So, how do you work with a child who believes nothing he does can change who he is; a child that feels powerless to improve his view of himself? Because negative consequences don’t work and often make things worse, they need to be seen as necessary, but secondary. They are not the primary way to reach this kid and change his view of himself and his behavior.
Positive reinforcement is primary. Here’s why positive reinforcement works. The goal is to get this child to believe that his choices and behaviors do make a difference. Positive reinforcement empowers the child. He will learn that good choices and actions have the power to make his circumstances better. A wonderful epiphany happens when that child realizes, maybe for the first time, that he can please mom and dad. For instance, he refrains from hitting his annoying, little brother who just broke a favorite toy. Mom picks up on that right choice and tells him how pleased she is that he didn’t do as he usually does – pound his brother. That specific praise from mom clearly communicates that, when he makes a good behavioral choice, mom thinks well of him and is pleased with him.
Children thrive on parental approval. Every child wants his parents to approve of him. A steady diet of approval will change his negative view of himself. That change involves a fledging sense of power (my choices and actions do matter) and a feeling of positive accomplishment (I can get it right). A child who painfully believes he is inadequate and unlovable begins to feel competent and worthwhile. One right choice praised after another will in time turn this child around.
To make this work the parent needs, at first, to acknowledge every incident when the child makes a right behavioral choice. The cumulative impact of these seemingly trivial occurrences will turn a resentful, oppositional child just a surely as small turns of the rudder will turn super-tanker. Now, this turn-about will take time. Like our tanker, you don’t change a person’s strongly held beliefs about himself over night. Over time these positive acknowledgements will over balance past negative input and increasingly motivate the child to continue the praiseworthy behaviors.
Success at this requires vigilance on the part of the parents. Such vigilance is a two-edged sword. The positive edge is always looking for opportunities to praise, no matter how slight the improvement. The more opportunities the parent picks up on the quicker the child’s attitude will improve. The negative edge means completely stopping all negative comments about the child, to him and to others in his presence. A negative encounter, research tells us, is seven to twenty times more powerful than a positive encounter. All the positive feedback you try to give will be undone by one or two negative comments. Consequently, the parent cannot show anger, resentment, frustration, exasperation or the like in front of the child. Parents must vigilantly avoid any actions or statements that can be interpreted by the child as a personally demeaning.
Unacceptable behaviors must be addressed, negative consequences applied and disapproval expressed, no question. These corrective actions, however, need to be done in such a way that the child doesn’t feel defective, inadequate, disliked for who he or she is, powerless to change, a bad person. Parents can disapprove of behaviors but never the person.