Not Following Through with Consequences
Continuing in our series to help parents with their behavior management skills, we’ll talk a little bit about the tendency to not follow through with consequences. First though, we need a review of what we’re talking about when we say “consequences”.
Consequences are what immediately follow behaviors and determine the likelihood that those behaviors will either be continued, repeated, increased, decreased, or whether they disappear all together. It gets a bit confusing when we start throwing phrases around like positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment (doesn’t mean it’s good), and negative punishment (doesn’t mean it’s bad).
First, what is a consequence? When we hear the word consequence, we almost always think of something bad – when we work with parents, we often find ourselves having to re-define the word. Consequences simply put, are what happen following behaviors. They can be good or bad or somewhere in between, but they must follow a behavior. The confusion becomes even more pronounced when we start adding in other complicating words like reinforcement and punishment. Then when we throw words, such as positive and negative into the mix, it becomes even more confusing. Let’s try to tease these apart a bit and begin with the consequence of reinforcement.
Reinforcement is a consequence that increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. Simple as that. It’s important to note that reinforcement doesn’t guarantee that the behavior will occur again, but that there’s a good chance that the behavior will occur again. Also, it’s important to know that what is reinforcing is often different for different individuals…there are some general tendencies, but it still comes down to each individual.
There are two basic types of reinforcement, and the terminology used is often very confusing for parents (it’s often very confusing for some professionals too). There is positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, and since this piece is being written with parents in mind, I’m going to try to simplify.
Let’s consider positive as adding, and negative as subtracting just like math “+” and “-“. Notice that positive does not mean good and negative does not mean bad; these are very common misconceptions. So, let’s put this together a little further and talk about positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
–Positive (adding something) Reinforcement
When we add something following the occurrence of a behavior, it is called positive; we’re adding something. If my child picks up his or her dirty clothes, and I say “thank you for picking up your dirty clothes”, I have added something following the occurrence of the behavior. In this instance, this is verbal praise, and, in general, verbal praise is reinforcing for most kids (but not all). By adding the verbal praise following the behavior, I’m increasing the likelihood that the behavior of picking up the dirty clothes will occur again. The reinforcement must also occur very soon after the desired behavior for it to be effective; immediately if possible.
As another example, your child brushes her teeth, and when she finishes, you give her a sticker for her to put on a sticker chart. We know, ahead of time, that our child likes stickers. We’re adding something, in this case, stickers, following the brushing teeth behavior to increase the chance that she will brush her teeth again. Our ultimate goal here may be for her to brush her teeth twice a day without reminders, and we are using positive reinforcement to help her reach that goal.
Reinforcement is also a factor with adult behaviors, but for simplicity, we’ll just deal with parents and kids for now.
I’ll reiterate from earlier, the use of reinforcement, does not guarantee that the behavior will occur again, but there’s a better chance that it will.
–Negative (removing something) Reinforcement
When we remove or subtract something following a behavior, it is called negative; simply removing something. Negative reinforcement therefore is subtracting something to increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again which is super counterintuitive on the surface. However, one of the most common and easily understood examples of negative reinforcement occurs with seatbelt use. When we buckle our seatbelt, that annoying ringing or tone that we hear in our cars stops. The behavior of buckling the seatbelt increases by taking away the annoying sound. We buckle, and the sound is removed.
Another very common example has to do with nagging. Our children will empty the dishwasher to remove the nagging that is occurring (nagging is also annoying just like the tone in the car). Nagging increases the likelihood that the behavior of emptying the dishwasher will occur. The child empties the dishwasher, the nagging is removed. You are removing something to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. However, it should also be noted here that there are side effects with the use of nagging–it sets up a separate behavioral cycle in the parents that is not good for communication in general, and we encourage parents to avoid the use of nagging. We present it here just as a common example of what often happens.
Not Following Through with Consequences (Reinforcement):
So that brings us to the most common issue for parents with reinforcement: Forgetting to provide the consequence when the behavior has been displayed. For example, let’s say you’ve set up a plan that your child is going to receive something (sticker, board game with parents, ice cream, etc.) after he or she brushes their teeth twice a day for two days in a row. The child then brushes her teeth twice a day for two days in a row, but you get busy doing parent or adult things and forget to provide the sticker, or you’re too busy to play the board game. This failure to provide the consequence will result in inconsistent performance on the child’s part (frustrating you) or poor performance the next time (also frustrating to you). Once the behavior pattern has been established over time and turned into a habit, then likely only an occasional reminder and rarely reinforcement will be needed, but until then, consistent reinforcement will be necessary. In the case here, maybe using stickers paired with praise, then moving to praise only will get the job done. Parents, should not, however, assume that once the behavior occurs, that the child will continue to do it without reinforcement; to establish the behavior as a habit, multiple repetitions will need to occur over time.
Next up, we’ll continue this discussion on not following through, but we’ll focus on the consequences known as punishment.
If you’re having behavioral challenges with your child or children ages 2-12, and want more help, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-974-6177. We can do more in-depth parent coaching either in-person or via Zoom.