Behavior Modification: How Does Your Garden Grow?

I’m big about behavior modification. I love it! It’s amazing to think the reactions you give others can shape their behavior (this works on pets, kids, and spouses, too!).  Behavior modification, put simply, is increasing the behaviors you do want while decreasing the behaviors you don’t want all by the way you respond. In order for behavior modification techniques to work, they need to be applied repeatedly, consistently, and firmly.

Think of all your interventions (praising, punishing, or simply talking to your child) as ATTENTION.  Interactions that you perceive as negative may be simply attention to your child. ATTENTION is to BEHAVIOR as WATER is to PLANTS. The more attention (water) you give your child’s behavior (plant), the more it will GROW.

What kind of plant do you want to grow, a flower (good behavior) or a weed (bad behavior)? If you want flowers to grow, you need to pay most attention to the good behavior. As those of you with gardens know, weeds grow even faster with water than flowers do!  Therefore, if you pay attention to the negative behavior more than the positive, you’ll have a garden full of weeds (or a house full of chaos)!

It’s waaaay easier to pay attention (or start paying attention) to the negative behaviors than the positive. All too often, children catch our attention once they’ve done something wrong.  They learn this! They learn what works to get your attention. If you start paying attention to good behavior (repeatedly and consistently), they will learn this works best and will start giving you more good behavior.

Most kids want their parents’ attention more than any other thing. Therefore, any time you are tuned into your child, you are reinforcing what they are doing. Eye contact is very reinforcing!! Using their name is very reinforcing.  Think of the Far Side cartoon about what dogs hear…

The same is true for kids… you could be saying anything! All your child knows is that in a world of busy schedules and many distractions, THIS got your attention. THIS got you saying his or her name! This got YOU! So, if it was an undesirable behavior, do your best to refrain from responding to it with the most attention you’ve given your child all day. If it was a minor misbehavior, ignore, and make a note to pay attention to them again as soon as they start doing the right thing. If it was a more significant misbehavior and not one to be ignored, address it briefly, ideally with a consequence, and move on.

Don’t let your PRAISE become “blah blah blah” either! Specifically name what your child has done right, i.e. “That was great the way you _________” or “I really liked it when you __________”.  Some kids will feel it even more if you throw in a high five, a hug, or a kiss. Reward good behavior with special time with YOU.


Published in: on September 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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I saw the above billboard last weekend, and I absolutely love it. I didn’t have any success finding it online, but after posting the original blog one of my clients found it for me! (Thank you ;)). The message is a powerful one. I felt a brief pang of sadness that many children these days are so inundated by technology, so much so that some rarely go out and absorb the REAL sights, smells and sounds of the world.

Unplug your child. Limit TV time and video game time. Limit time with anything that plugs in or uses batteries, especially during summer! Less TV, more bike riding. Fewer video games, more splashing. Minimize computer time, maximize outside time. Don’t allow your child to be so absorbed in the artificial, over-stimulating, addicting world of electronics that they miss out on getting dirty and living life-real life- in a tactile way.

Unplug yourself. In family therapy, I have seen a child ask her parent to stop playing on the cell phone so much. Your children need and deserve your undivided attention as much as you can realistically give it. There are enough demands in life that one not need the additional distraction of staring at a handheld device during opportunities for interaction with your child. Additionally, if you are doing this often, you are modeling for your child how to “tune out” of real-time interactions and “plug in” to technology. When I recently expressed surprise to a parent I work with that he didn’t have internet access on his phone, he stated he didn’t want the distraction from his kids. He said he witnesses so many parents on the phone while their kids are talking to them and he didn’t want that same temptation. After this session, I turned off the notification option on my cell phone that alerts me to every incoming email. When I’m not at work, my son deserves a mommy who is not only physically present, but mentally present as well. I want him to feel my presence and my attention as much as possible without getting side-tracked by a “beep” that signals someone else wanting my attention. (Yes, I listen to/learn from my clients as well!)

If you are struggling with electronics addiction at your house (either on behalf of your child, yourself, or both!), begin by setting limits on when and for how long these devices can be used. When you spend time with your children, put your computer and cell phone out of reach. Ignore the phone if you’re in the middle of a conversation with your child. If a text message comes in while your child is telling you a story, wait. Not only are you showing your child respect and consideration, but you are modeling what you expect of them. (They will be teenagers with text messages rolling in soon enough.)

Unplug your family. Have a whole meal without outside interruptions. Play a board game that doesn’t require batteries. Go camping and leave the laptop at home. After all, when’s the last time you or your child touched a real live frog??

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 8:52 pm  Comments (2)  
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