I’ve been working with parents lately who are dealing with negative behaviors in their children. Some children refuse to sit quietly at the dinner table. Some children start tantrums at bedtime. Some children mount a Gandhi-esque campaign of passive resistance when it’s time to leave the house the morning. I’m sure you can think of your own examples. But there’s a thought I’ve been having that’s been a useful frame for me and some of the families I’ve been working with, and I thought I’d talk about it here. And it’s this:
Any repeated behavior is either involuntary or is getting reinforced.
Involuntary behaviors are things the child has no control over—at least, not at his current developmental level. Crying when startled, for instance—the child can’t help it. Other behaviors might be in more of a gray area. Think about a child who gets so excited he starts jumping and shouting; or a child who gets so angry he yells and hits. At a certain stage of development, it’s reasonable to expect a child to control those behaviors; at an earlier stage that behavior is saying, “My feelings are so big, this is the only behavior I can manage!” Just because a behavior is involuntary doesn’t mean it’s okay. No matter how young you are, you many not hit someone else. But it’s not very compassionate—and not very effective—to punish a child for a behavior he can’t control.
Reinforced behaviors are a different beast. You can read what I’ve written about reinforcement here, but for the moment you can think of reinforced behavior as behavior that’s been trained, or learned. A child whines a little in the grocery store, so mom gives her a candy to calm her down; next time she whines a little more in the grocery store, until mom gives in and gives her a candy; soon she’s learned that if she just whines long enough, she’ll eventually get a candy. That’s a reinforced behavior—the child gets something good if they do the behavior enough. The child who shows off until he gets attention. The child who punches his sister until she leaves him alone. The child who yells until an adult comes to entertain them. All reinforced.
Mind you, reinforcement is a crucial tool for learning positive behaviors. Everyone smiles at you when you hug the baby, so you learn to give the baby lots of hugs. Your friend plays with you more when you share your toys, so you learn to share. You feel a sense of pride when you finish reading a book all by yourself, so you read more books. Those are all great examples of reinforcement.
But when it’s a negative behavior you’re talking about, reinforcement can be super tricky. As behaviorists have long known, the smallest, least-frequent reinforcements often create the strongest behaviors. With the child whining for candy in the grocery store, you refuse candy nine times in a row, but the tenth time you give in after twenty minutes and give her a Tic Tac? That is a behavior that will stick, my friend. Also, you may not realize what reinforcement your child is getting. “Why does he keeping doing that if it just makes me yell at him?” you cry. You don’t realize that (perhaps) your negative attention is more reinforcing than no attention at all.
I don’t mean to depress you, or make you think that you’re stuck with negative behaviors whether they’re involuntary or reinforced. Quite the contrary—this information will arm you in your quest to eliminate these behaviors.
The first step is to figure out the cause of the behavior. Is it involuntary or reinforced? I have the families I work with carefully observe their child’s behavior and look for patterns. If you notice a pattern in what happens leading up to the behavior, perhaps the behavior is an involuntary response to the environment. If you notice a pattern in the consequences of the behavior, perhaps the behavior is getting reinforced by that consequence. Looking for patterns is the way to figure out the cause.
If you determine that the behavior is involuntary, your goal is to help the child gain self-control, and gain access to more socially acceptable ways of responding to his situation. You might, for instance, catch the child’s hand before he hits his brother, and say, “Boy, you are so mad you need to punch something! Here, hit this pillow! Good! Now stomp your foot and say, ‘I’m mad!'” With practice, the behavior you’ve scaffolded for the child becomes his new natural behavior.
If the behavior is a reinforced one, you’ve got the somewhat more difficult task of un-training. But the approaches aren’t complicated. You might try to meet the child’s need before it arises, thereby eliminating the need for the behavior. You might try eliminating the reinforcement, and allowing the behavior to naturally extinguish when it stops working. You might try teaching the child a different behavior that will get his needs met in a more socially appropriate way. You might try giving the child MORE reinforcement when he DOESN’T do the behavior than when he does.
There are a lot of possible approaches, and an expert can help you choose an approach that is likely to work for your family. But understanding the root of the behavior is a crucial part of changing it.
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Are you encountering a challenging behavior that you can’t figure out? Got the behavior figured but still can’t work out how to change it? I work with families on precisely this stuff. And I give free initial consultations! Just FYI.