Several years ago, I worked the hardest “job” I’ve ever been assigned. I call it a “job” because I got paid for it, but I never had time off so it was more of a lifestyle than a job.
For a year and a half, I worked with my husband as the house parents of a group home for teenage boys. Up to eight teenage boys lived with us at one time in order to work on their behavioral and social skills. Often, they were placed with us by the court system so that our community could help rehabilitate them instead of sending them to jail.
And when I say we never had time off, I mean we NEVER had time off. House parents live with the kids, all in one giant house, and their entire lives revolve around whatever is going on with the kids. Throw in biological kids on top of that, and you’ve got complete exhaustion.
If you ever meet someone who does this job, give them a hug and a coffee.
Anyway… although this job was extremely difficult, it taught me more than any other life experience has. Not only did I learn how to avoid objects that were flying through the air, but I also learned how to shape a child’s behavior in healthy ways for healthy reasons.
One of the most beneficial pieces of information I gained at Boys Town was that typical kids need to be praised at least four times more often than they’re reprimanded or corrected. Kids from pasts of trauma often need even higher ratios than this. They come with trust issues, an inability to emotionally bond, low self esteem, damaged neural pathways (“scars” on the brain), and brains that are stuck in emergency response mode so they need extra positive affirmation. These kids require eight to ten times more positive feedback than negative feedback.
What do I mean by “need” in this instance? I mean that without the high rate of positive feedback, your behavior modification techniques won’t be effective on kids from trauma. Or, if they are, the results will be hindered either in quality or longevity.
Any time I start to struggle with my kids’ behaviors (most often my foster daugher’s), it’s almost always because I’ve found myself in a positivity drought with them. It’s not that they’ve suddenly turned into monsters. It’s not that they’re choosing to be extra obnoxious or disobedient toward me. It’s that I’m correcting all of their negative behaviors without giving them enough positive feedback.
You might be thinking, “But I do give my kid(s) positive affirmation.”
So do I. Every single day. But am I giving them four to ten times the amount of positive affirmation as I am negative feedback? Not as often as I should.
When their behaviors spike, I can look back on my interactions with them over the past week and see where I’ve not provided them with enough support. I’m keeping my cool and doing things by the book, so to speak, but I’m not pouring at the positivity, warmth, or affirmation.
Usually, in these seasons of “drought,” I’m at about a one to one ration with my kids. This means that for every positive piece of feedback I give them, I’m giving them one piece of negative feedback, as well. That doesn’t sound terrible, but think about it from a different perspective. Imagine if that was the ratio of positive to negative interactions you had with your boss at work. Every time she prasied you, she corrected you.
Or imagine if it was your spouse. Every time they told you they loved you, they also pointed out a chore you hadn’t done.
Or what about your best friend? For each time they told you your hair looked nice, they also asked how long it’d been since you’d gone to the gym.
That’s emotionally DRAINING. When you view it through the lens of how you’d feel if it were someone you deeply cared about, you might be able to understand how a child would feel defeated when you do that to them.
The issue is never the number of corrections you give them. The issue is the number of positives you give them.
You can always correct a child’s behavior (as long as it’s developmentally appropriate for that particular child), but you MUST couple those corrections with an extremely high rate of positive interactions. If you don’t, your success will never last.
Positive interactions don’t just have to be “good job” affirmations or verbal praise. They can be high fives, candy rewards, stickers on a chart, hugs, smiles, or any other motivator you can think of. It all depends on what motivates that particular kid.
Keep the corrections, guys… but quadruple the affirmation. Don’t let your life fall into chaos simply because you’re not willing to walk your family out of that positivity drought.
Praise, praise, and praise some more. It’s hard being a human, especially when you’re little.