What is positive reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is providing some kind of reward or benefit to increase the chances that a behavior will be repeated. For some people, the enjoyment from eating chocolate is reinforcing — when they’re offered chocolate, they’ll eat more. For others, the exhilaration from running a marathon keeps them training despite aches and pains. Pretty simple concept, right? Positive reinforcement drives behavior for all of us, whether it’s toward healthy or not-so-healthy behaviors.
It’s easy to forget that alcohol and other drugs can be reinforcing too, providing certain “benefits.” They can help reduce anxiety and stress, lessen boredom, increase confidence, help with sleep, provide energy and help with weight management, among many other things. Even though they “solve a problem” in an unhealthy way, the perceived benefits of using substances make repeating the behavior more likely.
You can use the same principles that reinforce substance use to reinforce desired behaviors from your child. Think of what behaviors you’d like to reinforce. These could include completing homework, studying for tests, being on time, speaking respectfully, attending doctor/therapist appointments, asking permission to use the car, going to support group meetings, etc. This will be unique to both you and your child.
Meaningful rewards don’t have to cost money. They can include hugs, a smile, a shoulder rub, a thoughtful text message, or even just a kind word. They can also include time spent together in a favorite activity, whether watching a movie, going fishing or playing a game. Making a favorite breakfast, snack or dinner can also be used as a reward.
Reinforcers that cost some money include gift cards for a coffee shop, a clothing store or a restaurant. For older teens and young adults, help with health care costs like the dentist and vision care/glasses, paying for a college class or books, car expenses, or concert or sports tickets can be used as reinforcers.
Of course, the important key to success is to choose a reinforcer that will be appreciated by your child. Sometimes parents make the mistake of coming up with something that they personally find reinforcing, but their child could care less about it. It can help to take the time to develop a list of reinforcers that you think would be appealing. If you’re unsure, you can ask your child and have a conversation about it.
With your list in hand, think about a behavior you want to discourage and what you would like your child to do instead. For example, you may want your child to look for a job instead of playing video games and smoking marijuana. What would be an incentive for them to do so, even if it was just for one day?
The benefit of rewarding your child’s desirable behaviors is that your child can learn to “feel good” in other ways rather than using substances. Feeling noticed, appreciated and recognized for their efforts can contribute to healthy self-esteem and improve well-being.
As you read this, you may be thinking that these are behaviors they should be doing anyway without any kind of reward. It may help you to think about the example of going to work for adults. We know we are supposed to show up to work and do our jobs. That said, think about how you feel when your work is recognized or rewarded with a good word from the boss or a co-worker, a positive comment from a customer, a paycheck or a bonus.
It is much more reinforcing when you are recognized for your efforts rather than having everyone just assume you should be doing it, without a word or an action of recognition.
Recognize the small steps
It’s important to recognize any small step your child takes toward the healthier behavior you want to encourage. If your child hasn’t done any homework for weeks, but completes one assignment, reinforce it with a tangible reward or a kind comment. If your child hasn’t looked for a job in the past month, but looks online and applies to two jobs, let them know you see that effort.
It’s really easy as a parent to say, “It’s about time!” But reinforcing with a comment like, “I know how hard it’s been for you to complete your homework and it’s really great that you were able to complete the assignment,” or, “I’m really glad to see that you applied for work,” will be more helpful in changing your child’s behavior.
You could, for example, also tell your child that if they complete a certain number of assignments or applies for X number of jobs, they will get a tangible reward. Just remember that the reward comes after the behavior is completed, not before with a promise that it will get done.
Be mindful of unintentional rewards
It’s also important to keep in mind ways in which you may unintentionally reward behavior you didn’t want to encourage.
For example, suppose your child comes home from work on time and is not intoxicated. You decide to “reward” the behavior by making your child’s favorite dinner of fish tacos with salsa. This is a great example of positive reinforcement — you want to see your child come home on time without having used substances on the way home.
Alternatively, suppose your child comes home late and is obviously under the influence. You’re pretty sure they haven’t eaten all day, so you make their favorite fish tacos with salsa, because you know that will put your child in a better mood and there will be less tension in the household. In this instance, even if it makes life easier in this moment, your child has been rewarded for behavior you want to discourage. In this scenario, it would be better to let them make their own dinner as a consequence of their actions.
It might take some work on your part, but incentives are very powerful to help motivate behavior change. Despite how challenging it might be in the beginning, it can offer huge pay-offs in terms of reduced substance use while promoting healthier behaviors in the long run.
Put positive reinforcement into action
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