Stop the Complaining! How to Change Behavior With Rewards Not Consequences

It seems my 7-year old daughter complains a lot just for the sake of complaining. How can we stop it?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Let’s talk about some positive behavior modification strategies that this parent can put to use immediately to change this behavior.

The first step is to help the child become aware of what she’s doing. She’s so used to complaining that she probably doesn’t even realize that she’s doing it anymore.

From now on, whenever she complains, stop, look her in the face, and in a quiet way ask, “Do you hear yourself?”

She’ll probably respond, “What?”

Remind her gently, “You’re complaining again. Do you hear yourself?” The point of this exercise is to engage her and help her to observe her own behavior. One has to recognize one’s behavior before change is possible.

That’s the first step: to help her see and recognize her own behavior. The second strategy is to start behavior modification incentives. Remember that positive incentives work better than negative consequences, so we want to set this up to reward a positive change in behavior rather than to punish the undesired behavior.

Consider setting up a system like a sticker chart that tracks behavior on a daily basis. Every day that she doesn’t complain she gets a special sticker to put on her chart and maybe an extra story at bedtime or other treat. When she accumulates  one week of stickers (seven stickers), she should receive an additional larger reward.

Be sure to lay out the ground rules with her in advance, keeping in mind that complaining is a habit for her and it takes constant reminders and much practice to break a habit, even for adults. Experts say that it takes a minimum of 90 days to break a habit, so don’t expect too much from a seven-year old at first.

Perhaps the rules at the beginning state that she gets two warnings when she is complaining and then if she needs a third she loses her treat for the day. Then as her behavior improves and she gets two to four weeks worth of stickers, the rules evolve to where she receives only one warning before she loses the sticker for the day.

Whatever the parents decide to do, it’s important that the rules are known to her beforehand and not announced ad hoc.

When she complains, comment without a further response. Just say, “ Oops, did you notice that you complained again? This is your first warning.” That’s it, nothing more.

Be sure to make the first several weeks achievable for her or she might give up on the idea altogether. Once she receives her first reward and sees that it’s achievable she will have the incentive to continue working toward the goal of not complaining.

Successful behavior modification relies on two elements: engaging that part of ourselves referred to in psychology as the observing ego, and practicing the desired behavior to internalize the reward.

The observing ego is that part of each of us that steps outside of ourselves and sees what we are doing. This is a very important psychological ability for everyone who is socialized and living in a community with others.

The reward part helps us learn that it is better to be a nice person, and that nice people are rewarded for nice behavior.

MOLLY:This question came from a parent in Denver, Colorado. When you see adults in your practice, can you tell who was a complainer as a child? Are there any long- term consequences for this behavior?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, there are. Most adult habitual complainers were the same way as children. The more someone is allowed to complain about anything and everything as a child, the longer this behavior will go on until it becomes firmly entrenched in the person’s personality. As she grows, she will continue to complain to friends and teachers, and later to a spouse and in work relationships.

Of course, some complaints are legitimate and should not be overlooked, but that’s not what we’ve been talking about here. No one likes to be around someone who constantly complains rather than tries to figure things out in a positive manner. This is why it is so important to address this particular behavior as early as possible.

ding 3 comments on “Stop the Complaining! How to Change Behavior With Rewards Not Consequences

  1. What do we do when the child loses their daily sticker but there’s half a day left and no incentive to do the right thing? That is where we’re struggling.

  2. I agree that the positive reinforcement is the best approach. All to many are reactive rather and proactive. The sticker system will establish the ground rules and be proactive.

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