What strategies help parents create self-winding citizens
adhd - Family dynamics are part of ADHD
Being a parent requires that you exercise your adult judgment by asserting control over your child. This is unavoidable. The only question is how you will do this and with what success.
Attempts to obtain compliance from children: three strategies
Just as children's behavior often serves to exert emotional pressure over adults, the opposite is also true. Adults also exert pressure on children to get them to comply. Being a parent requires that you exercise your adult judgment by asserting control over your child. This is unavoidable. The only question is how you will do this and with what success.
There are numerous strategies. For discussion purposes, I have organized them into three groups. First, there are mirror neuron strategies to apply emotional pressure to create aversive emotions in your child to get him to comply with demands. Parents do this by yelling, threatening or complaining. The second strategy is an attempt at the opposite. It is withdrawal from the mirror neuron connection by shutting down emotions that make you feel bad. This is done by having cool rational, logical discussions of "choices." The third strategy is the applications of reward and punishment contingencies to shape the child's behavior. For discussion purposes, I will treat each of them separately. However, most situations are really a mix of all three.
1. Using mirror neurons: top-dog or under-dog
Applying emotional pressure utilizes the empathetic, mirror neuron connection from the parent to the child to cause the child emotional discomfort. The child's compliance is thus rewarded by negative reinforcement. In other words, the child complies to get those bad feelings to stop.
Negative reinforcement is an often-misunderstood concept. Unlike common usage, it is not equivalent to punishment. Negative reinforcement results from the relief when something bad stops. An example of this is lying in the sun on the beach until you are uncomfortably hot. You run into the water to cool off. Ending the too hot feeling feels good. The good feeling after running into the water reinforces running into the water behavior.
Therefore, negative reinforcement results from the cessation of aversive stimuli, in this case the unpleasant feelings the parent is causing in the child.
There are actually two major approaches to applying emotional pressure, top dog and underdog.
In the top dog version, the parent tries to use their size, emotional intensity and lung power to create bad feelings in the child to get them to behave as requested. Typical examples are yelling phrases such as, "I am sick and tired of how you keep doing..." "Aren't you ever going to figure this out?" "Just shut up and go to your room." When roared in loud, angry tones, such phrases convey little more than the adult's emotional intensity. The hope is that this will be frightening enough to the child that they will comply to get the fear feelings to stop. Such strategies only tend to be effective in the shortterm and seldom result in long-term change.
The underdog approach is less overtly emotionally intense. The strategy is to trigger guilt or shame in the child. It is hoped that the child will comply to get these feelings of shame to stop. To create this effect, pleading tones are used to utter phrases as: "We never had these kind of problems with your brother," "I am so disappointed in you," or "It hurts my feelings when you say that."
Though this last strategy sometimes works on a temporary basis for little girls, it is notably ineffective for little boys. Boys simply do not have as strong an underdog connection to others. Just as little boys are much more likely to enjoy teasing or wrestling the family dog, they are equally willing to do the same with their mother. For a boy, the yipping of both mom and dog are not much different. He knows that neither of them will actually bite him.
Kids turn strategies back on parents
In the emotional pressure arena, children often become clever enough to turn underdog strategies around on the parent. When they get upset they may screech things like, "I hate you, you're not my mother", or "I don't love you." Though there is seldom substantive truth to such phrases, they can be powerful emotional weapons on a parent who has tried to use their own bad feelings in an underdog strategy to control their child. If you hear these phrases from your child, it is likely that you are using underdog emotional control strategies and the child has learned this and is playing it back on you.
The basic message from both parent and child in the last examples is "Don't you care about my feelings"?
Parents sometimes do not recognize this playing back of their own strategies and expect to be able to apply underdog emotional control to children and not have children learn the strategy and play it back on them.
At more dependent, younger ages, children know that they have to maintain adult favor to get their basic survival needs met. As they begin to separate from the family in adolescence, that dependency subsides. If parents have had some success with emotional control until adolescence, they may have a hard time shifting to contingency management (the third strategy) when their child reaches adolescence.
With an ADHD child, emotional control strategies are even more likely to fail. Initial success with such strategies fades because the child's ADHD is a defense specifically tailored to filter out emotional discomfort. The parent yells or pleads and the child mentally vanishes. Parents and child spiral down in a conditioned attentional avoidance loop.
One final comment: emotional control strategies are easy to do because you mostly express what you "feel like" at the moment. More effective contingency management strategies take proactive thought and preparation. Thus, they are not as easy.
Logic is an organized way of going wrong with confidence.
While the above behavior control strategy utilized emotional control as its major change agent, the second strategy is an attempt at its opposite, cool emotional detachment and logic.
As discussed previously, the empathic connection with others can cause us to literally "feel" another's emotions. It can be very upsetting for a parent to be connected in such a strong way to their child. It is terrible to watch your child, red-faced and crying, frustrated with their homework, and screaming, "I'm stupid," or sitting in the room lonely and depressed because they have no friends. If you have been there as a parent, you know this really does physically hurt. It would hurt less to take the "hit" yourself, than to watch them suffer.
To avoid this pain, some parents, particularly fathers, try to keep their interaction about their child's problems in the cool, calm, unemotional realm of rationality. This is supported by our favorite cultural illusion, that we are rational, logically directed beings.
Parents justify this strategy with the belief that the reason the child does not complete his homework or behave is that he does not understand the behavior that is required, or does not understand the reasons he should behave differently. Parents delude themselves into believing that verbal agreement and understanding will translate into behavior change. They want to talk their child into saying something such as "Yes, I know I did wrong and will never do that again," or, "I know it is not the end of the earth if I cannot solve this math problem. I will just ask my teacher tomorrow."
As you can see, that sounds quite absurd when supposedly rational responses are examined closely. If your child was that logical and rational, you would not be having this discussion with him in the first place. Yet this is what parents and teachers do. Are children really that stupid? I can guarantee they are not.
I have told you a thousand times...
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Many parents will say to a child "I've told you a hundred times." The parent will then go on to repeat some direction as if the child does not understand. Or, they will speak to the child about choices and consequences, but never dish out the consequence.
The problem is not that the child does not understand how to clean his room or to stop hitting his brother. It is that he does not want to or that his emotions have taken over the rational control of his behavior. Research confirms this. Except at low levels, emotions, rather than rationality, control thoughts and behaviors.
Lack of understanding by the child of what is required is seldom the problem. Instead, much of what drives children's, as well as adult's behavior is not rational thought, but habit, with much habit emotionally driven. The overriding power of habitual behavior is what makes discussing choices and making logical arguments to children almost worthless as a behavior change strategy.
Habits, not "understanding," drives behavior
Of all the ways of defining man, the worst is the one which makes him out to be a rational animal.
Let me illustrate the fallacy of our ability to rationally control complex behaviors with an example we can all relate to: dieting.
From my experience, most overweight people I have treated are the world's experts on diets, nutrition, food exchanges, and exercise programs. Overweight folks have all the information that they need to control their eating rationally. However, if you place a freshly baked piece of apple pie loaded with vanilla ice cream in front of them, and then walk out of the room, what happens to the pie?
The dieting individual can then tell you to three decimal places how much weight it will add to each hip. This is non-rational behavior, and is the reason that this person is overweight. In the same vein, the majority of human behavior is not rational or consciously directed. Rather, it is driven by emotionally triggered habit chains.
For the overweight person, as for most of us, it is (current or anticipated) feelings that drive our behavior, and not our rational choices. What's more, we do not try to explain our irrational behavior until we are forced to face it. For example, our peers may ask us, "Why did you do that?" The answer we tend to give is not truly why we did what we did. Instead, it is an answer that we conjure for our audience that will allow us to continue the facade of appearing rational. It is, after all, socially desirable to appear to be a rational being to both ourselves and others. For example, the overweight person may tell us that they ate the pie because they skipped breakfast and therefore could afford the calories. We all know that is not why they ate the pie.
In a similar vein, thoughts are habitually triggered by environmental cues. If you drive the same route to work every day, you may notice that you have similar thoughts as you pass the same places each day. This billboard triggers one thought chain, and that store triggers another. In other words, most of moment-to-moment psychological life occurs automatically in response to internal and external cues. Most of this process is adaptive, but some is not. How this all works with children will be explained following a discussion of what habits are.
Habits are huge, sophisticated knowledge structures that control most of our thoughts, behaviors and feelings. Habits and skills control the great mass of how we experience ourselves and how others experience us. (We call habits skills when we purposely create them.) Most behavior occurs in an automatic fashion, with minimal conscious awareness or decision-making. Even when we make a conscious effort to do something different than the habitual behavior, it is difficult to change: the smoker who keeps trying to not light up, the dieter who keeps trying not to eat sweets, the couch potato who swears they will exercise today, but becomes "too busy." You get the idea. Thus, it makes little sense to talk to children about their choices, since that is not what is causing their behavior, good or bad.
These complex habit patterns are what is meant by the terms subconscious or unconscious mind. Since this part of our mind accounts for the vast majority of our behavior, this is what we have to address if we are going to change ourselves or our children.
3. Contingency management to create habits
Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into, but hard to get out of.
Clearly, the first two interventions discussed above, emoting and explaining, do not work very well. The third, and the most effective, strategy is to reward the behaviors you want and punish those you do not want. It is called contingency management. There is nothing new in this concept. It has been around for years. However, it is seldom done properly to effect behavior change. All behaviors, be they thoughts, habits, skills, emotions, spacing out, talking, social interactions, physical effort, etc. are only repeated because they work in some way to improve your state, even if it is in the very short-term. When the ubiquitousness of this principle is not understood or appreciated, things tend to go wrong. Since the majority of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are really habit patterns, the real goal of manipulating reinforcers and punishers are to create new habits that will serve you and your child well in the future. For example, if tonight you reward your child for doing their homework neatly, accurately and completely, this is not about getting tonight's homework done. It has already been done by the time you reward them. Rather, it is about developing the sustaining habit of repeatedly doing homework neatly, accurately and completely in the future. If you go about shaping this homework doing behavior in the right way, eventually they will do their homework because of their own internal motivation, be it pride, a sense of accomplishment, industriousness in working for future goals, etc., so that your child no longer needs to be externally rewarded.
The art of parenting is to consistently use contingencies to shape many internally motivated habits so that your child becomes a "self winding" adult.
The procedures for effective contingency management are covered in the chapter, "Parenting from a Learning Model" in ADHD: Drug-free and Doin' Fine
Article is in the following categories: