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  • Writer's pictureDr. Amie DeHarpporte

On Rewarding Bad Behavior

on rewarding bad behavior

One question I often get from parents, especially those who are parenting a child with ADHD, is about whether to continue with a scheduled outing or favored activity when a child is acting out. “How can I justify letting him go to this fun event when he’s acting so mean and rude all the time?” Often parents worry that by not imposing a consequence after a child misbehaves or by not taking away the chance at a fun event, they are “rewarding bad behavior.” We often see that children with ADHD are about 2-3 years behind their peers in regulating emotions and behavior–they are just really immature in that way. They often say mean things, have meltdowns, get angry, or blow their top. When they do that, they say and do things that they wouldn’t if they were calm and rational. Unfortunately, kids with ADHD struggle to be kind when they’re frustrated or upset, and parents often wonder how to help them learn that such behavior isn’t acceptable. As a psychologist, I approach this question from a developmental mindset. It’s important to remember that your child is not purposefully doing anything to hurt you or anyone else; it’s not personal, and she’s doing the best she can. If she couldn’t read yet because she struggles with dyslexia, we wouldn’t assume she was delayed in learning to read on purpose. Same thing with behavior: she hasn’t learned all the skills yet to control her emotions, but that’s not willful, it’s just a lagging skill set. A helpful phrase to repeat to yourself: “She’s not giving me a hard time, she’s having a hard time.” Her behavior is just the tip of the iceberg, and underneath are likely all sorts of emotions that she doesn’t have words to express, so it comes out as behavior. A developmental framework helps us remember not to look just at the tip of the iceberg (behavior), but instead try to get at what’s underneath. For example, let’s say that because of a family event, my daughter had to miss going to a birthday party at a water park that she had been really looking forward to. So I went out of my way to schedule a trip to the water park for the next day. But then she was rude and obnoxious at the family event and her behavior was atrocious to me all evening. If I just focused on the behavior, I might be tempted to conclude, “If I take her to the water park now, I’m just rewarding bad behavior.” But if I look underneath the behavior, I might see something more. What if she had the verbal ability and self-awareness to be able to sit me down and say, “I’m really disappointed about missing the birthday party. I’m worried about how solid my friendship is with my friend having the party, and by missing it, I’m worried I’m going to be excluded by her. I’m sad because going to family events, while fun for you, is actually really hard for me because it’s loud and overwhelming. I know that tonight I was really rude to you. I ate too much sugar, was overstimulated by how many people were there, and was feeling exhausted. Then, I started behaving poorly and could tell you were getting frustrated with me, so I felt ashamed. I know I was really mean, but for some reason, I can’t help it. And then when you said, ‘If you don’t shape up, I’m not going to take you to the waterpark,’ I got really worried and sad because I’d really been looking forward to it. Realizing that you’re not taking me makes me feel so sad and angry and disappointed and ashamed all at once, like I’m such a screw up and like I just want to disappear. So then I just say mean things and yell and hit and make it worse and I don’t know why or how to stop.” Would it make a difference if she could say that? Would I feel more compassionate? Would I feel less need to justify going on an outing with her after the day she had? Would it help me realize that I’m not “rewarding bad behavior” but rather meeting my child where she’s at, big emotions and all? If so, I need to remember that there is some version of this narrative going on every single time I’m tempted to think about her as “mean,” “rude,” or “obnoxious,” every time I think of her behavior as “selfish” or “out of control.”

What if, instead, I saw her as hurting, needing connection and nurturance, and her behavior as an attempt to tell me that—without being able to use the words she doesn’t possess for feelings that are just too big for her to understand? What if instead of “rewarding bad behavior,” I was teaching her that I would accept her and be there for her, no matter how big her feelings get? What if it was a reminder to me to put my “detective hat” on and try to f igure out what her needs are under the behavior? Kids do the best they can. So do adults. Everyone deserves grace, but adults are more capable of offering it. Sometimes we all need a reset, and granting a child the chance to go on a favored outing despite less-than-ideal behavior can be part of a message that verbally and with our actions communicates: “I know this is hard. I know you’ve got a lot of emotions going on. I don’t know how to help you with all of it, but I sure want to try. You’re ok with me and we’re on the same team. I love you. Let’s go to the water park and swim all our frustrations out, and then we can talk about what’s been going on. We’ll figure this out, together.”

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