Why it Helps to Stick to Reward Programs

I recently read an article in a parenting magazine by a frustrated parent who’d had enough of using stickers as a reward. In desperation, he decided to go “old school” and insisted that his child go to bed because he said so and not because she was getting a sticker.

As a parent, I understand that frustration. And as a clinical social worker specializing in kids, teens, and families, I often hear from parents that they feel like they’re bribing their children for good choices and good behaviors. They often feel like their kids should make good choices simply because it’s the right thing to do.

But as parents, we also need to realize that children aren’t born knowing what to do. Like most things in life, they learn by experience, natural consequences, and parental guidance. When we insist that children do something just because it’s the right thing to do, and then we show that we’re frustrated when they refuse, we’re giving attention to their negative behavior. The attention for the negative behavior rewards that behavior, and it increases. That also sets up the dreaded power struggle, and then children are much more likely to refuse what you want.

Repeated studies show that rewards are effective in teaching behaviors to children. Notice that I didn’t say that rewards are effective in making children do what they should every time (nor are they the only way to teach a child), but rewards do work when used consistently. Learning is a process of trial and error, and kids have to make some of the errors. But in the long run, rewards help in two scenarios — to help a child learn a new behavior, and to influence a child who knows a behavior but refuses to choose it.

A reward is different from a bribe. If the child has to do something before getting what he wants, it really is a reward. Follow the “First, Then,” rule developed by Dr. Carolyn Webster Stratton, creator of “The Incredible Years” parenting program. Here’s an example: “First you clean your room, and then you can have a cookie.” If, however, the child gets what he wants without performing the desired behavior first, there’s no true incentive to make the good choice. That’s when it becomes a bribe.

Here’s the toughest part of using a reward system. If your child chooses not to earn the reward, you have to let them do that. If you try to force them to do what you want anyway, it’ll undermine the reward system, it’ll give attention to the negative behavior, and it’ll set up — here it is again — the dreaded power struggle. If your child chooses not to do what you want, he’ll only learn your lesson if he experiences the natural consequences of his choice.

Here’s an example: “I know you want to go to the movies with your friend, but you chose not to clean your room, so you chose not to go. If you’d still like to go, first you clean your room, and then you can go to the movie.” And that’s all you say. You’ve set your boundary clearly, you’ve offered the child the chance to earn the reward, and you’re not going to give any attention to the child’s attempts to argue, because that attention will — you’ve got it — just encourage more of that negative behavior.

Children will test this approach because they have to test it; otherwise, they’d never learn that you mean what you say. If you stay steady and true to the “First, Then,” rule, your child will eventually learn that making even worse choices won’t get them what they want, and that’s when they’ll start choosing the reward. This process is called an “extinction burst.” It’s also known as, “Things get worse before they get better.” But things do get better.

Parents also worry that they’ll have to reward their children to the end of time. That’s not true, but it seems logical. What actually happens, though, is that you reward a positive behavior every time until it becomes consistent. At that point, you reward the behavior every now and then to reinforce it. (Training a dog works much the same way, but we don’t tell the kids that.) Again, repeated studies show that this approach is effective in creating true, lasting change.

As for the writer in that parenting magazine who’s had it with stickers, I imagine he’s preaching to the choir. Lots of parents can’t stand them. Parents hate finding stickers on the walls, on the bumper of the car, on the bumper of the dog … but the reward you use doesn’t have to be stickers. It just has to be something that the kid really wants — his currency, so to speak. My guess is that the stickers didn’t mean as much to the writer’s child as the attention she got for not going to bed, and that’s why the stickers didn’t work. If the attention is what the child wants, I’d suggest a routine of snuggling in bed with Dad reading a book at bedtime before settling in for the night. That might just do the trick.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. Carl’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

Q&A: How Do I Get My Child To Apologize?

Q: My child got in an argument during a play date recently, and I made him apologize. He didn’t want to, of course, and it was like pulling teeth to get him to do it. Why is it so difficult for children to say they’re sorry? Are they embarrassed? Stubborn?

A: Yes to both, but we should also add confused to the list.

Kids don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “How can I mess up today?” They genuinely want to do the right thing. But they’re not born knowing what we expect from them or what we define as “good behavior,” and they’re often confused about what they did wrong. For example, if a child isn’t sharing a toy, he’s often confused when he gets in trouble for that. In his mind, he had the toy first; why should he give it away when he’s not done with it? When he gets in trouble, he’s often thinking, “What’s up with that?”

Behavioral change can happen simply by “fake it until you make it” – i.e., your child apologizes not because he wants to but because you’re making him do it. In that approach, it doesn’t matter if he’s sincere about the apology; it just matters that he gets in the habit of doing it. Any insight about the benefits of an apology will come later.

It’s common, though, for parents to feel frustrated when their kids’ apologies aren’t sincere. It’s not enough for those parents that their kids say the words, “I’m sorry.” They also want their kids to mean it.

But if you really want your child to understand and accept why he needs to apologize, it won’t do any good to force him. He’ll just resent it and still not understand why it’s such a big deal. (Remember, “What’s up with that?”)

Before a child can give a sincere apology, he has to learn empathy. A sincere apology simply can’t happen if your son doesn’t see things from the other child’s point of view. In the earlier example of the child with the toy, the parent could help his child explore times when he felt left out when he wanted to play with a toy. These are teaching moments, not punishing moments. The empathy might take awhile, but if you stay patient, your child will eventually get the idea.

Parents sometime ask me when they should just let the apology slide (they’re almost always asking about teenagers). The answer is that there’s no age where you have to “let it slide.” You’re the parent no matter how old your child is, and it’s important that you have expectations, rules, and boundaries for kids of every age. You set expectations about apologies because it’s important to you as a parent. And while teens sometimes seem like the most stubborn people on the planet, the values that you’ve taught them are still there somewhere. Set the expectation and then give them the chance to do the right thing. They normally will.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He’s been in private practice for more than five years, and he’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. He’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, please call 614-477-5565.)

Squaring Off With Chronic Pain: A Family Battle

In the first session with a client, I emphasize that there’s no right or wrong way to feel.  Your feelings are what they are, and nobody can tell you that you shouldn’t feel that way.

But that’s sometimes easier said than done, especially when working with families influenced by Chronic Pain.  Much of the work with those families involves helping them resolve confusion about whether the Pain is actually real.  (The people suffering Chronic Pain aren’t normally confused about it; they’re feeling real Pain, even if others in the family doubt it.)

Friends and family try to be supportive, but often they get frustrated and say things like, “Suck it up already!” (By the way, that’s not normally helpful.)  But don’t judge these frustrated friends and families too harshly. More often than not, doubters simply can’t process what Pain actually means for their loved ones.  Is there an illness that’s being missed?  Is the person “faking it” to get out of doing something?  Is Pain psychosomatic?  (For the record, psychosomatic Pain is still real Pain.)

Denying the existence of Pain is, in an odd way, a coping skill.  The doubter doesn’t know how to help their loved one reduce Pain’s influence, so it’s just easier to deny Pain altogether than to admit that you can’t help someone that you love.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a teenage girl (let’s call her Jane) comes to see me because she’s trying to cope with Sadness related to Chronic Pain.  Sadness combines with Pain to make Jane miss a lot of school.  As a clinical social worker, I believe family sessions are important because everything that happens to one person also affects the rest of the family, so the family is involved in sessions, too.  Eventually, the dad (let’s call him Dad) says in session, “This is silly.  There’s nothing wrong with her.  Jane just needs to suck it up and go to school.”

Again, that sounds pretty harsh, but this attitude is common in families influenced by Chronic Pain.  Someone in the family – not always Dad, but often – feels overwhelmed about how to help Jane.  This happens a lot with dads because Chronic Pain thumbs its nose at Dad’s traditional job, which is to protect his family.  If there’s a problem, Dad think it’s his job to fix it; if he can’t, he thinks that makes him a “poor protector” and “a poor excuse for a man.”  But there’s no way for Dad to protect Jane from Pain.  He can’t control it, can’t threaten it, or even take it outside for a “chat.”  Dad can’t see Pain, can’t tell where it’s coming from, can’t smell it, and can’t even appreciate the experience of it.  Only Jane knows how it feels.

If Dad accepts that he can’t make things better for Jane, he also has to accept that he doesn’t meet his definition of what a father is supposed to be.  So he goes the other way, denying that Pain exists at all.  If Pain doesn’t exist, then Jane doesn’t need protecting, and Dad can focus on making Jane get off her “lazy butt” and go to school like the other kids.

That makes perfect sense.  Dad’s not a bad guy; he’s just overwhelmed.  His denial is actually his coping skill – not a healthy one, but a coping skill nonetheless.

This escalates problems in the family, of course.  Someone else (often Mom, but not always) defends Jane and the existence of Pain.  Jane’s brothers and sisters often get involved, taking sides with either Mom or Dad, and Jane is left in the middle of it all, feeling more and more rotten with each conflict.

Chronic Pain, meanwhile, is a bullying dictator.  It likes being in charge of the entire family.  Jane wants to ignore Pain just as much (or more) as her family wants her to ignore it, but Pain insists on being noticed.  It hammers Jane repeatedly until she’s ready to give in.

Chronic Pain craves family turmoil because the chaos helps it become even more entrenched in the family system.  The constant conflicts increase Stress on everyone, especially Jane, and Pain feeds off that Stress.  Picture Chronic Pain as the man-eating flower in Little Shop of Horrors, and Stress as the human flesh that it needs to eat.

Thankfully, family therapy can help Jane and her family.  It won’t make Pain go away (although we can work on relaxation techniques that might take the edge off Pain while reducing Stress on Jane and her family).  But the role of family therapy is to help families make positive, lasting changes that reduce Pain’s influence on their thoughts and behaviors, and I’ve seen many families take control back from Chronic Pain.

Pain hates that, by the way.  Too bad for it.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio.  He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s worked extensively with clients suffering from Chronic Pain.  He’s also the Family Therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine.  For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

Q&A: Can I Trust My Kids Online?

Q: I want to trust my children with their phones and social media, but I also want to make sure they’re not getting in over their heads. My daughter says I’m controlling and don’t trust her. I’m not sure what to do.

A: Let’s pretend that you take your daughter to the mall because one of her favorite bands is making an appearance to sign autographs. The mall is packed with people, but your daughter will be “embarrassed” if you stay with her. What would you do?

Your answer to that will probably be the same as your answer to this question. You would never throw her into that chaotic mess alone; you’d wade through the crowd with her to be sure she’s OK.

I hear this question a lot because parents want to trust their kids. They want to think that their kids will do the right things, and most of the time, they will. But sometimes that puts too much responsibility on them. There are a lot of positives that come from smart phones and online access (and for many tweens and teens, their social life “would be ovvvvvvvver” without them). But the internet and social media also offer new ways to make kids vulnerable to predators and inappropriate interactions with peers (for example, online bullying).

That’s why parents should have access to their kids’ social outlets. And if the kids refuse to allow that, they shouldn’t have access to social media.

There’s another reason for parents to monitor their kids’ online access – because no matter what they say, deep down, most kids really want you to do it. They crave rules and boundaries from parents, even if they’d never admit that. Your expectations serve as proof to your kids that you still love them enough to protect them and to make them do the right things. Even teens realize that they don’t know everything, and they still need you to be in charge (at least, on the big issues). Parental boundaries create a box of sorts for your kids, and when they understand where those boundaries are, children of all ages – yes, even tweens and teens – can feel safe exploring inside that box, knowing that you’ll keep them safe.

One last thing: Some parents don’t like the feeling of “stalking” their children online, but you don’t have to watch their accounts 24 hours a day. Just tell the kids that you will be checking their accounts, and then make sure to do it every now and then. The fact that you’ve done it before, and that you might randomly do it again, will give your kids pause when they’re tempted to try something online that they shouldn’t.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

Q&A: How Do I Find Meaning in Loss?

Q: I suffered a traumatic loss recently, and some friends told me I should “find meaning” in the loss and move on.  I know they want me to feel better, but I’m having a hard time finding anything good right now. How can I find the meaning they keep talking about?

A: The ability to find positive meaning in trauma/loss is indeed helpful in recovering and being able to move on with your life. Viktor Frankl described this as, “finding meaning in your suffering,” in his classic about dealing with trauma, Man’s Search for Meaning.

But before you can do that, you have to let yourself feel the pain of the loss. Too often, people look for meaning before processing their feelings, leaving grief unresolved and buried deep inside. Feelings will always work their way back out, so it’s simpler to accept and work through them.

It’s also important not to pressure yourself to find “the meaning” even when you think you’re ready. Be patient; meaning often comes from the process of grieving itself. If you push to find it, you’ll just frustrate yourself. Often, people rush to find meaning because they hate experiencing the loss and the pain. But true meaning doesn’t mask the grieving process; it’s part of it.

There are some things, though, that might help you work through your feelings:

— Talk about how you feel with supportive friends and family members.

— Keep a journal about your thoughts and feelings. Studies show that the act of putting pen to paper engages a part of the brain that isn’t engaged just by talking.

— Join a support group. The group members can help you work through your loss, and you might even find meaning by helping others in a similar situation.  (But be careful about helping others before you’re really ready.  You might trigger your own unresolved feelings.)

— And, of course, quality counseling can help when you feel stuck trying to make sense of what happened.

That’s really the key to dealing with trauma. It’s not necessarily about finding something positive; it’s about trying to make sense of your loss. That doesn’t mean the trauma will ever be “OK”; it means that your brain can finally process and accept what happened, even when you don’t like it.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy in Worthington, Ohio. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

Want Family Therapy but Nobody Will Go?

People sometimes tell me that their family needs therapy, but nobody in the family would ever agree to come.

My advice: Come without them.

I know that sounds like nonsense. How can you figure out who’s to blame without the whole family there? How can you help people see where they’re wrong? How can you tell them what to fix when they’re not in the room?

I can’t, but that’s OK. Those aren’t the things that I do, anyway. It’s not my job to decide who’s right or wrong, or to point the accusing finger of blame, or to prescribe miracle cures for your family. Instead, my job is to get to know you, to understand your stories as individuals and as a group, and to explore with you possible small changes that should lead to larger, positive changes in the family system.

How we do that together is by exploring not only what happens when the problem is present, but what’s going on when the problem doesn’t have the family in its grip. We call these moments “exceptions to the problem behavior,” but maybe we ought to call them, “stuff you do most of the time but don’t notice because things are going well when you do them.”

Still, wouldn’t we need more than one family member in the room to help create positive change? Ideally, yes, but it’s not necessary. That’s because the family is a system. (If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you can skip this paragraph; you’ve heard this before.) A system is simply a pattern of communications, behaviors, and reactions to those behaviors that happen over and over again. For example, if a kid habitually leaves his dirty boots in the kitchen instead of the mud room, his mother might habitually react by getting mad and yelling at him. If she starts to get really angry, then Dad will jump in to calm Mom down, like he always does. And when Dad jumps in, then Sister … well, you get the idea.

To create change, we don’t need 10 people on the edge of their seats in my office. (I don’t even have 10 seats in my office.) We just need one person who’s willing to break the pattern. If that person changes what they do, everyone else has to change their reactions, too.

For example, I had one client who came to see me because of a relative’s relationship with Depression. The relative had a life change that damaged how he saw himself, and she was worried that Depression would never let him go. He also refused to come see me. But she kept coming in, and we explored possible ways that she could change how she reacted to him. She started concentrating on the positive things that he did, and she worked piece by piece to help him see that he still had value and potential. Gradually, Depression loosened its hold on him even though he never showed up in my office.

One final thought – often, teens are the ones who don’t want to come to family therapy. That’s OK. Much of my family work involves meeting with just the parents, anyway. But if you really want your teenager to attend family therapy, just say this: “You don’t have to go with us, but we’re going anyway, and we’re going to be talking about you.”

Works almost every time.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.