Backward Behavior Modification

Understanding backward behavior modification is very important for parents and for professionals who work with parents. In the following short excerpt from our book, “How to Listen So Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” we introduce the concept. If you have an opinion about this concept, be sure to comment and share your perspective.

Backward Behavior Modification: Using Boring, Natural, and Logical Consequences and Passionate and Surprise Rewards

As we alluded to in Chapter 4, backward behavior modification is endemic. Not only do parents tend to pay more attention to negative and undesirable behaviors than they do to positive and desirable behaviors, they also tend to do so with greater force or affect—which further complicates the situation. As noted previously, we learned about this complicated problem directly from teenagers who were in trouble for delinquent behaviors (see Chapter 4).

If parents engage in too much anger, yelling, or passion when their children misbehave, several problems can emerge: (1) The child will experience her parent’s passion as reinforcement for misbehavior; (2) the child will feel powerful and in-control of her parent (which is quite strong positive reinforcement); or (3) the parent will feel controlled by the child, or out-of-control, both of which further escalate the parent’s emotional behavior.

To address backward behavior modification problems, we teach parents how to use “Boring Consequences and Passionate Rewards.” The opening case in Chapter 1 is an example of the power of boring consequences. If you recall, the parents of Emma, a very oppositional nine-year-old, reported their “family was about to disintegrate” because of continuous power struggles. However, when they returned for their second consultation session, their family situation had transformed largely as a function of boring consequences. In Chapter 1, we quoted the father’s report on how he found boring consequences to be tremendously helpful. Emma’s mother was similarly positive:

Thinking about and then giving boring consequences helped us see that it was about us and not about our daughter. Before, she would misbehave and we would know she was going to misbehave and so we would go ballistic. Giving boring consequences suddenly gave us back our control over how we reacted to her. Instead of planning to go ballistic, it helped us see that going ballistic wasn’t helping her and wasn’t helping us. It felt good to plan to be boring instead. And the best thing about it was how it made the whole process of giving out consequences much shorter.

The inverse alternative to boring consequences is the practice of passionate rewards. Parents can be encouraged to intentionally pay positive and enthusiastic attention to their children’s positive, desirable, and prosocial behaviors. Passionate rewards include parental responses such as:

  • Applause or positive hoots and hollers
  • Verbal praise (“I am so impressed with your dedication to learning Spanish”)
  • Pats on the back, shoulder massages, and hugs
  • Family gatherings where everyone dishes out compliments

Passionate rewards are especially important for preadolescent children. As you may suspect, because of increased self-consciousness accompanying adolescence, passionate hugs and excessive compliments for a 14-year-old may function as a punishment rather than a reinforcement—especially if the hugging and hooting occurs in front of the 14-year-old’s peers.

Surprise rewards, presuming they’re provided in a socially tactful manner, are extremely powerful reinforcers for children of all ages. For example, with teenagers it can be very rewarding if parents suddenly and without advance notice say something like, “You know, you’ve been working hard and you’ve been so darn helpful that this weekend we’d like to give you a complete vacation from all your household chores or this $20 bill to go out to the movie of your choice with your buddies; which would you prefer?”

Surprise rewards are, in technical behavioral lingo, variable-ratio reinforcements. Across species, this reinforcement schedule has been shown to be the most powerful reinforcement schedule of all. Everyday examples of variable-ratio reinforcement schedules include gambling, golf, fishing, and other highly addictive behaviors where individuals can never be certain when their next response might result in the “jackpot.”

When coaching parents to use surprise rewards (variable-ratio reinforcement schedules), we emphasize that the surprise reward should be viewed as a spontaneous celebration of desirable behavior. Overall, we prefer this informal reinforcement plan over more mechanized sticker charts and reward systems (although we don’t mean to say that these more mechanized systems should never be used; in fact, when children are put in charge of their own reinforcement systems, these systems can be especially effective).

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