Using Praise to Shape Behavior
When I am working with a family in my role as counselor, one of the things I find myself working most with is a parents desire to change a child’s behavior. It is common for parents to feel like they are not being listened to, or that their child is purposefully acting out.
Most of the time I find children are listening and in some instances they are in fact acting out.
Every child has the desire for attention. They need the adults in their life to acknowledge them, notice them and appreciate them. It is through these experiences they learn to believe in themselves and develop confidence and competence.
As a parent you may find yourself saying “no” an awful lot. “No” does have its place, especially in situations that may involve safety issues. However “no” can get used so often that pretty soon it can feel like everything is “no” and you are constantly at battle.
If we take the concept of children needing acknowledgement to heart, we can begin to see that even negative behaviors invoke a response from parents. Although these negative behaviors are not producing the desired “feel good” feelings, children will continue the behaviors if they see that they are getting attention for them.
So how do we shift these negative behaviors and take more of the “no’s” out of our interactions?
Think about a time when someone noticed you did a good job and commented on it. No matter how small the comment or the job, it probably felt pretty good to get that recognition. Chances are you had a little boost of confidence and a smile after such an interaction. You were probably more likely to repeat that behavior or give your next project your very best attempt.
We can give this experience to our children as well. No matter how “bad” behavior gets, or how much of your time power struggles feel like they take up in your day, I can guarantee that there will be moments in which your child is behaving in a way you are wanting to see. It is these moments that we want to reinforce with praise.
A simple “good job” can be helpful, but to really get the most out of praise, be specific. This will give your child a clear picture of what they are doing right and what they might be able to do again to get this positive attention from you. For example, if they are minding their manners at a restaurant you might say “You are doing such a great job sitting still while we wait for our food” or maybe you see your child sharing with another child, you might comment “wow you are being such a good friend by sharing your toys. I’m so proud of you.” The more concrete your praise, the more impact it will have.
People who have not experienced therapy are often curious about the process of therapy. Questions such as, “Does therapy make you feel better?”or “ If I come a couple times will you be able to “fix” my problems.”
The answer is: therapy is a process and that process looks different for different people. It is also dependent on the issues at hand. Some people come to therapy to help figure something out. They are looking for solutions or direction. Others may be trying to work through a loss, or major life transition. And still others are working on relationships and patterns that are not serving them.
Each of these situations will require a different approach and a different length of time. The thing about therapy is that while you are right in the middle of it, it doesn’t always feel good. Uncomfortable and sometimes unwanted feelings arise. Part of the therapeutic process is often to face these feelings and find new ways to work with them in order to no longer avoid them.
During periods like this it is possible to feel disorganized in one’s thoughts and have a strong urge to run the other way. I have learned that these moments can be the ones that preceed a breakthrough of sorts, a moment of clarity or realization.
My favorite analogy for therapy is the game of Boggle. Some of you may have played this game and others might not have this as a frame of reference. In summary, Boggle is a word game, with dice that have a letter on each side and a square tray that has a slot for each die. The idea of the game is to put the plastic cover over the tray, shake it up, disorganizing all the dice, then allow them to fall back into new slots with new letter combinations showing. The timer is turned and players use the time to form as many words as they can out of the letters.
The process of therapy is like this, minus the timer. Often as we begin to explore ourselves we come to this disorganized place. We can’t quite wiggle our die back into their old slots and instead find ourselves a little confused and sometimes very uncomfortable. But this is just part of the process. Soon our die land in new formations, settling comfortably into new patterns and designs. New ways of being and interacting emerge, some of the old ones stick around too and others fade away.
The process of therapy is one that requests patience and courage from the client. It is not easy to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, nor is it simple to change patterns that have long been a part of one’s way of being. But change is possible, and if we can learn to tolerate the disorganizing part of this process it does become easier and the new patterns that emerge can be exciting enough to be worth the wait.
Emily Morrison is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Sonoma County California. She has a private practice in downtown Santa Rosa.
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