Weathering the storm

Has this ever happened to you?  You realise that you need to take a new approach as a parent.  Perhaps you realise that you’ve been accidentally rewarding a particular behaviour with your attention or just that the come has come to be firm about something.  You think through your new approach and you are confident that you’ve figured out a strategy that will work.   Or maybe you’ve heard about using planned ignoring, deliberately not giving attention to challenging behaviours and decide to try it out. You try it and whoa!  Things get a whole lot worse really fast…  The screaming gets louder, the running gets faster, the tantrum gets even more out of control.  So, what happened?  And what should you do next?  What you are experiencing is something psychologists call the extinction burst and it is actually an indication that your new approach is working.  I know, right?  So… the parenting strategy that works will, first of all, trigger a massive storm?  How can that be?

It is absolutely crucial to truly understand the extinction burst otherwise it is very hard to find the strength to persist through the storm.  I’ve found that the best way to understand the extinction burst is to think about a broken vending machine.  So imagine you really, really, want a chocolate (or whatever your weakness is).  You see a vending machine and you know how this works.  You can almost taste the chocolate in your mouth.  You get out your coins, you put them into the machine, you press the button and nothing happens.  There is no chocolate.  In that moment, what do you do?  Be honest, you push the button again, don’t you?  Maybe you push it lots of times, punch it even, yell, or you may even shake the machine?  That is the extinction burst.  You know how to get chocolate from a vending machine and you don’t quit the first time your button pushing doesn’t work.  Your child won’t quit the first time their button pushing doesn’t work either… they’ll push the button rapidly in a panic, punch the button, yell loudly or they may even shake the machine.  But, after the rapid button pushing, the yelling and shaking, then what do you do?  Eventually you accept that the machine is broken, that pushing the button isn’t going to get you the chocolate and you walk away.  That’s exactly what your child will do too if you persist.

Oh, and how can you be sure that your new approach really is working?  You can tell that your new approach is actually working if, after weathering a few storms, the frequency of your child’s challenging behaviour drops. 

Apply it to your life:  Have you noticed the extinction burst in your parenting?  Are you able to weather the storm?

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Shame-free parenting

Shame is that sinking feeling, which may be accompanied by sadness, fear, anger or disgust, along with a sense of your own unworthiness and lack of worth in the eyes of others.  Shame is often accompanied by a tendency to behave in a submissive way, that is, a shamed person is likely to try to appease others, to fall into line with their expectations and to try to avoid any further ‘attacks’. Because a shamed child is likely to act in a submissive way, parents may find that shaming their child can effectively eliminate unwanted behaviours. However, the use of shame as a parenting strategy is definitely not recommended.  Repeated experiences of shame may predispose your child to a host of difficulties later in life including depression, anxiety and relationship problems.  Your child may internalise the shame, attacking themselves with self-criticism and judgement throughout their life. 

So how can you parent shame-free?

  • Firstly, the obvious: don’t try to induce shame in your child. Don’t try to change your child’s behaviour by embarrassing them, calling their worth into question, or talking about what other people might think.
  • Go light on criticism. Watch yourself for critical comments.  Sure, sometimes parents do need to correct our children’s behaviour.  But make sure your speech is not littered with criticism.  Not everything needs to be corrected!
  • When correcting, focus on the behaviour not the child. Don’t make sweeping judgements on what kind of person your child is (‘lazy’ or ‘mean’) just focus on the behaviour that you’d like to change.
  • Parent with wide-open acceptance of your child just as he or she is. Choose to love your child unconditionally. 
  • Parent with compassion. Notice your child’s perspective and how your child is feeling.  Act to reduce his or her suffering. 
  • Honour your child’s vulnerability. It takes tremendous courage to be vulnerable.  Respect that courage.
  • Find an open, compassionate space for your own feelings of shame. When shame comes up for you too, hold that lightly.  Give yourself the same accepting, loving and compassionate care that you give to your child.
  • If you notice that you’ve accidentally shamed your child then apologise and let your unconditional love show.

Apply it to your life: Have you ever experienced the toxic effects of shame?  How do you parent shame-free?

References:

Gilbert, P. (2011) Shame in Psychotherapy and the role of compassion focused therapy. In Dearing, R.L. & Tangney, J.P. (Ed). Shame in the therapy hour (pp325-254). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Gilbert, P. (2014) The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53, 6-41.

Brown, Brene (2013) Daring Greatly.  New York: Portfoilo. 

Resources:

Brene Brown’s website

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We are not a bunch of over-cautious, anxious ‘helicopter’ parents: in defence of my generation

I’m tired of commentators saying that the current generation of parents, my generation, is over-cautious, anxious and indulging in unprecedented amounts of ‘helicopter parenting’.  I’m tired of the unexamined nostalgic longing for the ‘good old days’ when children roamed freely around the neighbourhood.  I’m sick of people attributing changing social norms to dysfunction in my generation, instead of asking how the world and our understanding of it may have changed.  Yes, the current generation of parents, my generation, makes different judgements on the level of risk involved in, for example, allowing our children to play with neighbourhood children without direct adult supervision, or allowing our children to walk by themselves to school, or leaving our children in the care of an adult we don’t know particularly well.  But, of course we do…  The reality is there are certain childhood dangers that we, as a society, are more aware of. 

Historically, childhood sexual abuse has probably always existed but it is only relatively recently that we, as a society, have recognised its prevalence and its gravity.  As horrific as childhood sexual abuse is, it is not rare.  As many as one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused in some way before the age of eighteen.  The perpetrator is most likely to be someone your child knows, for example, a family member, a family friend or someone in a respected role.  As a society, we have only just begun to parent in the shadow of statistics like this.  It is any wonder that we are now reluctant to simply drop our children off at a friend’s house for a play?  Is it really surprising that our generation is less likely to entrust our child into the care of another adult without getting to know that adult thoroughly?  And is this change in behaviour really not in our child’s best interests? 

It is also only recently that bullying, the victimisation of one child by another child, has been recognised as a serious matter and not just a normal part of childhood.  As many as one in four children will experience bullying at some point, and bullying can have serious psychological consequences including depression, anxiety and even suicide.  Victims of bullying are often reluctant to share their experiences with adults. With bullying now recognised as a serious and common childhood threat, is it any wonder that the current generation of parents sees risks involved in allowing children to roam the neighbourhood?  Is it really surprising that we recognise that amongst groups of children playing regularly without any adult presence, bullying is likely to arise in some form?  And that this is not trivial? 

Parents vary in how cautious they are and each parent must judge the risks of any particular action for their child, in the context in which they live.  In every generation there will be parents who are more or less cautious.  But let’s stop this knee-jerk reaction to changing social norms of dismissing the current generation as misguided and longing for the ‘old good days’.  Sometimes things change for a reason…

Apply it to your life: Are your judgements of risk different to that of previous generations of parents?  Why do you think that is?

For more information on childhood sexual abuse 

For more information on bullying  

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The lazy guide to toilet training

Wow, toilet training information sure is confusing!  And there are plenty of people out there selling their special methods and products or making strong claims about best way to toilet train or the correct time to start (from birth some say!). So let’s be clear first of all: there are likely a number of methods that will work and there’s little evidence to favour specific approaches or the idea that there’s a particular, magical age at which to train.  So if the approach you took to toilet training is different to the one I’m going to outline here, I’m not saying that your approach was wrong.  But if you are getting ready to toilet train your child and you’d like to do it in a way that’s simple, easy, even lazy, well, read on!

Let’s start by being clear on what it means to be toilet trained.  A child is fully day toilet trained when she or he both urinates and defecates (wees and poos) into the toilet during the day with only the occasional accident and is able to identify when she or he needs to go to the toilet.  Children who willingly urinate and defecate into a toilet on command but cannot distinguish the feeling of needing to go to the toilet are not yet fully toilet trained.  Most children become day toilet trained sometime between their second and fourth birthdays.  It doesn’t matter how early or late your child is toilet trained as long as your child is fully day toilet trained well before beginning school.  Once a child is toilet trained during the day, night-time dryness usually happens naturally over the next several years.  That is, you can simply keep putting your child in a nappy (diapers) at night until you notice that it is always dry.  If, after several years, that doesn’t happen it is possible to teach your child to wake up to go to the toilet during the night.  Seek advice from your doctor or see a psychologist.  This post will focus on day toilet training.

The lazy approach to toilet training has three easy phases: 

Phase one: natural exposure.  From birth let your child be exposed to toileting as a normal human activity.  Let your child know that one day, when they are bigger, they’ll learn to go to the toilet too.  Use proper names for genitals and ensure your child understands that poo comes out of their bottom and wee comes out of their urethra (for boys you might simply say penis).

Phase two: lazy circling. The lazy circling phase can begin at approximately two years.  To start this phase of toilet training you’ll need to buy the required equipment: a child seat for your toilet, some underwear for your child and (if you wish) a potty.  Talk to your child about what the child toilet seat, underwear and potty are for and explain that they are getting bigger and will be doing their wees and poos on the toilet (or potty) soon.  Initiate play about going to the toilet with your child.  For example, you can play going to the toilet with dolls and teddies.  You can also suggest that your child pretends to do a wee or a poo on the toilet or potty.  Keep these games relaxed play only; don’t pressure your child into actually going to the toilet.  Give your child some nappy-free time wearing their new underwear.  This will give your child the opportunity to notice when they urinate and to begin to notice the sensation of needing to urinate that proceeds it. Expect that nappy-free time will result in plenty of accidents.  You can make these accidents easier for yourself by making nappy-free time downstairs play time. 

Remember this phase is called lazy circling for a reason.  You can do all of this in a relaxed, lazy way without any pressure on yourself or your child to become toilet trained anytime soon.  None of it has to be done daily, just on some kind of semi-regular basis, when it suits you and your child.  If you or your child are sick or exhausted or stressed do feel free to give even the lazy circling a rest for a couple of weeks.  If your child seems bored with it or discouraged or is resisting, give it a rest for a while.  For a truly relaxed approach to toilet training, I recommend keeping the lazy circling phase going for about a year.  As your year of lazy circling continues one of two things will happen: (1) your child will urinate or defecate into the toilet or (2) your child will not urinate or defecate into the toilet. 

If during the lazy circling phase, your child wishes to try actually going to the toilet praise them for giving it a go.  If they actually urinate or defecate into the toilet: get very excited!  Praise your child for this and encourage them to try again.  If your child seems to be successfully learning how to go to the toilet with your continued encouragement, congratulations!   Toilet training is going to be a breeze for you!  If your child has successfully urinated or defecated into the toilet several times but isn’t progressing beyond this with encouragement alone it may be time to proceed to phase three. 

If your child doesn’t wish to actually go to the toilet then just keep lazily circling for a year.  It may feel like you are going nowhere but you are laying the groundwork for phase three.  I recommend continuing phase two for a year because this is the lazy guide to toilet training.  For some children, occasional lazy circling will eventually kick-start toilet training, so why not give that easy option a real chance?  And if occasional lazy circling doesn’t work then your child will be all the more prepared to toilet train easily during phase three after a year of lazy circling and a year of further development.  I’m sure you have better things to do with your time than ensuring your child is toilet trained as soon as humanly possible. 

Phase three: reward like crazy.  Proceed to phase three after a year of lazy circling or before that if your child has managed to urinate or defecate into the toilet several times but hasn’t progressed beyond that with encouragement alone.  Begin at a time when life as a whole is relatively calm.  Don’t move to phase three at a time when your child is making other big transitions like welcoming a new sibling or beginning childcare.  Phase three is a reward chart.  You can make your reward chart beautiful or themed or use stickers if you think that’ll excite your child.  But really, a simple piece of paper with boxes that you can tick is fine.  Put the chart near your toilet at home.  It is absolutely crucial that no child ever fails a reward chart.  The chart should be easy enough that your child gets the ticks and gets the reward.  Never remove ticks from a reward chart.  If your child hasn’t yet urinated or defecated into the toilet then in order to get the reward for the very first chart all your child has to do is to sit on the toilet and try to urinate once.  If your child has urinated or defecated into the toilet already then you can make the first chart urinating once into the toilet.  Once your child can urinate in the toilet and understands how the reward chart works you can make it a bit more difficult: two toilet trips (i.e. two ticks) needed for a reward, then three toilet trips (i.e. three ticks).  It is important to give ticks for both urinating and defecating, that is, if your child does both in one trip then give two ticks.  This is important because you want to encourage your child to start defecating in the toilet, too.  Keep the chart in that sweet spot where your child is keen to go to the toilet.  If your child becomes discouraged, you may have made the chart too hard too quickly.  Make the task easier the moment you notice this has happened.  For the actual rewards you can use whatever interests your child and be as creative as you like.  Rewards don’t have to be physical things they can be experiences, like a trip to the park.  One easy idea is to make a lucky dip filled with lots of little bits and pieces like craft supplies or lots of small toys which together make a set (like farm animals).  Then your child also has the excitement of choosing and unwrapping a ‘present’ from the lucky dip.

You can be completely honest with your child by letting them know that the reward chart exists to make it easier for them to learn how to go to the toilet.  As your child masters toilet training you’ll notice they will start to lose interest in the chart.  Sometimes they might go to the toilet and forget to give themselves a tick.  That’s fine; you can let that tick be forgotten.  Allow the chart to phase our naturally.  Your child will lose interest with time.     

At all phases:

  • Don’t make a big deal of accidents. Just calmly remind your child to do wees and poos in the toilet and clean it up.  There will be accidents.
  • Don’t overdo reminding your child to go to the toilet. Toddlers aren’t great at thinking ahead so it is fine to remind them to go to the toilet before leaving the house.  They can also forget to go to the toilet when they are busy doing something new and exciting so a little reminding in those situations is okay too.  But, remember, your child won’t be fully toilet trained until they can recognise that they need to go to the toilet and respond to that sensation by taking themselves to the toilet.  They won’t learn that if you remind them all the time.  They also might begin to resist!     
  • Start with urinating because that is usually easier for children to learn. Once children learn to urinate into the toilet, and if poos get a tick on the reward chart as well, then they will likely begin defecating into the toilet soon, too.
  • Don’t be tempted to read deep meaning into toilet training. Some people treat it as the magical moment when a child learns independence.  What rot!  A wee is just a wee. Don’t put your child under that kind of pressure.
  • If you’ve followed this guide to toilet training and your child still is not toilet trained, or if you are concerned about your child’s progress at any stage, then it is important to seek advice from your doctor. In particular, it is important to ensure that your child doesn’t have an infection and is not constipated (children may be constipated even if they are defecating regularly, in fact, severe constipation may present as a lack of control over bowel motions). 

Remember, there are multiple ways to toilet train so if a different approach worked for you and your child, that’s great.  But if you are getting ready to do toilet training with your child and you are looking for an easy, relaxed approach this might be the one for you. 

Apply it to your life: How did you toilet train?  What worked for your child?

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The art of gratitude

I love this time of year.  It can be busy and crazy… overwhelming even.  But there’s also something magical in the air.  A new year is about to begin.  Can you feel it beckon?  In amongst all the celebrations, it is a good time to pause and reflect:

Are you where you thought you’d be this time last year?

How has life surprised you?

What have you learnt?

It is a good time for letting things go.  Letting go doesn’t mean you have to like what’s happened.  It doesn’t mean you have to feel any particular way about your life.  It just means accepting that life is what it is and your feelings are your feelings. 

It is also a good time to remember all that you have to be grateful for: the people you love, the simple pleasures you enjoy, the beauty of nature…  Pause and really think about all of it.  We got to live another year, didn’t we?  Another year of ups and downs, of joys and sorrows… what a gift…

Apply it to your life:  What are you grateful for?

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True literacy: the wonder of a good story, well told

Literacy (reading and writing) is a relatively new skill for humans.  The expectation of universal literacy, the idea that all children can and should learn to read and to write, is very new.  But stories?  Stories are ancient.  In fact, stories have probably been around for as long as our species and perhaps even longer.  Good stories, well told, have power.  Stories help us to understand our past and to imagine our possible futures.  With stories, we, as a community, remember lessons learnt and pass wisdom down through the generations.  By hearing the stories of other people, we are able to share their perspective, to empathise and to understand.   Through story, our world gets a little bigger and our understanding of the world and our place in it grows.   

In this time of universal literacy, parents want to know how they can ensure that their children learn to read and write.  It is easy in the quest to ensure our children are literate to become obsessed with the mechanics of reading and writing – the literal recognition of shapes on a page.  In fact, the best contribution that a parent can make to their children’s literacy is to return to that much older skill: a good story, well told.  True literacy is not the mere recognition of shapes as sounds.  True literacy is the ability to read and comprehend.  It is the ability, not just to write letters on a page, but to play joyfully with language.  A child is truly literate when they are skilled not just in the mechanics of reading and writing (which our schools, by and large, teach very well) but also in the more ancient skills of social understanding, perspective taking and oral language.  True literacy requires the joy, the wonder and the understanding that is the domain of the story-teller.  These are the gifts that parents (rather than teachers) are ideally placed to give to their children. 

How? 

  • Read to your child. Read to your child long past the age when your child can read independently. 
  • Read good books.  Good stories often have: a beginning, middle and an end (a resolution), well-developed characters who change throughout the story, emotion, conflict and hidden meanings and morals that are apparent but not boldly stated.  A good story, well told, also plays with language in a beautiful and satisfying way, yet doesn’t let the joy of words overshadow the lucid communication of the story itself.  Even children’s literature, even picture books, can have all of these elements. 
  • Read yourself. If you do enjoy reading then make time for it in your life.  It is not a frivolous leisure activity, it is good for you.  If you’ve never been captured by reading, find the right book and let yourself be captured now. 
  • Tell stories about your own lives as a family. At the end of the day, talk with your child about what you did that day.  Retell the fun and eventful days that you had as a family (‘Hey, remember when…?’).  Turn family memories into stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. 
  • Make up your own stories with your child. If you aren’t sure how to start, start with once upon a time and a character with your own child’s name.  Set the story in a time or a place that’s of interest to your child, or bring in an animal or a person who your child loves.  If you get stuck, prompt your child to decide what happens next. 
  • Stories aren’t just in books. Some television shows are stories, too.  Most movies are stories.  Look for all the elements of good story-telling in television and movies.  Use these media, too, to fuel your child’s understanding of the world and other people and a love of good stories.   
  • Talk about the stories that you share. Prompt your child to take the perspective of characters in the story by asking questions like:  why did that character do that? Get your child to think through the story by asking questions like:  what happened in the beginning?  And, what happened next?  Explore the hidden meanings and morals with your child by asking questions like: why did the character change what they were doing?  Why did that work better?

Apply it to your life: Do you love stories?  How do you share story-telling with your child?  Share the joy of a good story, well told, in a new way with your child this week. 

References

Vezzali, Stathi, Giovannini, Copozza & Trifiletti (2014) The greatest magic of Harry Potter: reducing prejudice.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology.  Early Online Before Print. 

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Why I support No Gender December

No Gender December, an Australian campaign to end the gender-marketing of toys to children was launched this week and it has already received a lot of media attention (for example here, here, here, and here).  I am a passionate supporter of No Gender December and Play Unlimited.  Why? Because I believe that children have the right to explore their world freely and widely, to have rich and complex dreams, to inherit a world of open doors.  Why would anyone want to put limits on their child’s future potential? Play is the powerhouse of development.  It is not a trivial leisure activity.  The cognitive, emotional, social and physical development of children is fuelled by play.  All children benefit from being offered a wide variety of play experiences.  Girls benefit from playing with building blocks, dinosaurs, trains and chemistry sets.  It fuels their interest in the world and builds the foundations to maths and science.  Boys benefit from playing with dolls, tea sets, and doll houses.  It fuels their interest in people, social situations and relationships and contributes to their social and emotional development.  Sure, buy your daughter a doll (my daughter has several), and buy a doll for your son too.  Yes, give your son a train set, and give one to your daughter as well.

I find it hard to understand why No Gender December has sparked controversy.  The gendered marketing of children’s toys so extreme that it is entirely out of sych with contemporary gender roles.  I tired of seeing science toys in the boys section, when I myself am a female scientist (and no one thinks that’s strange).  I’m sick of seeing dolls in the girls section, when my husband lovingly parents our child everyday (as Australian men do across the country).  We should, at the very least, pass onto our children the same flexibility and freedom that we live. 

Children have the right to develop into well-rounded and complete human beings.  But also, I want to live in a society of complete and well-rounded human beings.  I want my children to live in that society.

If you do too, sign the petition

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Love…it’s easy

A major problem with the human mind is how quickly we think of the big, the grandiose, the larger than life, and then get stuck there.  So, in wanting to show our partner how much we love them, we think of going on a date to a fancy restaurant or buying an expensive present, not just asking, “so how was your day?” and actually listening to the reply. In wanting to be a better parent, we think about elaborate trips to the zoo or acquiring ridiculous cooking or craft skills, not just playing without distractions for a while.  In desiring to connect more with a friend we obsess over organising a night out together just like the good old days, rather than just connecting briefly by phone or text more often.  It is almost as if we want to make living and loving so much harder than it is.  Because, actually, loving another person and showing your love is pretty easy.  In spite of how quickly and easily grand gestures of love come to mind, really, love is all about the little things.

Remember when you were a child.  Remember a moment when you knew that an adult in your life cared about you.  Your memory may be of a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or some other adult.  Remember that moment you knew you were loved, when you felt it through and through.  Pause and bring the memory to mind.  What was the moment?  I’m betting it wasn’t an elaborate trip to the zoo.  Was it, in fact, really simple?  Was it actually an ordinary, mundane, everyday moment?  Cooking together?  A shared book?  Cuddles on the couch? Being listened to? Being accepted exactly as you are?  That is what your child wants from you.  In fact, that is what your partner and your friends want from you too.  Loving moments are so simple and that makes them so easy to give.  We just need to make sure we aren’t distracted by our own grandiose plans.

Apply it to your life: Choose a simple, easy way of expressing your love for someone in your life and do it.  What happens?

Acknowledgements: This post was inspired by a thought experiment given by Kelly Wilson during his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy professional training in Brisbane (August, 2014).  You can view Kelly Wilson’s website here

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Ten things I wish more people understood about reinforcement

Reinforcement, the strengthening of behaviour through the consequences of that behaviour (reinforcers or reinforcing stimuli), is a key psychological concept, one that has been applied widely in homes, schools and workplaces.  Reinforcement has entered into our popular culture.  It is common to hear non-psychologists talk about the importance of reinforcing particular behaviours and the strategies that they use for doing so.   However, it is a concept that is often sadly misunderstood.

Here are ten things I wish more people understood about reinforcement:

  • Reinforcement does not mean stickers, or ticks, or saying ‘good girl/boy’. In fact, stickers, ticks, or saying ‘good girl/boy’ may be reinforcing or not depending upon the child and the context.  And there’s so much more to reinforcement than gold stars!  So please, put the sticker book away.
  • Reinforcement is defined by its effect. A particular stimulus is a reinforcer, for a particular person in a particular context, if it strengthens the behaviour that precedes it.  That’s it.  It doesn’t have to look like a reward, or be pleasant, or even make a lot of sense to an outside observer.
  • Reinforcement is change. Sometimes it is the addition of a stimulus that is reinforcing, for example, praise.  This is called positive reinforcement.  Other times it is a removing of a stimulus that is reinforcing, for example, you take medicine and your headache goes away.  This is called negative reinforcement.  The difference between positive and negative reinforcement can be blurry, but reinforcement always involves some change and it is the change that’s reinforcing.
  • Some reinforcers are more natural than others. When wanting to reinforce many people reach straight for artificial (contrived) reinforcers like stickers.  In fact, much reinforcement is natural.  That is, the reinforcer is a naturally occurring aspect of the situation that the behaviour brings about.  For example, if you actually enjoy reading, then you’ll read more often.  The reinforcer, the pleasure of reading, naturally occurs when you read.
  • Reinforcement happens, whether you are trying to do it or not. As reinforcement doesn’t just mean artificial reinforcement, but also natural reinforcement, you are reinforcing particular behaviours in your child whether you are trying to do so or not.  In fact, if any behaviour in any organism is being strengthened over time due to the consequences of that behaviour, or because the behaviour is itself enjoyable in some way, then reinforcement is happening.  That’s what reinforcement means.
  • Natural reinforcement is crucial to lasting behaviour change. Some parenting experts have expressed grave concerns about reinforcement.  What they are actually concerned about is the wide-spread overuse of artificial reinforcement (‘rewards’), and rightly so.  In fact, behaviours that are maintained by natural reinforcement are more likely to persist and to be experienced as freely chosen.
  • Particular stimuli are reinforcing in particular contexts. Stimuli aren’t just reinforcing or not.  They are reinforcing in a particular context.  So a big plate piled high with your favourite meal is likely to be highly reinforcing when you are hungry.  But after you’ve just finished eating a big meal?  Probably not.
  • We can learn to find specific stimuli reinforcing (or not). Some stimuli are inherently reinforcing, for example food (as long as you are hungry). But many reinforcers are learnt.  For example, money functions as a reinforcer for most of us because we have learnt that we can use the money to purchase reinforcers (like food).  Anything that happens at the same time as reinforcement may become reinforcing itself, for example, children may find nonsensical phrases or nicknames reinforcing if their parents usually use these phrases when giving affection.
  • Just because you think you are reinforcing behaviour, doesn’t mean you are. Just as we can learn to find particular stimuli reinforcing, we can also learn to stop responding to particular stimuli as reinforcers.  For example, many school children do not respond to phrases like ‘good try’ as reinforcers.  They’ve learnt that when adults say ‘good try’ they actually mean ‘wrong’.  So how do you know when you are reinforcing behaviour?  When the behaviour is strengthened over time.
  • Get your relationship right and you will have natural reinforcement on your side. If you are responsive, loving and kind, if you are sincere, honest and respectful of both your child’s needs and your own, if you regularly consider your child’s perspective and try as best you can to take their needs and wishes into account… then you’ll have tonnes of natural reinforcement strengthening exactly the kinds of behaviours you want to strengthen in your child. That’s not to say you won’t experience particular challenges.  But, overall, your child is likely to be kind, generous, happy and confident.

Apply it to your life: Get natural reinforcement on your side by building a strong, loving and respectful relationship with your child.  If you are wanting to strengthen a particular behaviour in your child, then think about what the natural reinforcers for that behaviour might be. Hint: consider your child’s perspective, what does he or she want?  Remember reinforcement is defined by the effects so experiment and see if the behaviour is strengthened over time or not.  Keep experimenting until you discover what works!

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Want you or your child to change? Here’s the formula

In our culture we fetishize willpower.  We get hooked on the idea that individuals change themselves through the internal flexing of their own will, somehow pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.  We fall into the trap of thinking that we can force others to change through sheer will.  Complex and poignant interactions between people become reduced to mere battles, to contests of wills.  As parents, we may believe that we need to win, to best our children in these battles with our stronger will.  In fact, positive and lasting changes usually do not come from willpower.  In fact, there’s a kind of violence to this flexing of will, whether you are wielding it on yourself or on another.  Willpower is force.  Willpower is unkind.  There is a price to be paid for using force.  You’ll find that there’s a cost.  People don’t like being forced, not even by loved ones, not even by themselves.

Is there another way?  Is there a way of building positive and lasting changes?  A way that is also kind and nurturing?  Fortunately, there is a universal formula for behaviour change.  You can apply this formula in changing your own behaviour, in changing your child’s behaviour and in changing the behaviour of other people in your life as well.   Once you understand it, it is simple, really simple.  Instead of forcing your will upon yourself or another, take the time to truly understand why the behaviour is happening, and then, with kindness and love, you need to rig the game.  That is, you need to deliberately build a context that supports the changes you’d like to see and let that context do the work for you.   How do you build such a context?

  1. Make it fun, joyful, meaningful and enriching. We behave in ways that bring joy and meaning to our lives so think about how you can make change as fun and enriching as possible.  If you want to begin an exercise program then start by finding a way of exercising that you actually enjoy.  Make exercising meaningful by reminding yourself what you are exercising for.
  2. Make it as easy as possible. Ensure that it is as easy as it possibly can be to change.  Consider what would make change easiest for yourself, or your child.  For example, if you’d like your child to have a bath with minimum fuss then carefully time bathtime for a time of day when it is likely to be as easy as it can be for your child.
  3. Remove obstacles. What gets in the way of change?  Identify obstacles and remove them.  Want to get your family eating healthier food?  Remove all unhealthy food from your fridge and pantry.
  4. Build skills. Identify any skills needed for change and ensure that you and your child have the opportunity to learn them.  So if you want to stop yelling at your child, think about what you want to be doing instead and practise that.  If you want your child to stop tantruming so often then consider what your child could do instead of tantruming, for example, sharing feelings verbally.   Teach this to your child.
  5. Build supports. Make sure your support network is working for behavioural change.  If you want to change how you are parenting then share this aspiration with your partner, a family member or a friend.  Work towards change together.  It is much easier to change when the task of changing is shared.
  6. Let go of perfection. You can change.  Your child can change.  Neither of you will ever be perfect.  One of the biggest traps to behaviour change is to think that because you can’t reach perfection you might as well do nothing at all.  In fact, every little change makes a difference.  So build a context that supports change and if you fail more often than you succeed that’s okay too.

Apply it to your life:  Do you have a goal for behavioural change, either in your behaviour or your child’s?  How can you apply the formula for change to this?  Remember, don’t flex your will.  Rig the game.

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