There is nothing in our lives that we choose to do that does not come with some sort of reward. On the flip side, there is nothing in our lives that we choose to avoid that does not come with a consequence. But how do we learn which behaviors to choose and which to avoid?
If you think about it, a human being is very much like machine. We ingest food and water to fuel this machine. Our heart works much like an engine, pumping fuel through our bodies. And, our control center is located in our brain.
When we are first born, our brain is like a computer that hasn’t had any software downloaded yet. Then, through every experience we have, we download new information, which is stored for future experiences.
We are taught to say “please.” Then, when we want something and we say “please,” we are rewarded by getting what we want. This information is stored, so that the next time I want something, my computer tells me that saying “please” results in a achieving the thing that I want; and I will continue to engage in that behavior until it no longer results in a reward.
The same goes for consequences. When we are young, we touch a hot stove and it burns. As a result of this consequence (burned hand), we learn not to touch a hot stove.
Unfortunately, during a marriage and/or divorce, mom and dad may be writing separate programs for their kids’ computers, establishing different systems for rewards and consequences.
This inconsistency is like a virus that causes a child’s computer to overheat and eventually burn out. Or, in translation, inconsistent parenting is screwing up your kids.
This is Toby. Toby is my 18 month old Yellow Lab, and the example in this story.
Every Monday night is steak night at our house and also (as you can imagine) Toby’s favorite night of the week. From the time that Toby was just a little pup, he would come and sit next to my side of the table, flash his puppy dog eyes, and, in return, receive a piece of steak. He would sit next to me as opposed to his mother because he knew that mom would not give him any steak.
This continued for quite some time until he began to pack on a few pounds, sparking his mother to throw me under the bus at his next vet appointment. After being read the riot act from the vet, I agreed to no longer give Toby any table scraps. This was all well and good, except that no one passed along the memo to Toby.
Fast forward to our next steak night. We sit down to eat and Toby assumes his position next to dad and flashes those big brown eyes at me. But this time, mom’s eyes are also on me, just not quite as sweet-looking.
I follow orders and do not give him any steak. Toby, assuming that I must not see him there, now begins to bark and paw at my leg. He’s used to getting steak, and now that new limits and boundaries are being set, he feels the need to escalate his behaviors. If I were to give him steak now, I would be reinforcing this escalated behavior. Regular begging no longer equals a reward; barking and pawing at my leg does.
But I stood my ground and continued to ignore him. And, if the barking became too much, I would add the consequence of saying “No!” and putting him in his crate. This went on for a few weeks until eventually he stopped begging.
The reason he stopped begging was because the behavior of begging no longer equaled a reward, and as mentioned earlier, there is nothing in life that we choose to do that does not come with a reward.
Now, this could have gone very differently. Let’s say that I ignored Toby when his mother was eating dinner across from me, but then gave him scraps when mom wasn’t there. What would that do to Toby?
When dogs (or children) receive inconsistent messages regarding behaviors that are rewarded and behaviors that have consequences, it creates a significant amount of anxiety for them and can lead to constant escalation in behaviors when their needs are not being met. One day your child is getting rewarded for a behavior and the next day they’re getting ignored and yelled at for the exact same behavior. They never know what to expect.
Maybe you’re sitting there saying, “That’s exactly what my husband does” or “That’s exactly what my wife does.” Stop that.
Rather, put your personal feelings for each other aside and find somewhere in the middle of each of your parenting styles where you can both be consistent. If you don’t, you are going to wind up with an extremely anxious and resentful child, who will feel the need to do a whole lot of barking in order to get their needs met.
About Blueprint Mental Health
Specializing in the treatment of adolescents and young adults, Blueprint Mental Health is a boutique mental health practice with locations in both Bridgewater and Somerville, New Jersey. Our team of clinicians pride themselves in creating a therapeutic environment that is warm and compassionate, while challenging the symptoms that are present when struggling with the obstacles of depression, anxiety and family conflict.
Through Mindfulness and such modalities as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), we will support you and your family on the journey to find acceptance within yourself and help to overcome any barriers that may be in the way of living the life you wish to lead. Together, we will be The Designers of a Better Tomorrow.