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How to Overcome 3 Goals of the 'Life-or-Death' Struggle with Reinforcement
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In the last section, we discussed Blowing Up at Children. Blowing Up at Children has included Stress, Trigger Thoughts and the Parental Anger Survey Technique.
Do you have a client whose child has suddenly begun to misbehave? Could it be that the child is frustrated in his or her attempts to be significant or important?
In this section, we will discuss three Misdirected Goals. These will include attention, power, revenge and the Reinforcement Technique. As you listen, compare your own techniques with those presented in this section.
Marie, age 35, came to me about her son, Brock, age 5. Marie stated, "Brock used to be very attached to me. He would always try to be very helpful, trying to help with household chores. I would always tell him no, though, because he was too little to help! He was so cute trying to dust, but I was afraid he was going to break my china. Anyway, there’s been kind of a sudden change in Brock's behavior. Now he misbehaves often.
"He’ll act up in public, in the supermarket. My husband and I are sure he’s just trying to get attention, so of course we ignore it...but the thing is, it doesn’t work! When you ignore a kid's bad behavior, the books say it’s supposed to make them stop, but Brock doesn’t seem to get that! And bedtime! Oh my gosh…it’s like a life-or-death struggle with him now! He used to go so peacefully, and now whatever he does has to be in opposition to what I want! How do I get my sweet little boy back?"
How might you have responded to Marie’s predicament?
It sounded to me like, in addition to normal development of establishing his identity, Brock had become discouraged. Have you found, as I have, that children can be very easily discouraged in their natural attempts to achieve a sense of significance or importance? In my experience, children still experience a desperate need to belong but often can’t find a way to feel importance in the family.
In listening to Marie's story, I felt that perhaps when Brock may have believed his attempts to achieve importance through his own contributions failed. Perhaps he tried to find an alternate route to getting his needs for safety, security ad self-esteem met. I thought his misbehavior was probably a result of three misdirected goals.
3 Misdirected Goals
♦ #1 Attention
I stated to Marie, "Brock’s first goal here seems to be attention, as you mentioned. Since Brock couldn’t get recognition for efforts to contribute positively to the family, by trying to help with chores, he seems to have decided that misbehaving is a more effective way to get the attention he needs. The goal of attention for attention’s sake takes the place of the goal of positive contribution. Perhaps Brock felt that as the center of attention, he would gain some significance and a sense of belonging."
This belief controlled a lot of his behavior. Maybe he became desperate for attention and developed great skill in increasing family upsets. Marie agreed.
♦ #2 Power
In addition to attention, I believed that Brock’s second goal was power. Of course Brock’s desperate attempts to be the center of attention were met with disapproval. Marie and her husband did not want Brock to believe that he was the center of attention, so they likely thwarted his demands for attention. Brock, once again, tried to find an alternative way to feel significant. Maybe Brock observed the power in his parents’ forceful behaviors, so he decided that by getting power by forceful behavior himself, he could achieve importance.
I stated to Marie, "Brock might have tried to feel powerful by refusing your requests and defying your rules, like turning bedtime into a life-or-death struggle."
♦ #3 Revenge
I felt that third, in addition to attention and power; Brock’s final goal was probably revenge. Both Marie and her husband were faced with Brock’s visible challenge to their authority, and they had responded by escalating the struggle, to the point of force. Marie stated to me, "We do spank him, from time to time…which, I might add, is something we never had to do before this sudden burst of misbehaviors…"
I stated, "As this pattern continues, with Brock misbehaving and you spanking him, Brock might become even more discouraged. Brock’s attempts to gain significance through power have failed, just like the previous attempts to gain attention and make positive contributions. Brock is probably feeling hurt and angry at being thwarted in every attempt to gain importance to you, and he may have decided that the only way to be noticed is to strike back. Revenge might be his chosen way to attain significance."
Marie asked, "So, basically, you’re saying that when Brock misbehaved, I was supposed to give him more attention? Wouldn’t that only make his behavior worse?"
I stated, "You probably don’t want to give Brock attention for his negative actions, but rather for his positive ones, like when he tried to help you with chores. As you know, if you reward a child for doing something, he is more likely to do it again. You mentioned also, that if you completely ignore a child when he does something, that behavior often disappears over time. I have found that it is possible toreinforce a child’s behavior simply by noticing it."
Marie asked, "Can reinforcement also happen when attention is negative? Am I giving him attention by scolding or yelling?" I stated, "Exactly. It has been my experience that children find negative attention very reinforcing, which could make the task of disciplining Brock a complex one. Even your negative responses to his misbehavior can act as reinforcement, increasing the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated." Marie asked, "What is there to do?" I stated, "Almost the only way not to reinforce a behavior is to completely ignore it."
Do you have a Marie? Would playing this section, regarding the basics of positive and negative reinforcement be beneficial during your next session?
♦ Technique: Reinforcement
I asked Marie to try the Reinforcement Technique. Marie drew a line down the center of piece of paper and wrote Brock’s most aggravating and common misbehaviors on the left side. On the right side, Marie wrote her responses to each behavior. I asked her to think carefully about what parts of her responses might be rewarding to Brock.
Next, I asked Marie to reflect on what other rewards might exist for the misbehavior. Perhaps Brock reduced his anxiety, got attention from friends or was able to avoid something unpleasant. Maybe the behavior was fun or allowed him to be closer to her.
Finally, I asked Marie to write if there were any consequences to each behavior. If there were no consequences to the behavior, then Brock was probably not likely to stop the behavior. Also, if consequences were not consistent, Brock still might take the chance, thinking that he could escape discipline this time. I felt that by Marie not only identifying her responses to Brock’s behavior, but also identifying how Brock responded to these responses could help Marie to discipline Brock.
Do you have a Marie... who is struggling with a child clamoring for attention? Might your Marie benefit from hearing this section?
In this section, we have discussed 3 Misdirected Goals. These have included attention, power, revenge and the Reinforcement Technique.
In the next section, we will discuss Building Assertive Parent-Child Communication. This will include reacting to a child’s behavior, why the child’s behavior affects you this way and what you want to change.
What are 3 misdirected goals that children often use to obtain a sense of significance?
To select and enter your answer go to .