Kelly Scott Moroz, August 2012Teaching Parents to Utilize Positive Reinforcement with Their Children

In my experience, one of the most difficult tasks when working with families is to train parents to be more positive and rewarding with their children. This challenge increases exponentially when parents are raising children with strong-willed temperaments, who are unable to understand the implications of their actions on others, or who do not have the self-control to inhibit misbehaviour. Certainly, there are often times in my work day whereby I am in admiration of parents who appear to praise their son or daughter almost effortlessly for their recent behavioural successes in numerous areas of life. At the other end of the spectrum, I also work with several parents who, for one reason or another, have a very difficult time noticing positive behaviours in their children. Some of these parents may be dealing with depressive or negativity issues that challenge their ability to see the brighter side of many life situations. Others may be holding onto the belief that their children simply ‘should’ be engaging in appropriate behaviours, and that it seems detrimental to recognize or compliment these types of behaviours that other children seem able to follow through on with ease. Recognizing that each and every family who comes to our office is working through issues at varying levels of intensity, I attempt to utilize the first five to ten minutes of a session strictly to have parents, in front of their children, boast about their child’s recent successes in various parts of their life. These positive initial moments of the therapy session are extremely important, particularly because the research continuously points to the fact that parents ‘get what they give’ when it comes to disciplining their children. What this means is that, those parents who are able to utilize compliments to ‘catch’ their children behaving correctly are very often rewarded with even better behaviour from their son or daughter. Parents who feel as if they must nag or threaten to remove privileges at every disciplinary turn frequently report to me that their child ‘pays them back’ for these reprimands. It is a vicious circle. When working with parents who appear less inclined to spot the positive behaviours of their child (and more inclined to point out the negative ones), I find that it can be overwhelming, unrealistic, and unproductive for them to attempt to see their child through positive lenses 24-7. For these situations, I find it much more beneficial to, at least initially, attempt to focus on utilizing positive reinforcement through more selective intervals or exercises throughout a day. The three methods that I recommend sharing with parents include instilling a regular one-on-one playtime with your child, setting up positive complimenting time daily, and incorporating a simple reward system into daily life.

Daily Playtimes: Indeed, many parents report that simply playing with their children can be a challenge, particularly when, after arriving home from work past five in the evening, there are chores, homework requirements, and sports and other activities that consume most of the remaining few hours. On the other hand, squeezing in a playtime one-on-one with a child, even if for only five to ten minutes per day, tends to have a dramatic impact on the child’s willingness to please their parents, at least the parent who they are playing with more regularly (e.g., they might be more likely to manage their frustration levels, more likely to follow through on a request without complaining, or be more likely to demonstrate affection). By nature, playtimes involve less demands on a child and sets up an environment that is conducive to fun and mutual appreciation. Unfortunately, many parents report to me that they are unable to come up with a fun game or activity on the fly, or that the games their children want to play take much longer than five or ten minutes (e.g., a game of Hulics Monopoly). I recommend to parents that they explore some of their child’s toys and attempt to create their own versions of games that can be accomplished in 10 minutes or less (e.g., ring toss, Bop-It, five minute game of air hockey). As long as parents are able to let loose, laugh, have fun, and not point out rule violations, the process tends to be highly complementary, and most children end up relishing this special time spent with their parents.

Setting Up Daily Compliment Times: I find that, even parents who experience the greatest difficulty in seeing their child behavioural successes, are able to find something to compliment them on when they set a timer (for approximately three minutes) to look out for situations to positively reinforce. The act of setting this timer tends to help change their mindset. Many parents become more cognizant of the fact that, although their child often goes through spikes of misbehaviour, they are actually behaving appropriately the majority of the time. Therapeutic support during this exercise often takes the form of pointing out positive behaviours that the parents might not be considering to positively reinforce (e.g., not interrupting, maintaining appropriate personal space); many parents need to actually see somebody else compliment their child to enhance their awareness of the vast amount of behaviours that can be complimented. When modeled correctly, few parents report that these compliment times are ineffective.

Reliance on Simple Reward Systems: Almost any reward system increases positivity in a household. Compared to punishment situations whereby parents threaten to remove privileges for misbehaviour or unfinished chores, reward systems tend to include compliments alongside the provision of concrete or visual rewards. There also tends to be a perception to the child that he or she is gaining something (as opposed to losing something), which usually results in a more positive mindset. Finally, many parents report to me that, although their love for their child is unconditional, setting up simple reward systems tends to help their child appear less ‘entitled’ when it comes to obtaining their privileges.

The intent of this article is to recognize that, for many parents, utilizing praise and compliments as part of positive reinforcement will require more strategic ways of thinking and planning. I believe that attempting one or all of the exercises listed in this article will provide parents with some initial successes, with the hope that they can continue to build off of this momentum. For psychologists, these types of sessions will probably be most beneficial should they attempt to model playtimes, compliment times, and small reward systems within their own office, as opposed to only speaking about them in theoretical terms.

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