What to Know About Negative Reinforcement in Parenting

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 07, 2022
4 min read

Many people confuse negative reinforcement with punishment, but these are two different concepts. Negative reinforcement can be used as a strategy to encourage specific behaviors. You probably already use it on yourself and your child without even being aware of it. 

Negative reinforcement is part of a learning method called operant conditioning. The theory behind operant conditioning is that if you reinforce an action, it's more likely to occur, and if you punish an action, it's less likely to occur.  

Reinforcement can be either positive or negative, as can the behavior you're reinforcing. The important thing to remember is that reinforcement encourages or discourages a specific behavior, whether it's bad or good.  

When you're engaged in negative reinforcement, you remove a negative stimulus to reinforce a behavior. You probably use negative reinforcement to wake up every morning. Your alarm clock buzzes annoyingly at you until you turn it off. Another negative reinforcement example is car manufacturers using beeping noises to get you to wear a seatbelt. You do the desired behavior (putting on your seatbelt or getting out of bed) to remove the negative stimulus (an irritating noise).

Your child probably uses negative reinforcement on you more often than you use it on them. While your child is no psychologist, negative reinforcements come naturally to toddlers. Every temper tantrum is an example of negative reinforcement. When your child wants a cookie and you say no, they apply a negative stimulus (throwing a temper tantrum). They remove the negative stimulus when you do the desired behavior (give them a cookie).

In this example, both your behavior and your child's were reinforced. Since both behaviors were negative behaviors, this is called a behavior trap. Although your child may be reinforcing behavior they want to continue, you aren't. It can be hard to avoid these types of behavior traps, but here are some ideas that may help: 

  • Be consistent about rules, so your child has less reason to believe they can get around them. 
  • If you're going to give in, do it quickly. Giving in after a long tantrum only reinforces that your child should persist and makes it harder to correct tantrums later.
  • Use positive reinforcement in advance of situations where your child is likely to have a tantrum. Offer a treat if they behave well. 
  • Don't make empty threats or rules in the heat of the moment if you won't follow through later. 

In instances of operant conditioning, punishment is designed to reduce a specific behavior. Punishment, like reinforcement, can be positive or negative. The term positive can be misleading in this context. It means that you're applying a negative stimulus rather than taking something away. 

An example of positive punishment is making your child write sentences when they misbehave in class.   

Negative punishment is taking something pleasurable away to decrease the behavior. An example of negative punishment is taking away a toy if your child hits their sibling with it.  

Negative reinforcement can be effective, but there are concerns about both whether it works in the long term and about the dangers of using it to motivate children's behavior. Many studies show that relying on extrinsic rewards and punishments decreases internal motivation. In many cases, children who are misbehaving may later lack the skills they need to control their behavior. 

In cases where the root of bad behavior isn't willful disobedience, using punishments and reinforcements can make the problem worse. Using external reinforcers can also damage a child's self-esteem. When you send the message to children that they're misbehaving because they aren't trying hard enough, they may start to believe they're lazy and unmotivated. 

Meanwhile, if they know that laziness isn't the reason they're misbehaving, they'll feel like you don't understand them and can't be trusted to help them. In both cases, you'll damage their relationship with you. 

Instead of reinforcements or punishments, many experts recommend the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) method for handling behavior problems. The theory behind CPS is that children who display disruptive or challenging behavior are misunderstood and are often mistreated as a result. CPS is based on the belief that children do well when they can. 

If a child can't behave, then the answer is to work with the child to help them learn the skills they need to behave. As part of this process, parents learn to prioritize behavioral goals and develop three options for dealing with challenging behavior: 

Plan A: Imposition of adult will. In this instance, parents force their will on the child. While there are some situations where this is necessary for the child's safety or to prevent damaging behavior, it can often make bad behavior worse. 

Plan B: Solve the problem collaboratively. With this option, parents and children work together to improve their relationships, work on skills, and solve behavioral problems. The first step is expressing empathy so your child feels heard. Then, you express your concerns and ask your child to work with you to find a solution. 

Plan C: Lower your expectations temporarily. The third option is to lower your expectations for a while. You may choose this option for behaviors that are a lower priority. You can use plan C to move past a problem until your child has the skills to deal with it. 

With CPS, parents learn the main principles of the approach and how to identify lagging skills in their children. The CPS model helps children learn new skills and improve their behavior.