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Everyone likes positive reinforcement, but is doing this creating a generation of spoiled kids?

My short answer to that is – no, I don’t think so, but with a caveat. And that caveat is, when we do this flexibly. Positive reinforcement is a fantastic way of shaping behaviour and has the added benefit of building relationships. And yes of course, managing misbehaviour is also an important part of parenting (this is where the flexibility comes in). Often when I talk to parents – especially parents of teens! – I hear how they feel like they are “constantly nagging” their teen. While it is certainly no silver bullet, sometimes taking some of the emphasis away from what they are NOT doing, to what they ARE doing and using some positive reinforcement can help to re-balance the tone of your relationship.

I wrote about this in a previous post (age-appropriate affection) – there are lots of ways of demonstrating that you see and appreciate your child or something they have done. Having a repertoire of reinforcers helps you get away from feeling like it has to be a big thing to offer positive feedback, and instead focuses more on being able to help your child connect a behaviour with a positive experience. One way to think about this is to switch the language of “catching your child doing the wrong thing”, to “catching your child doing the RIGHT thing”.

Often though when I talk about this topic, there are a lot of questions/concerns so I’ll provide a counter to the most common questions/concerns that parents raise with me:

– Won’t they expect/need praise for every single thing that they do? Nope. Do you? What you are aiming to do – as a general principle – is to provide a generous amount of positive reinforcement at the start of trying to shape and modify a behaviour. As your child shows they are capable of doing this, you start to reduce the frequency of reinforcement so that it is more intermittent

– Why should I give them positive reinforcement for doing something they should be able to do anyway? Taking into account the point above that you don’t need to do it all the time, forever, there are two very good reasons to do it. 1) It costs you basically nothing, 2) it builds your relationship with your child. We all appreciate a bit of positive reinforcement, even if it is for routine things. A boss acknowledging you completing a task on time, a partner cleaning up after dinner, the chap at the coffee shop handing you your coffee.

– Teens don’t like, or care about, my attempts at positive reinforcement. Just because they don’t beam from ear to ear with pride from a comment you’ve made, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact. As above, these moments help create opportunities for positive (or at the very worst, neutral) interactions between you and your child. It models that we can express gratitude. It models respectful relationships. All of that lives somewhere in their developing brain and body and is of value

– Isn’t it fake to give positive feedback all the time? It sure can be if you express it that way! We’re not talking about throwing a party every time your child puts their towel on the rack. A few words, a nod of acknowledgement, a thumbs up – they all show that you saw what they did and you value it

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At ConnectEd Counselling and Consultancy, we believe that all families, and the communities they belong to, benefit from a little extra care and support. Whether the problems are big or small, we want to make sure everyone has the chance to feel connected – to themselves, to others and to their community. We offer counselling services to young people and families and have immediate availability. If you need some support, get in touch here:

(Written by: Dr Matt O’Connor)

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