The #1 Parenting Mistake We All Make (But Don’t Have To!)!

As a parent and a behavioral psychologist, I often find myself applying my training in my daily life. Naturally, though, I also regularly find myself forgetting my training as well in my moment-to-moment interactions with my three children.

Our children are all teenagers now, which presents a stage of parenting unique from when they were younger in many ways. In other ways, though, there are universal parenting strategies that can extend from infancy, into toddlerhood, childhood, and adolescence. I just tend, in the maelstrom of hormonal flux that is my family, to forget these universal truths.

To terribly paraphrase Ms. J. Austen, I can definitely say that it is a truth often universally ignored that “It gets worse before it gets better.”

Parenting 1

This is a very common parenting mistake we all make, often out of concern that our actions are making our child’s behavior worse, when really it is simply a principle of human behavior.  What I’m describing, in technical terms, is an Extinction Burst.

Extinction Bursts by definition are an increase in a previously reinforced behavior after reinforcement of that behavior has ceased (or become extinguished).  What this means in everyday parenting life is that, when you realize that you’ve been mistakenly rewarding inappropriate behavior in your child (e.g., giving more attention to your child after they do poorly on a test or giving your child a sweet treat to calm them out of a tantrum), and you decide to stop providing that reinforcement, your child is going to naturally escalate their inappropriate behavior in the hopes of getting that reward to come back, before eventually decreasing the behavior.

It looks something like this:

Extinction Burst

When you remove the reward of giving your child cookies after a tantrum, your child’s tantrumming behavior is likely to significantly increase in frequency or intensity (or both) because of the past history of being reinforced with cookies for tantrummimg. It’s going to take them a little bit of time to realize that:

Oh, hang on. No matter how big my tantrum is, my parents aren’t going to give me cookies.

And that’s when you start to see the tantrumming behavior decrease substantially.

Often times, though, this burst of inappropriate behavior makes parents (including myself) think that we are doing something wrong–that our attempt to shape our child’s behavior into more appropriate responses is going awry.  And then we do something that only makes things worse.  We go back to giving the same reinforcement we just stopped a few hours or days ago, and this time we give the reward when our child is acting even worse than before!

As a result, not only have we failed to end the inappropriate behavior in our child, we’ve also managed to reward even worse behavior!

But falling prey to extinction bursts need not be our parenting destiny!  We just need to pull ourselves together and, in the face of our child acting worse after we’ve removed that reward, repeat calmly:

It gets worse before it gets better.  It gets worse before it gets better.

So, you’ve noticed that you tend to give your child a lot of attention, through heartfelt discussions about respect and communication that take way too long when he or she offers snarky remarks when requested to do chores (ahem, guilty as charged!), and you’ve decided to ignore the snarky comments (i.e., put them on extinction).  Get ready, then, for even more of an onslaught of eye rolls and dramatic huffing.  Stay your course, dear maternal and paternal leaders.  I promise, in a few days time, they will do their chores without the attitude. And when they do, that’s when you can have heartfelt discussions about how their actions are helping the family significantly!

Or perhaps you’ve realized that, whereas your children earning excellent grades are offered praise and encouragement, your child who refuses to study for Spanish quizzes seems to be eating up a lot of the dinner table conversation with comments the likes of “I’m not going to study for my Spanish test–a C+ is a perfectly good grade” to which you respond with rejoinders about future job opportunities, wasted potential, and appointments to sit down and work together on that academic attitude. Don’t be surprised when you decide extinguish this reward and, after calmly listening to that comment about a C- on that last quiz, your child proceeds to wax poetic about the wasted hours spent in academic training that could be superimposed with MineCraft exploration.  Trust yourself here. Keep it up, breathe deep.  Eventually, you’ll start to hear more about the A- and or B+ on that last quiz, and smiles will be had all around (and you can put that antacid back in the medicine cabinet).

Let it be a mantra for all of us struggling to raise good future citizens of the world:

It gets worse before it gets better.

And if you can hang out and trust yourself while it gets worse, you and your family will absolutely enjoy ‘the better’ together!




The Parenting Maelstrom: 3 Teens, 1 Home, Infinite Hormones

This is a stock photo.  If it were my family, one of the children would be trying to push the other into the surf. With more eye make-up on.

In our family, we have 3 growing and healthy teens (okay, technically one isn’t a teen until August, but whatever–the hormonal unrest started long ago, so I’m lumping her in with the other two).  This makes for a definite challenge in the parental realm as we try to navigate the clutches of puberty, neurological growth, societal pressures and, God help us, social media access.  And that’s along with, as my 94-year-old Grandma would say when I watched General Hospital as a teen at her house, “All the smut on television.”

I haven’t figured much of this out, yet, and seem to live on a wing and a prayer most days (It is a truth universally acknowledged that your Developmental Psychology Ph.D. does not keep you from crying when one of your kids yells “I hate you” right to your face. Or from wanting to yell something equally nasty back in the heat of the moment).

Parenting teens is hard work, much like any form of care-giving, parenting or otherwise, is.  The biggest  challenge for me lately has been to step back as the co-leader of the family and check my compulsive need to address any disrespect or noncompliance. When my children were younger, I felt rather confident in administering the checks and balances of my parental realm. My children needed an authority figure, and my husband and I enacted that role with as much consistency as we could provide.

And then puberty hit, and our children started thinking differently, feeling differently, and seeing the world differently.  Authority no longer had as much power or derived as much adherence as it once did.  Instead, we now find ourselves embarking on the long and bumpy road towards equality. Granted, we won’t hit it until our children are out of the house and independent adults, but the seeds of our children’s independence are being sown now, as young teens grasping for freedom while still within the safety of our home.

And although I navigate this path better some days than others, the ultimate key skill I feel I’ve had to develop more and more is a basic one: Emotion Regulation.

Emotion regulation, or emotion control, is a core skill we begin to develop as young infants. It is the ability to inhibit emotional impulses and engage in more planful behavior surrounding our emotional responses. In particular, learning how to regulate anger and disappointment is a necessity for navigating any social group.  As young children, we hopefully learn when we are younger how to tell someone what is bothering us instead of hitting them. Over time, we understand the importance of congratulating others on achieving something we weren’t able to do, like winning a competition or getting the date we wanted to the prom.

And, as adults and caregivers, we learn how to stay quiet when our teenage children attempt to provoke us into verbal combat, instead speaking assurances that we love them ‘no matter what’ when everything has calmed down.  We learn how to ignore the disgusting cess-pool of inside-out socks on the floor and instead congratulate them on their A- earned for their English project. We learn to tell them they look lovely, even when we hate (I mean, hate!) the outfit they are wearing.

Is this dress-code appropriate?  Hang on–your school doesn’t have a dress code. What?!?

Because parenting is ultimately about raising our children to be competent and caring members of society.  As adolescents, they understand right from wrong.  They know the rules and how to follow them.  And they see the world as a quickly opening, and yet often intimidating, place. Home becomes a haven to let out their frustrations and worries and insecurities.

So, each day I try to breathe deep, count to 10 (just like Mom taught me when I was little–everything old is new again!), and let the nasty comments and snide looks roll off me.  These, in the grand scheme, are minor infractions and pin-pointing each one with a disciplinary remark or consequence would prove counterproductive.  If I did that, my  attention would solely be focused on what they are doing wrong, thereby ignoring everything they are doing right.

My kids work hard, they care about our family and do their chores regularly without complaint, and they often (of course not always, but often) choose right from wrong. I am confident that, eventually, they will seek out my husband and I for closeness and companionship again, but until then I know that all of this angst and button-pushing from them is a sign that they are growing and developing.

And as any parent will tell you, seeing your child grow in a healthy and normal way is always a balm to the heart (even if that ‘normal’ involves calling you a sadist for asking them to take the stinky trash out).