The Negative Reinforcement Cycle: Tough To Break But Worth It

The Negative Reinforcement Cycle: Tough To Break But Worth It

A Familiar Scene for Every Parent

Have you ever thought that when you gave into your child’s whining, begging, or tantrums that by doing so might come back to haunt you some day?

If so, you are right to think that way. Consider this.

When we give into kids when they are engaging in behaviors we don’t want them to do, something remarkable yet awful happens. Our kids are getting what they want (positive reinforcement) because they did what we don’t want them to do. We just wanted the behavior to stop.

But we are also getting what we want, the behavior stops. No problem, right?

WRONG! Reinforcement, whether it is giving something (positive) or taking away something (negative) increases the chances that those behaviors will occur again and again and again.

Let’s look at a common situation. Say you are in the grocery store with your sweet little 4-year-old. Your sweet child sees candy and wants it. She asks politely first, and you tell her, “Not before dinner.”

She contemplates this. She thinks of all the ways she has seen other kids get candy out of stingy, “dinner first”-eating parents before. She begins to whine and beg.

This isn’t your first rodeo, you ignore it. But the whining and the tears increase. You get stares from other people. You start feeling like a bad parent. You had a tough day at work. You don’t need this unspoken judgement from strangers in the grocery store. At that point you have to make a decision. Am I too tired to deal with this? Or, am I going to hold firm against my precious little, well, uh … angel’s wishes?

If we go for the immediate relief that buying the candy would provide, our angel has negatively reinforced our candy-buying giving in behavior. This means the next time we are in the store, we will probably be more likely to buy her candy to avoid this scenario. We also may wait until she whines again to give in. Same thing. She has us where she wants us. She gets the candy.

We have positively reinforced her whining behavior by giving in and getting the candy. The cycle continues throughout her childhood. Just think, in 12 short years you will be spending $1,000 on the perfect prom dress and not even questioning it. You will become a zombie with a credit card.

The point is, it is important to be aware of the effects of your child’s behavior on your behavior.

Breaking the Negative Feedback Cycle in Children on the Autism Spectrum

All parents have to get a handle on this situation. We all know this. But if you are parenting a child with autism, this cycle can become the setting for crises either immediately or on down the line. There will come a point where giving in hinders learning new skills or even prevents you from keeping your child safe.

One of the aims of ABA therapy is to give children skills and refined behaviors that will help them get their needs met. It is equally important to get them to use these skills more and more, over time. As a result, less desirable behaviors such as crying, tantrum throwing, dragging a parent by the hand are replaced by speech, the use of pictures or sign language.

Once children start using their new skills to get what they want, do not give in to the behaviors that got them what they wanted in the past.

This is not easy! But you can do it. Raising a child with autism is not easy, but you are already doing it. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient with yourself, find stress relief any way possible and follow these tips.

Tips for reinforcing desirable behavior and minimizing undesirable behavior:

  1. Decide what it is that needs changing about your child’s behavior. Consider his or her age, cognitive ability, learning history and communication ability. Consult with your ABA therapist for guidance if needed. Make sure that communication skills are being addressed in your child’s program.
  2. Decide what the child should do in order to get his or her needs met. If your child can say “juice” but will cry until he gets it instead of saying it, he will never say juice.  Crying is easier for him! Make him say juice.
  3. Once you have identified this expectation, make sure everyone in your child’s life knows it and follows through.
  4. Impose only one expectation at a time. If you insist that your child only talk to get everything he wants and will also not scratch his sister when he is sitting beside her, you might be expecting too much at one time. Prioritize. Address scratching his sister first. Once a child gets consistent with one desirable behavior, then add another.
  5. When the child uses the desirable behavior, GO NUTS! This is AWESOME! Make sure he gets the positive reinforcement for engaging in that behavior immediately!
  6. Ask your child’s therapist what limits and expectations are being set in therapy and carry them through. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t get the same level of compliance the therapist does. Therapy is designed for errorless learning and is highly controlled.

Don’t give up. It might take some time, but it will happen if you stand firm. Believe that your child is capable of engaging in behavior that is good for him, and trust that he can do it with your love and support.


Dr. Rhonda Davin is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with over 25 years of experience in the fields of developmental disabilities and autism. She has served the field as a teacher, college professor, consultant and expert witness. She started Behavior Consulting Services which provided direct behavior analytic services to children with autism and their families. She has supervised and mentored several behavior analysts and service providers currently practicing in the field today. Dr. Davin has also provided technical assistance for large scale organizational change efforts in the area of Positive Behavior Supports. She is currently working at Relias Learning as the BCBA Subject Matter Expert and Continuing Education Coordinator for Relias to the Behavior Analysis Certification Board.


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