The Negative Reinforcement Spiral

In my last blog post I talked about how parents like me sometimes give “accidental” positive reinforcement, often in the form of attention, to their kids even when their child is doing something that they don’t like.  I call it accidental because you’re usually not intending to do it, and sometimes you’re not even aware that you are doing it!

Positive reinforcement occurs when you reward or reinforce a behavior and then that behavior increases.  My example was that by paying attention to my kids when they interrupt me on the phone, I am actually increasing the likelihood that they will interrupt me again in the future!  Certainly not what I had in mind!

Just like with accidental positive reinforcement, parents can fall victim to the negative reinforcement spiral.  Negative reinforcement occurs when your child exhibits a behavior, like crying, whining, or throwing a tantrum, and as a result they get out of something that they perceive as unpleasant, like taking a bath or going to bed.

For example, let’s say your child hates it when you leave him with a babysitter.  If your child screams and cries when you are getting ready to leave, and you stay home instead of going out, then you have rewarded his behavior through negative reinforcement.  In this example, the behavior is screaming and crying and the unpleasant situation that they are escaping from is being left with a babysitter.  The child learns that by screaming and crying that they will NOT be left with a babysitter.  They have figured out how to get out of an unpleasant situation, just scream and cry!

You can easily see how quickly negative reinforcement can spiral out of control and leave you feeling helpless in changing your child’s behavior.  Just like with positive reinforcement, your first step in regaining control is to monitor your own responses.  What unpleasant situations are you allowing your child to get out of by throwing a tantrum?  Some of the most common offenses occur at bed time, bath time, and meal time.

Just like with accidental positive reinforcement, the next step is to STOP!  It will be hard to do, but it will be worth it in the end.  As hard as it is, the next time your child cries when it’s time to be left with the sitter, you need to leave anyway.  No fanfare necessary, just go.  Assuming the babysitter is well qualified and someone you know and trust, they will understand the initial tears from your child and work with your little one to calm them down once you are gone.  It may take a few tries, but both you and your child (and the babysitter!) will be better for it in the long run.


  1. jacqueline says

    I would really like for it to be better known that negative reinforcement also acts on the parent. For example, when a child is making a noise, and the parent punishes, causing the cessation of the noise, negative reinforcement is operating on the parent to make them more likely to punish next time. It is not at all certain that this so-called “punishment” is doing anything but giving the kid attention for the behavior, maybe even rewarding him/her. The dangerous thing is that the parent punishes more and more, getting into a spiral potentially leading to abuse. The whole cycle of misbehavior and punishment is getting rewarded on both sides through exciting drama.

    If there were more attention given to non-dramatic “redirect” strategies when a kid is misbehaving, I feel that it would be a good public service. Also, getting the attention and excitement going in positive ways such as family games or creative expression, so kids and parents aren’t acting out for attention.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>