Tag Archives: behavior modification

Doing Behavior Modification Right

Toilet Drinking Ed

Opposite Day was on January 25th and, sadly, I forgot to celebrate it. Maybe that’s for the best now that it feels like we’re living in an opposite world where, as parents, we need to constantly monitor and compensate for what our children see and hear on social media, television, the news, and from the President.

About a decade ago I “invented” the term: “Backward behavior modification.” It’s sort of like Opposite Day in that it captures the natural (but unintentional) tendency for parents to provide positive reinforcement for their children’s negative and undesirable behavior. As a part of backward behavior modification, parents also often ignore their children’s positive behaviors.

Celebrating Opposite Day requires creativity, mental effort, and planning. Saying the opposite of what you mean is difficult. In contrast, backward behavior modification is all natural, but unhelpful. As parents, we seem to do it automatically. It requires creativity, mental effort, and planning to do behavior modification in the right direction.

The latest episode of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast is all about how parents can do behavior modification in the right direction. Now, don’t get me wrong . . . I’m not a BIG proponent of mechanistic, authoritarian behavior modification. However, as Dr. Sara and I talk about on the PPPP, behavior modification is a tool that most parents, at least on occasion, should have in their toolbox.

Here’s a link to the podcast on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Here’s another link to the podcast on Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

Here’s the official podcast description:

Behavior Modification: To Use or Not to Use—That is the Question!

Parenting is difficult. Parenting is also wonderful. As parents, most days we’re reminded of parenting challenges and joys. In today’s episode, Dr. Sara and Dr. John talk (and John dons his professorial persona and talks too much). Sara and John they talk about adding the crucial tool of behavior modification to your parenting toolbox. Don’t worry, we know how the idea of “behavior modification” can feel to parents; it can feel too sterile and mechanistic. The expectation isn’t for you to use behavior modification all the time, but instead to be able to use it when you need it. Even more importantly, our hope is for you to learn how to use it effectively. To help fulfill our hopes, Sara tells a story of behavior modification gone wrong and John and Sara share tips for using behavior modification effectively.

Don’t forget to like the PPPP on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/

And now we’re on Twitter. You can follow us there:  https://twitter.com/PPParentPod

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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).

Montana Parenting Homework, Part II: Backward Behavior Modification

Parent Homework Assignment 9-1

Backward Behavior Modification

One amazing thing about parenting is how easy and natural it is to do things backward. For example, imagine your 7th-grader comes home with a report card that has five A’s, one B, and one C. If you’re like most parents, you’ll take a quick look and say something like, “Why’d you get that C?” or, “How can you raise that B to an A?”

Even though these questions make excellent sense, they’re in direct violation of a very basic principle of human behavior. That principle is: Whatever you pay the most attention to will tend to grow and whatever you ignore will tend to shrink. Despite this powerful principle, our human and parental tendency is almost always to pay close attention to the F’s and C’s in life, while only offering a passing glance at the A’s.

Another version of the same problem happens with parents who have two or more children. Your children may coexist very nicely together 60 percent of the day and fight like cats and dogs for the other 40 percent. Unfortunately, in that situation the natural tendency is to give almost all your attention to your children when they fight and very little attention to them when they’re playing nicely.

The consequence of violating this basic principle is:

  • Your 7th-grader feels his efforts are underappreciated and becomes less motivated.
  • Your children, sensing that they can get more of your attention by fighting than from playing together nicely, may begin fighting even more.

Our first point with this homework assignment is to reassure you that it’s perfectly natural to pay more attention to “bad” behavior than “good” behavior. But, it’s equally true that even though paying too much attention to bad behavior is natural—it’s not helpful because it can become a reward for bad behavior.

Our second point is that you should work very hard to:

Pay more attention to your children when you like what they’re doing than you do when you don’t like what they’re doing.

Or, better yet, try this:

When giving out consequences, be boring, but when giving out rewards, be passionate.

I had this lesson driven home to me many years ago. While doing therapy with teenagers who were in trouble for delinquent behavior, they started telling me how much satisfaction they got from making their parents angry. When I asked about this, they said things like, “I love it when my dad’s veins start sticking out of his neck” or “It’s cool when I can get my mom so mad that she spits when she talks.”

Keep these images in mind the next time your child does something that gets under your skin. Then, instead of a long lecture complete with bulging veins and spitting, be short and boring. Use a monotone to say something like: “I don’t like it when you do that.”

Then, when your child comes home on time, or gets an A, or plays nice with her brother, or makes an intelligent comment about virtually anything—that’s when you should launch into a passionate and positive lecture—complete with bulging veins and spittle.*

*These rules may not hold perfectly for your unique child. For example, some teens may not like much positive attention. That’s why you’re the best judge of whether a particular parenting strategy will work with your child. We’re also kidding about the spittle; that’s hardly ever a good thing to see.

To look at the book this blog is based on, go to: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341534736&sr=8-1&keywords=how+to+listen+so+parents+will+talk