In part 1 of this series on coercive parenting, I talked about what coercive parenting is and how it can play out in parent/child interactions. In part 2 here, I will talk about how you can start to more effectively reinforce the behavior you want from your child.
A common mistake when trying to change a child’s behavior is that parents try to punish first and reinforce second. I want you to reverse this order and focus more on reinforcing the behavior you want first and consequence second.
There are some good reasons for this. If you are experiencing problem interactions between you and your child, more than likely it has taken a toll on that relationship. Often, you will find you are beginning to have more negative interactions than positive with your child. Some parents find that they begin to avoid interactions with their child. Your child may also begin to avoid interactions with you or become more reactive to requests made of them. In addition, because coercive interactions can be reinforcing, you don’t want to be reinforcing behavior you don’t want inadvertently.
Reinforcing the behavior you want is usually not as simple as just praising your child when they show the desired behavior. My experience is that parents have to more closely monitor their child for the desired behavior, reinforce small steps forward, and more actively reinforce it when they find it.
There is a concept in behavioral change called shaping behavior. The idea behind this is helping to reinforce a desired behavior over time as a child gets closer and closer to what the behavior should be.
Let me give you an example. Say you want your child to clean their bedroom. There are lots of tasks that go into cleaning their bedroom as well as the child’s response when they are asked to clean the room.
Think of it this way. On one extreme of the continuum you have a child refusing to do what is asked and having a meltdown every time that happens. The other side of the continuum is a child who is obedient every time they are asked and in fact may say “Do you have any more things for me to do?”.
In between those two extremes there are lots of behaviors that help identify when a child is moving closer to the desired behavior or farther away. Your goal as a parent is to begin to break down the task into smaller parts and begin to look at reinforcing efforts that help get the child closer to what is desired.
An example of this may be if your child regularly argues or complains a number of times when asked to clean their bedroom. Let’s say the next time you ask them to clean their room they complain, but it is for a shorter time than they usually do. You could then say, “I appreciate you going to clean your room fairly quickly even though you didn’t want to.”
What you are doing is beginning to help move your child from more problematic interaction to more compliant interactions through the use of your attention and verbal praise. Notice I didn’t say anything about giving them money, special rewards, food, or any other physical reinforcers. The primary reason for this is that YOU are the biggest source of reinforcement for your child.
I’ve never had a child ever say to me, “I wish my parents would stop noticing my good behavior”. You have the potential to be an inexhaustible supply of reinforcement.
It is not that special favors or treats can’t be used with your child, you just don’t want to use them as a primary way you are trying to change behavior. Think of those things as a much more infrequent event. It is even more powerful when you’re able to do these infrequent physical reinforcers to your child when they aren’t expecting them.
I want to set the record straight here. I often hear objections from parents about having to say something positive to their child when their child isn’t technically fully doing what is asked of them.
What they are saying is true, but I have rarely seen a noncompliant child go to a fully compliant child in one step. Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, it will be a process to get your child behaving more the way you would like them to. Remember, we have yet to talk about how to appropriately consequence a child if they are not compliant to help in this process, but that is for the next post in this series.
So here are the steps I want you to take:
1. Pick one behavior you want your child to get better at doing in the home.
2. On one end of a piece of paper write down how your child currently acts or does when you asked them to complete this task. On the opposite end what we would look like if your child was fully compliant with that expectation.
3. Identify a number of behaviors in between these two endpoints that would help indicate progress towards overall compliance with the task. Identify at least a handful of steps that would indicate progress along that continuum.
4. Become a detective and begin to notice closely when there are small changes in your child’s behavior towards completing the task. Verbally reinforce these changes right after you witness them. In some instances, it may be noticing the times when the behaviors do not occur such as fighting with a sibling. You then reinforce the fact that this behavior is not occurring.
Step four is probably the most important part of this process. Don’t skimp on doing this. Be generous in your verbal praise.
5. This is a process you will need to work at over time before you will see good results. Remember, your child has been used to getting what they want through noncompliance. It will take time to change this pattern.
Many parents find that once they start noticing more positive behavior by their child they begin to see it decrease in coercive interactions with their child. It will likely not eliminate the problem behavior, but every step towards making things more manageable is a step in the right direction.
Look for part 3 next week where I will help you create more effective consequences when needed for your child.