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A different perspective: Who was positively reinforced? Who was negatively reinforced?

We've all been in a position in which we might be reinforcing - even increasing - a particular type of behavior (positive or negative) without noticing.


Child: Mommy, I want the phone.

Mom: No, sweetie.

Child: Please Mom can I have the phone?

Mom: Not right now.

Child: But I want it! I want the phone! Phone! Phone!

(The child begins to whine)

Mom: I said not now!

Child: [Increasing behavior to a tantrum] But Mommy, Mommy, I want the phone!!!!! Give me the phone!!!!! (This turns into screaming)

Mom: Fine, here is the phone and for heaven's sake, be quiet.

(Mommy gives the phone to the child)

The child is now quiet and has learned all they have to do is scream and they will get their way. This type of dialogue between parent and child is very common. Once a parent gives in to the child, an ongoing cycle of negative learned behavior ensues. In this example, a simple request for a phone evolves into a capitulation by the parent to please the child anytime they increase the intensity of their disruptive/challenging behavior. And it doesn't stop with a simple request for the phone.

What has happened? Why does this keep repeating itself in a vicious cycle? Let's take a closer look:

Mom's response is the consequence of the child's behavior and the child's behavior is a consequence of "Mom's" behavior/response. The probability of a behavior occurring again increases if the consequence of the behavior is reinforced.


From the child's perspective, if Mom says "no" and they display disruptive behavior, then Mom will give in and the child gets what they want. The request starts with a simple ask. When the ask is denied, then the child pushes further with whining and increases to a full-on tantrum if the child doesn't get their way. At this point, Mom gives in and the child obtains the desired item. In this case, it's the phone. Since the child got what they wanted after displaying disruptive behavior, the behavior has been reinforced by Mom's behavior/response. Therefore, increasing the probability that next time that Mom says "no", the child will escalate the intensity of the disruptive behavior until they get what they want.

From Mom's perspective, giving the child the phone stops the undesirable behavior of the child whining, yelling, and having a tantrum. Therefore, Mom's behavior of giving the child what they want is being reinforced, because it is stopping the "undesirable behavior." Meaning, the behavior of Mom giving in will probably increase when the child displays undesirable or disruptive behaviors. Because Mom's behavior has been reinforced by suppressing the disruptive behavior at that moment.

In this example, both mother and child are reinforcing each other's behavior. The result is an increase in the probability that the child will display disruptive behaviors when the Mom says "no". There is an increased chance that Mom will end up giving the child what they want to suppress the child's disruptive behavior at that moment.


If the consequence of the behavior is reinforcing the behavior, then changing the consequence of that particular behavior should change the behavior in question. In other words, if Mom changes her response/behavior (which is the consequence of the child's behavior) then the child's behavior should change. The key is to change the consequence to one that will not reinforce the child's behavior in question.

To decrease the probability of a behavior occurring again, the consequence of the behavior should not be reinforcing. For example, if Mom stops answering every time the child asks for the phone; or, if Mom acknowledges the child's request but ignores the child, eventually the child's behavior will decrease because the child's behavior is not being reinforced.

That being said, it doesn't mean that this will be a quick change. It will be a gradual change. The child will try and push the limits more intensely trying to get the Mother to break. However, if the consequence of the behavior stays the same, the chances of the disruptive behavior occurring again will begin to decrease. But, if Mom changes the consequence again and gives in to the child, the chances of the behavior occurring again will increase and the cycle will become stronger, making the change more difficult.

Moms, don't get discouraged! If you try to make changes and your child pushes harder, this means IT IS WORKING! A behavior will usually escalate and even get worse before it starts to decrease.

Stay consistent and remain in control! For change to happen, moms/parents/caregivers have to be prepared and committed. If you are not ready to deal with the potential of the behavior escalating to a tantrum (or worse), then there is a chance that you will give in making the cycle stronger and then more difficult to change. If the child learns after 5 "No's" Mom gives in and they get what they want, the behavior will not change. The child might push up to 7 times before they realize they are not going to get their way. If mom gives in after 7 "No's" then the child knows the new breaking point is 7. Be prepared that the child will push longer and harder to find the breaking point. It's up to you to stay firm and NOT give it.

In summary: If you are ready for a change, evaluate the situation from both sides, identify what is reinforcing each side, and what consequence is needed to change. Remember, you have control of your own behavior. Don't expect someone else's behavior to change before you make your own change. COMMIT TO CHANGE! It can be a long and difficult journey but the end result can be life-changing.


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