Negative reinforcement works, but can easily be misused and ineffective.

Tips on the Misuses of Negative Reinforcement for Parents

by Darlena Cunha

So often, parents become frustrated with their little ones as the twists and turns of toddler logic throw adults for a loop. The "because I said so" that seemed so unfair to us just years ago is now the only response that doesn't start a bartering session. Some parents reach for negative reinforcement, when positive reinforcement doesn't seem to be enough. Negative reinforcement is when a parent rewards a child for good behavior by taking away an aversion in his daily life. For instance, if a preschooler picks up all the cereal he spilled on the floor, she doesn't have to help mom clean the bathroom.

Accidental Use

Much of the time, negative reinforcement happens accidentally. Your child yells and screams about having to sit in a cart at the grocery store, for instance. You try to ignore her, but she's embarrassing you. You told her no, but she's not having it. If you let her walk, she'll quiet. Taken negatively, what you've done is allowed her not to sit in the car, meaning you've removed something she had an aversion to, which equals a reward. You've rewarded her for bad behavior. The way to avoid this misuse is to stand firm. If you say something, you must follow through, whether that thing is positive or negative. Once your child decides to test you by throwing a tantrum, you can't give in. If you do, you're teaching them that throwing tantrums will get them what they want.

Denying Basic Comforts

Parents are responsible for the well-being of their kids, and part of that means creating an environment in which there aren't many discomforts to avoid. Using negative reinforcement can sometimes overlap into basic rights. For instance, alleviating hunger because a child behaved is a misuse of this system. Children need to be fed at regular intervals, and getting rid of their hungry feeling when they please you can be abusive. The same applies for temperature and sleep schedules. Be careful not to use everyday normal routines in your negative reinforcement regime.


Too much negative reinforcement can come across as bullying. The tactics you use behind closed doors do not stay within the home when young children are concerned. They'll not only be mouthy and backtalk to you and other authority if they've been reared in negativity, but they can start to bully other kids. From teasing all the way up to shouting at or pushing, your children will have little understand of how to rein in their own emotions. When tried, they'll act out in a manner they've been shown is appropriate, and they'll continue to get in trouble for it in school and at other public places. If this continues as a pattern, they'll cease to feel empathy for their peers, seeing violence and belittling behavior as their main or only means to getting what they want or need. Be wary of making life more uncomfortable for your child just so that you can reward them by making it more comfortable again when they do what you're asking.

Low Self Esteem

When negative reinforcement starts at home, its main effect is the deterioration of a child's self esteem. When a parent has the ability to take away a negative in a child's life and he doesn't or he only does so based on performance and behavior, that child might begin to wonder if he is loved at all. His self image will be wound around what he does or doesn't achieve. He will become his actions. Eventually he'll come to believe that he deserves nothing more, that he's not inherently good, that he shouldn't be given opportunities or make friends. Be sure to frame your communication with your child as showing him how his behaviors need improvement, but he is just fine. There's a big difference between you're doing something bad, and you are bad.

About the Author

Darlena Cunha has been a writer and editor since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of Connecticut. Cunha is also completing her master's degree in mass communication.

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