity and respect even further.
Pretty soon, parents become hyper-aware of their child’s misbehaviors, which sets off a powerful feedback loop. Ever notice how when you pay a lot of attention to something (for example, that one car you’d really love to own) you start noticing it everywhere? Likewise, when parents struggle with a child who misbehaves, they notice more of the misbehavior, which often results in even more punishment and irritability, and less praise and warmth than might otherwise be given. At the same time, your child feels she can do nothing right, which in turn leads to more defiance, stubbornness, and anger, reinforcing the parents’ view of their child as a problem. See how quickly it can become a vicious cycle?
Additionally, your attitude that your child’s acting out is unacceptable doesn’t make that behavior stop. Many parents exclaim, “I would never have spoken/acted that way to my parents!” And yet, it is happening, and the yelling, fighting, and punishing isn’t working to change it. And if parents aren’t on the same page, things can feel even more desperate. Something needs to change, and as much as we’d like children to be the ones to shift their behavior first, the reality is that you’re the parent and the adult in the situation, and it’s up to you to take the first steps towards peace.
Hopefully it’s becoming clear why adding in more consequences and discipline to a family already in conflict is like dumping more fuel onto the fire. Once families are stuck in this cycle of negative attention and interaction, the most important first step is to break free of the cycle. Here is where positive reinforcement comes in, which means paying more attention to the positive, and less attention to the negative. This doesn’t mean you are condoning bad behavior, or that you are getting rid of consequences, but when you reinforce the positive behaviors in your child (and believe me, even children who have significant behavioral challenges also do many things well), not only will she feel acknowledged and appreciated, but you will also feel better about your child because you’ll be noticing more of her positive behaviors. And when the ice starts to melt, there will be room for change.
In addition, many challenging behaviors are worsened by built-up anger and resentment, so when parents reinforce the positive, that alone often leads to improvements. As you’ll learn in the next post in this series, your attention is one of your most powerful parenting tools, and when you use it judiciously, you can create positive changes in your child’s behaviors. As behaviors start to improve, you may find you actually need fewer consequences. And when parents then use effective discipline strategies after first building on the positive, children are more receptive and less angry because the relationship is getting back on track.
Now that you understand why positive reinforcement is the first step in managing challenging behaviors, stay tuned for my next posts, where I’ll review how to get the most out of positive attention, methods for creating an effective reinforcement system at home, and ways parents can take care of themselves and remain hopeful throughout the process.