Case study – Positive reinforcement in children

Case study – Positive reinforcement in childrenI recently watched a movie called The Judge in which there was a scene where a child asked her father if her grandpa was dead. She had overheard a conversation between her parents where her dad said that his dad was “dead to him” and as a child would, she misinterpreted that to mean that her grandpa literally was dead.

How often do we say things around our kids in jest or using sarcasm? Making negative comments (however unintentional) around little children can be psychologically damaging as I discovered firsthand…

The powerful effect of one negative comment

One day I made a flippant comment to my misbehaving toddler saying “you’d better behave yourself, when little boys are naughty their winky’s fall off into the toilet!”. Little did I know at the time that although my words were said in jest, my son had heard every word I said and stored it somewhere in the recesses of his young mind.

Hell no, I won’t go…

A few months down the line and I was two months away from delivering my baby girl and now needed to get my son potty trained or be bankrupted by the expense of buying two supplies of diapers. He was not at all receptive to the idea of sitting on the toilet seat. He adamantly refused to go near the potty. This carried on for weeks until I remembered my comment to him a few months prior about his “winky” falling into the toilet bowl!

I tried to undo the harm I caused by reasoning with him, but by then it was too late and he had already developed an irrational fear of the toilet so as a compromise we switched to pull-up diapers.

With less than four week to go before baby number two arrived I was desperate for a solution. There was simply no way that we could bear the expense of two sets of diapers on top of the huge expense newborn baby equipment.

I addressed the issue with a friend, Wendal Koopman who specializes in hypnotherapy. He told me that:

Children are highly susceptible to suggestion in their earlier, formative years. People that have the most influence are the primary caregivers (usually parents or a parent) and others in the immediate surrounds like teachers, family members, religious leaders and others that they spend much time with and have learned to trust. This is necessary for survival since conforming with others in the immediate circles is safer than going against established patterns. Since moms tend to spend most time with their kids, still, they tend to be most influential, so the things they do and say have a significant effect on the belief system of the child. Kids tend to “absorb” the suggestions coming from their surroundings like sponges so by you referring to him losing his penis in the toilet if he is naughty, that image stuck and became a source of fear. This affected his ability to transition to toilet training because it was safer to continue with the nappies.

The Solution

After explaining the situation so clearly, he also had some suggestions on how we could use positive reinforcement to “redirect”  his attitude towards the desired outcome:

Wendal: The very same suggestibility can also work in reverse by using positive suggestions, building it up over days and thus building the excitement, and using the incentive of him making the transition to being a “big boy”, a more powerful suggestion can be embedded, thus rendering the earlier belief  ineffective.

Upon his suggestion, Mr. A and I began reinforcing a positive message every single night after bath time over a period of two weeks.

Every evening after bath time we would mention that on a particular date (the following Friday) J would finally be a “big boy” and no longer be wearing diapers. We would talk about this event very casually and with great enthusiasm and we kept repeating the phrase “no more nappies“. We did it in a way that added no pressure on him and we simply stated it as fact.

The Result

Fourteen days later the most amazing thing happened. We exclaimed at what day it was and chatted quite amiably while bathing J. We carried him to his room after bath time to get him dressed as per usual, except that this time, as Mr. A handed him his pull-up diaper, J said “No daddy! Don’t you know? Today I am a big boy. NO MORE NAPPIES!

From that day he wore an underpants just like a big boy. Of course, as with any child, it was a transition and a process to get the timing right in making it to the bathroom on time during the night, but the point is that he never once asked for a nappy and had no problem sitting on a toilet seat.

It’s not easy for me to share moments where I failed as a mom but a wise person told me not to look at situations like these as mistakes but rather as opportunities for learning. As a parent its very encouraging to know that we will get another chance tomorrow to apply what we have learnt.

In the next post on positive reinforcement we explore The Psychological Effects of Positive Reinforcement in Children. You will also find three very powerful ways to change your child’s behaviour using three easy techniques.