Did you know that parents could train their children to act defiant? “Who in their right minds would do that?” you may wonder. Well, many of us actually do. Find out how a lot of parents unknowingly train their children in rebellion using negative reinforcement.
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Behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner, believed that one’s behavior could be increased or decreased using a stimulus through a process called Operant Conditioning1.
There are two types of Operant Conditioning – reinforcement and punishment.
The difference between reinforcement and punishment is that the former encourages a behavior to repeat, while the latter discourages it.
Reinforcement can be positive or negative, but positive and negative do not represent the nature or quality of the reinforcement. Instead, they describe whether a stimulus is added (positive) or subtracted (negative) to reinforce the desired behavior.
What Is Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement is encouraging a desired behavior to repeat by removing or avoiding an aversive stimulus.
An aversive stimulus is something that can produce an unfavorable feeling or condition. In negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened if it allows you to escape from an aversive stimulus or prevents one from appearing.
Although we don’t hear this term often, negative reinforcement happens a lot more than we know in our daily life.
Negative Reinforcement Examples
Taking a shower or a bath is a good example of negative reinforcement. We shower to get rid of the bad smell and the yucky sweat on our bodies.
We like the feeling of fresh and clean afterward, and therefore, we will likely repeat this action, i.e., shower regularly.
Here, the bad smell and yucky feeling are the aversive stimuli. Showering is the behavior being reinforced.
Example 1: Take a Shower
- Before: Smelly and covered by sweat
- Behavior: Take a shower
- Stimulus: bad smell and yucky feeling
- Reinforcement: After taking a shower, the bad odor and yucky feel are removed.
But not everyone likes or cares for the fresh and clean feeling. (Really?!)
Many young children, for example, don’t mind being smelly or yucky. That is why it can be a chore for some of us to get our little ones to take a bath.
That’s when bath toys come to the rescue.
(This is positive reinforcement. The bath toys are pleasant stimuli. Adding them to the bathing routine reinforces taking a bath.)
The “Negative” in Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement does not mean it is bad or punishing in nature.
People sometimes associate positive reinforcement with rewards and naturally assume negative reinforcement is the opposite of awards, which is punishment.
But it is not.
Negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. Reinforcement, whether positive or negative, means encouraging a desired behavior to repeat, while punishment means discouraging an undesired behavior.
In negative reinforcement, negative means taking away something or subtracting it from the person. That something could be escaping an uncomfortable situation or avoiding an otherwise inevitable unfavorable outcome.
So, whether a specific negative reinforcement is good/effective or not depends on the particular situation and context.
Example 2: Pick up toys
- Reinforcement: If a child puts away her toys after playing with them, she won’t lose them or forget where to find them.
- Context: Toys scattered all over the floor
- Behavior: Put away toys
- Aversive stimulus: Toys lost or misplaced
Example 3: Put on a coat
- Reinforcement: Wearing a coat on a chilly day can prevent you from catching a cold.
- Context: A chilly day at low temperature
- Behavior: Wear a coat
- Aversive stimulus: A cold
Example 4: Use sunscreen
- Reinforcement: Putting on sunscreen can help you avoid getting a sunburn.
- Context: Going out in the sun
- Behavior: Put on sunscreen
- Aversive stimulus: Sunburn
Putting away toys so you won’t lose them, wearing a jacket to avoid getting a cold, and using sunscreen to prevent sunburn are all “good” negative reinforcements.
Therefore, general statements such as “negative reinforcement is not as good as positive reinforcement” is incorrect.
Negative Reinforcement Trap
Here is a less obvious but pervasive example of parents using negative reinforcement.
Mom tells a toddler to go to bed, which the toddler hates. The toddler then protests, whines, and throws a tantrum. Mom gives in and allows a later bedtime to stop the tantrum. The child then stops crying and whining.
In this example, going to bed is an aversive stimulus for the child. By throwing a tantrum, the stimulus is avoided, reinforcing the tantrum-throwing behavior.
At the same time, a toddler’s whining and crying is an aversive stimulus for the Mom. By removing the go-to-bed command, the stimulus is removed, reinforcing Mom’s giving-in behavior.
The child has learned that tantrum and defiance can remove a parent’s demands. The parent has learned that giving up can remove a child’s tantrum.
This is the Negative Reinforcement Trap2.
A Negative Reinforcement Trap is created when parents do not follow through on their commands or discipline, unintentionally reinforcing non-compliance in their children.
Both parent’s and children’s behavior are mutually shaped through these negative reinforcement conditioning processes3. The parent has been trained to give up when the child behaves aversively, and the child has been trained to act aversive when the parent disciplines again the next time.
Inconsistent Parenting and Conduct Problems
The strength of the child’s non-compliant response is affected by the schedule of reinforcement, i.e., when and how often the parent gives in.
A parent’s giving in sometimes but not all the time actually strengthens the child’s aversive behavior the most.
Inconsistent parenting amounts to a Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule, which is the same type of reinforcement schedule that causes some people to become deeply addicted to gambling. When applied in parenting, inconsistency makes the child’s defiant behavior to be increasingly hard to change.
Back to the previous example. Over time, Mom becomes more and more frustrated. She gets tough by yelling, threatening, or acting physically aggressive.
One of three things can now happen:
1) Toddler stops whining and throwing tantrums out of fear, which negatively reinforces Mom’s harsh behavior,
2) Toddler escalates his protest, which frustrates Mom more and she gets even tougher in response, or
3) 1 or 2 above happens intermittently depending on who “wins” on different occasions, and the inconsistency strengthens both participants’ aggressive behavior.
As the dynamic continues, the parent-child interactions become more difficult to manage, leading to a destructive coercive cycle4.
This is how some children develop conduct problems, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, according to Coercion Theory5.
To break or prevent a negative reinforcement coercive cycle, parents should use non-aggressive and non-punitive disciplinary methods, such as Positive Discipline, to deal with their children’s aversive behavior. Parents also need to set boundaries and be consistent in enforcing rules. Check out these 10 parenting tips on how to be a good parent.
- 1.Skinner B. Operant behavior. American psychologist. 1963;18(8):503.
- 2.Wierson M, Forehand R. Parent Behavioral Training for Child Noncompliance: Rationale, Concepts, and Effectiveness. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. October 1994:146-150. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10770643
- 3.Lunkenheimer E, Lichtwarck-Aschoff A, Hollenstein T, Kemp CJ, Granic I. Breaking Down the Coercive Cycle: How Parent and Child Risk Factors Influence Real-Time Variability in Parental Responses to Child Misbehavior. Parenting. August 2016:237-256. doi:10.1080/15295192.2016.1184925
- 4.Patterson GR. The aggressive child: Victim and architect of a coercive system. Behavior modification and families. 1976;1:267-316.
- 5.Gardner FEM. Inconsistent parenting: Is there evidence for a link with children’s conduct problems? J Abnorm Child Psychol. April 1989:223-233. doi:10.1007/bf00913796