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.

Help! My Child Is Disrespectful to Me


My daughter is almost 9 and is constantly disrespectful to me and to others. How should I deal with it? This is a question from a mom in Wisconsin and she added that she knows that she should look for the root of the matter but she is not even sure her daughter knows WHY she is so disrespectful.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): The first thing this mom might want to do is to point out to her daughter each time she acts disrespectfully. The way to do this is to ask the child, “Did you hear yourself? Did you hear what you just said?”

Asking her to reflect on her words will engage her in the process of recognizing how she comes across when she speaks to other people.  Because as the mom says, she may not even know why she acts this way. Maybe it started so long ago that it’s now a habit for her.

So we have to engage the girl on a conscious level to help her see that she talks the way she does. Every time she talks in a disrespectful way, the mom should repeat to her, “Did you hear yourself and what you said?”

That’s the first step; for a behavior to change, first there must be conscious recognition of the behavior.

The next step is to show her how her behavior looks and feels to other people. The mom might say: “This is what it sounds like when you are disrespectful to me,” and then role-play the example. Hopefully, she’ll hear what her words sound like to somebody else’s ears.

MOLLY: I’ve actually done that with my 6-year old and imitated her but in a  a funny way. She starts cracking up and laughing but also gets the message.

MOM: Yeah, because kids are smart. At this point the mom should say, “Okay, now that you hear yourself and you can see that it’s really not nice to talk to people that way, let’s make a chart together where we can mark down every time you say something disrespectful.”

I know that this is the opposite of what I usually encourage people to do, which is more positive reinforcement rather than negative consequences, but in this case the child needs to see how often she does this because she doesn’t notice when she does it.

It’s always worth a try to talk to someone about why they behave in such a way, but chances are this child doesn’t know why she does it and it has become a thoughtless habit.

MOLLY: What we do with my older child (she’s six) is that I give one warning about a behavior that needs to change, and then the second time she does the offending behavior there’s some sort of repercussion.

MOM: Exactly. The overriding message is that it’s not okay to talk to people disrespectfully, and if she does continue to talk to people like that they won’t want to be around her. We are sure that is not what she is intending when she speaks that way. We all want to be able to make and keep good friends.

MOLLY: It sounds like this mom needs to get the daughter on board with the idea that she needs to change her behavior in the first place?

MOM: That’s right: you can’t change someone’s behavior for them, they have to make the change inside of themselves.

Parents need to work together with their children when it comes to making behavioral changes and the first step is to help the child see and recognize what she’s doing by engaging what we call in psychology her observing ego. That’s the part of ourselves that sees ourselves and what we’re doing.

It often requires outside help to raise our awareness from the sub-conscious to the conscious mind. Parents offer this assistance to their children as part of our basic child-rearing responsibilities.


What Parenting with Guilt Can Do To A Child

My step-daughter keeps telling her one year old daughter “that hurts my feelings” whenever the child doesn’t respond in the way she wants.
: This came from a reader in San Diego, CA. She added that it “really rubs her the wrong way and that she thinks it’s inappropriate.” One of her friend’s told her she’s “old fashioned and it’s okay” but she’s wondering what she can do.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): This could be a difficult area, especially since it’s her step-daughter and I don’t know what kind of relationship she has with her. However, if she feels like the relationship is strong enough, she should start a conversation about it.

She could begin by asking her step-daughter something like: “I’m curious as to why you say this so often to your daughter? Are your feelings really hurt?”

MOLLY: It sounds like this step-daughter is making everything about her, the mom, and not really taking into consideration what her child is feeling.

MOM: That’s right, and the child is very young. This will be confusing to the child to have this response all the time. What it may do is shut the child down so that she’ll be afraid to say much of anything to her mom for fear she will hurt her feelings.

MOLLY: What should this mom be doing instead?

MOM: I doubt very much that a one-year old child is focused on intentionally hurting her mother’s feelings; rather she’s just trying to make her way in the world.

Sometimes parents fall into using guilt to shape their children’s behavior. While guilt can be a powerful motivating force in a child’s life, we know now that there are more positive ways to influence behavior that don’t leave lingering side effects in the parent-child relationship.

The step-daughter herself may have been parented with a lot of guilt. Unfortunately, it happens in divorce cases sometimes that one parent tries to establish their dominance by using guilt in order to make that parent feel better about themselves. She may have learned to parent with guilt from her own parents.

The step-mother needs to tread carefully here. Perhaps she might want to give her step-daughter the gift of a parenting book that shows a different way of approaching toddlers.

I’d suggest The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp. There is even a DVD she could give the busy mom along with the book.

Of course, the step-daughter could be using this phrase appropriately, such as when the one-year old hits or kicks. The phrase, “You really hurt mommy when…” is appropriate to use when you’re teaching empathy and you want the child to realize that it hurts when they hit you.

As the child gets older, it would be appropriate to use that phrase when the child says or does something mean or uncaring.

The step-mother could model more positive parenting habits in her own interactions with the grandchild without directly criticizing the step-daughter and jeopardizing their relationship.

MOLLY: What are the possible long term consequences?

MOM: Using guilt to mold behavior in a one-year old lays the groundwork for a lifetime of guilty feelings for the child.

The long term consequences could be that the child will grow up recognizing that the mother’s world is focused on the mother. This will impact her in terms of the kinds of friends she makes and, later on, the kinds of long-term relationships she has.

She’ll expect the focus to always be on the other person, because that’s what her mother taught her, but she’ll still probably work hard to make the dynamics more equal.

I often see adults playing out their relationships with their parents within their adult-life relationships. For a child like this baby, that might mean picking partners who use guilt to control her behavior, just like her mom did.

My Kid Whines to Get What She Wants


My daughter is 8-years old and when things don’t go her way she whines or starts to cry.

MOLLY: This question came from a reader based in Los Angeles and she also mentioned that she has two kids and there’s quite a bit of sibling rivalry between the two of them.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): I think that a parent can set limits with her child but we all should realize that the child will push against a limit pretty hard, especially at the beginning, and whine a lot and if you end up giving in. A child can recognize when a technique works and will continue to do it. That will set the stage for her to do it over and over again and will end up driving the parents and every other adult around crazy.

It’s best to start changing this behavior soon after it starts to become a habit. Early on, don’t give in when the child whines. Instead, give her an option. Say something like, “If you can ask me nicely without whining, then we can talk about this and figure this problem out. But if you’re going to continue to whine, nothing is going to happen.”

Remember: kids will test you over and over about limits until they see that you really mean it. It’s very important that, once you set the stage for the child about not whining, you really have to stick to it without any exceptions.

MOLLY: What do you do about the crying?

MOM: The parent can say that she needs to go to her room if she wants to cry. If she refuses to go to her room then the parent should escape into her own room because, let’s face it, you don’t want to be around that behavior. Say to the child, “When you’re ready to talk to me about this without whining, I’m more than happy to discuss it with you and come to a solution but I’m not going to do this while you’re whining.”

MOLLY: Some of the things we’ve used for dealing with whining and crying in our house have been sticker charts.

MOM: Sticker charts are always great for incentivizing behavior changes with rewards. You can absolutely do a sticker chart, and it’s a very good idea. Sticker charts help make concepts concrete for little kids because that’s how their brains work. So if you get a sticker chart and mark it when she doesn’t whine (using the positive reward system), you’ll want to point out verbally to the child that she did a nice job and let her put the sticker on the chart. After she gets a certain amount of stickers, she’ll then get to pick out a new book or go for ice cream or something; some sort of recognition that she’s handling things well in a grown-up way. Kids really like that.

MOLLY: Another thing I’ve heard of doing is to use a calendar and mark one day of the week that the child can have some alone-time with the mother. I know this can be helpful in reducing sibling rivalry issues, and I’ll bet a lot of whining comes from jealousy of siblings.

MOM: That can be the reward: the time alone with the parent. I think that’s a great idea. You gear it towards whatever makes sense in your own family.

I think it’s essential that you talk to an 8-year old about her feelings about her sibling. It’s very possible that the sibling rivalry issues are the source of the whining. If that is the case, working out those issues may eliminate the whining all together. It’s very important to try to get to the cause of the whining. In the end, it will be easier to deal with if that can be accomplished.

MOLLY: What are the long-term effects if you don’t deal with this. I myself worry about my daughter whining at 6-years old indicates that she won’t be able to cope well with life as she gets older.

MOM: When children whine they are feeling basically helpless. They have to be taught different techniques for getting what they want and need, but first you have to deal with the whining and then you move into what works better. You want to encourage children to talk about their feelings rather than to act them out by whining. If the child continues to whine and the parents don’t set some limits around whining, you’ll end up with a whiny kid who becomes a whiney adult. Constant whiners end up being chronically unhappy and unsatisfied.

We’ve all experienced whiney adults in our lives and basically we try to get away from them. We all  want to help our children have happy childhoods and become adults who are socially acceptable and likeable to others. Whining as a coping strategy runs counter to this child-rearing goal.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with your whining child. Or Contact Us if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

Using Positive Incentives to Change Kids’ Behavior


I feel like I’m always saying “No,” and becoming such a nag. Aren’t there other ways of changing behavior?

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Boston. I think one thing that you suggested for us that’s been helpful for the tantrums was the sticker chart.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): It could be a variety of things that you put on there.

MOLLY: We put a list that includes please and thank you, no tantrums, good table manners… and it’s all positive reinforcement. So every time my daughter does it –or rather doesn’t do it (in other words, refrains from having a tantrum..)–  she gets to put a sticker on the chart. Then after 5 stickers accumulate for the same thing, she gets to go to the bookstore and pick out a little paperback book.

MOM: I think it works extraordinary well with kids. Not so well with grown ups, but it works really well with kids.

MOLLY: At what age do you think you can start a sticker chart?

MOM: Well, I don’t know exactly, but I would say in the threes. You put the chart at eye level so the child can see it, and you explain what you’re doing very clearly. Then you have the child put the stickers on it. The first time around it will all be brand new to a kid, but usually they catch on pretty rapidly.

MOLLY: I like our bookstore reward because it’s not about toys.

MOM: Right, you’re not going to promise the child a big thing, just a little treat.

MOLLY: And the whole bookstore thing is an adventure for kids.

MOM: So it’s a win-win for everyone.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success changing your child’s behavior using other strategies. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.