(p. 140) Behavioral Principles for Parenting Anxious Youth
Positive reinforcement is when a pleasant reward follows a behavior and tends to further encourage that behavior. As a parent, you want to positively reinforce those behaviors that you want to see continue. You also, however, must be careful not to reinforce those behaviors you want to stop. Think of a child having a tantrum in a grocery store: typically, the immediate response of a parent is to get the child to quiet down ASAP. Often this means leaving the store or giving the child a toy or a piece of candy to quiet down. These behaviors are rewarding for the child; therefore, he is likely to throw a tantrum the next time he gets upset in the grocery store.
You want to positively reinforce the behaviors you like (e.g., approaching anxiety-provoking situations) and be careful not to reinforce the behaviors you don’t like (avoiding anxiety). While the obvious examples (like the tantrum) are easy to avoid, parents may often find themselves more subtly reinforcing behaviors that they do not like (e.g., allowing a child whose panic has kept him home from school that day to go out with his friends, thinking “Well, at least he is getting out of the house.”). An example of using positive reinforcement appropriately is when your child goes to a previously avoided place or situation and you praise him for it, saying something like, “That’s fantastic! I am so proud of the way you are learning not to avoid things!”
Human Slot Machine
The reason people play the slots is because they believe a chance exists that they might win big. That hope is fostered by the sounds of winning machines all around them and the fact that every once in a while, they, (p. 141) too, win some money. What makes playing the slots so irresistible is that it uses “variable reinforcement”—you never know if the next pull of the lever is the one that will win you the big money. If sometimes when your teen whines, gets upset, or panics he gets his way and other times he doesn’t, you are a human slot machine. By varying in your response, your teen learns that if he keeps pushing, maybe the next tactic will be the one that will get “the big payoff” (i.e., the outcome he wants).
Even if you’ve been variable before, if you start being consistent now and continue to be consistent, eventually these behaviors will subside. This doesn’t mean you can never be spontaneous or break from routine, it just means that first you have to create a culture of consistency, and then, when you are spontaneous or break from routine, it has to be on your terms and not on your teen’s. So, once a consistent pattern has been set regarding curfew, for example, if you decide to extend his curfew because of a special event or as a treat for doing something good that week, this is a great reward and should be offered as such (e.g., “I am so proud of you! You worked so hard this week to face your anxiety, going to a mall and staying home by yourself for 2 hours, so I think you deserve an extra hour at curfew on Friday night.”). However, extending curfew because you got tired of arguing about it reinforces the idea that your teen should argue with you in the future because eventually you might give up. Every time you give in, you reinforce the behavior of arguing.
Active Ignoring/Picking Your Battles
To avoid reinforcing negative behaviors, it is often advisable to ignore such behavior, unless it breaks a house rule, is dangerous to the teen (or to others), or is potentially harmful in some other way. This is called “active ignoring.” You see the behavior, you don’t approve of the behavior, but if it is not crossing an important line, you choose to ignore it. Thus, you refrain from subtly reinforcing the behavior (perhaps the teen is trying to get you to react), and you also minimize the number of negative interactions you have with your teen over the course of a day.
To further minimize arguments and increase the amount of positive interaction, it may be necessary to alter your expectations and “pick your battles.” It is also important to pick your battles because, to avoid becoming (p. 142) a human slot machine, you do not want to set a limit or make a rule that you do not intend to enforce consistently.
All too often, especially with teens, parents fall into a trap of focusing on the negative. When teens are doing what they are expected to do (keeping their room clean, using good manners, getting their chores or homework done), little or no reinforcement is given for these behaviors. While this may work with many youth, teens with anxiety already tend to be hard on themselves and focus on the negative. As such, it’s important to remember to praise them. Everyone likes to be praised, and praising acts as positive reinforcement. Remember, positively reinforced actions are more likely to continue. This goes for routine behaviors (e.g., emptying the dishwasher) as well as anxiety-related behaviors (e.g., going to a previously avoided place like the movie theater).
When giving your teen a compliment or praising him for something, be as specific as possible. So, when praising, be sure to reinforce the aspect of the behavior that you like (e.g., “Your room looks great! What a great job you did straightening up all those books and CDs!”) rather than offering more general praise (e.g., “Thanks for cleaning your room.”).
The general idea is to think about what your teen is learning from a given situation or interaction. Consider a variety of situations, both anxiety-related and routine. What behaviors are you reinforcing? Is your teen getting rewarded for behaviors you want to continue? Or for behaviors you want to stop?
Also, think about what your own behavior is modeling for your teen. Ask yourself “What did my teen just learn from that interaction/situation?” or “What message am I sending to my teen?”