Last Modified: November 25, 2023 | Published: May 18, 2023

Feeling frustrated? 

Here are some common parenting pitfalls to gentle parenting and positive discipline. Of course, we love our kids and are doing the best we can to do right by them. But often, it feels like it’s not working. Gentle parenting is all the rage right now, and there may be some good reasons for that. But, you may have discovered it’s much harder than it looks. 

Positive reinforcement is not easy! As clinicians, here are some common mistakes we notice parents make when trying to be more gentle and positive in their parenting.

Only noticing negative behaviors. It can be hard to notice the positive behavior in your child because our brains are wired to look for danger. This tendency can make it hard to notice what is actually going well. When we only notice and comment on our child’s negative behaviors, we accidentally reinforce these behaviors. 

Instead do this: Try and notice when your child is acting positively and point this out. Let’s say you notice your son sharing a toy with his sister. You could say “Oliver, I notice how you are sharing your toys so nicely.” 

Nagging your child. You are following your child around the house, asking them when each task will be completed. You may hear yourself saying something like, “Hazel, is your room clean?” “Hazel, you know you can’t go to your friend’s house until your room is clean.” “Hazel, tomorrow is Friday, and your room is still messy.” “Hazel, when do you plan to clean your room?” 

Instead do this: Set up the expectation ahead of time. In this example, you would let Hazel know that she can have a friend over AFTER her room is clean, and not a minute sooner. You may also let her know that she cannot go to a friend’s house until her room is clean. This approach serves two purposes: 1. It gives the child a chance to improve her situation. 2. It teaches her an important lesson in that if her room had already been cleaned, she wouldn’t have to delay seeing her friends.

You may give her one reminder such as “Hazel, it is Wednesday. Remember your room needs to be cleaned by Friday to be able to have friends over this weekend. Then let it be. It is up to your child. If she cleans her room, then she can have friends over. If not, she chose that consequence.

Allowing your child to ‘get your goat.’ It is hard to see your child upset sometimes. Pretend for a minute that you set a rule about your child’s room being clean before she can go out. Of course, your child doesn’t like this news. She may cry and beg for mercy. It can be painful as a parent to watch your child struggle with missing out on the reward. It can also be tricky socially when you have plans and you have to break them to reinforce your rules.

Instead do this: Know your child may try and test you by becoming upset when you enforce the rule. This does not mean the strategy is not working. You don’t need to join them. They knew what was expected of them and they didn’t follow through. They earned the consequence. As hard as it is, hold your ground. It will pay off in the long run.

Bribing your child. This is a tricky thing because rewards and reinforcement often feel like bribes. Imagine you are trying to get out the door and you say, “Hurry! Please hurry!” And your child ignores you while playing a video game. So you add, “If you come now, you will get a prize.” 

That is a bribe.

Or imagine your child is hitting his sister at dinner and you say, “If you stop, you can have dessert.” 

This is also a bribe. 

Bribes are not the same as rewards because the child is actually displaying the negative behavior, and you are essentially, ‘talking them out of it’ with the ‘prize.’ 

Instead, do this: Set up your target behavior and reward in advance. Imagine you are trying to get out the door on time and your kids are taking forever. Set a marble jar by the door. Every day they get out on time, they earn a marble. Once the jar is full, they get a prize. With a reward like this, you set it all up ahead of time. You target a specific behavior you want to see and provide a specific reward. Everyone in the house knows that when behavior X happens, reward Y happens. That’s what an effective reward looks like.

Punishing by taking items away. If you are like most parents, you probably get sick and tired of seeing your kids on their devices. You want them to do their chores and homework but they are ignoring you. Eventually you get fed up and just grab the devices and take them all away. Maybe you even threaten to take the devices away for the rest of the week or the rest of the month. Your kids fly off the handle, melting down like this is their last moment on earth to play that game. 

There’s nothing wrong with preventing your kids from using screens that you pay for, especially when the work has to get done. However, simply ripping the device away probably won’t work very well.

Instead do this: In advance, let your child know going forward, they will be earning their screen time. If their homework is complete by 7:30pm they can earn thirty minutes of screen time. When your child completes their homework, they earn their electronics. 

In this way, you are attempting to cut off the power struggle in advance. Of course your child won’t have a great time with this. Your child may scream, cry, yell, or beg for the screen. You simply state, “When your homework is finished, you can have thirty minutes of screen time.” 

If your child is upset and you are finding it hard to calm down yourself, it is OKAY to walk away. If your child follows you, simply state the rule, “When your homework is finished, you earn screen time. It is up to you.”  

Taking away a reward your child has earned. If your child has earned a reward and then starts to misbehave, do not take away a previously earned reward. As clinicians, we have found the number one reason rewards fail is the taking away of an already-earned reward. 

If you take away a reward that has already been awarded, your child will lose faith in the system. Your child will no longer be motivated to earn rewards if they think those could be taken away. 

Listen to this great one-minute video by Dr. Anna Kroncke where she explains how this mishap happened in her own family and why taking away rewards does not work. 

Instead, do this: Let your child know that they didn’t earn the reward today. You can say, “I’m sorry you didn’t earn your sticker today. You can try again tomorrow. I know you can do it.” This approach demonstrates faith in your child AND consistency with your reward system. Be consistent and persistent. Eventually, your child will come to respect the program and demonstrate improved behavior.

Rewarding your child when they did not earn it. One reason a reinforcement system starts to slip is that the child starts ‘sneaking it.’ For example, they may finish some part of their homework and decide they want their screen time NOW. Before you know it, the child is sitting there happily playing a video game. Sometimes these little ‘slips’ happen because life gets in the way. Maybe you have 20 people coming for Thanksgiving dinner and you didn’t even notice your kiddo was on the screen.

Instead do this: 

PLAN A: If you can, go over to your child and help them get some minimal amount of homework done so they can earn the screen. You might say, “First math, then screens.” You can decide if you want to cut the homework session short to get back to your dinner prep, but at this point you are in charge again. 

PLAN B: If you are exhausted, can you have another option for your child? Maybe you can allow a learning app like Starfall instead of video games.

PLAN C: In a pinch, announce that you are making a special exception for a certain situation. You could loudly announce, “Because we are having a crowd at Thanksgiving, I am allowing more screen time today. We will go right back to our normal schedule tomorrow.” It’s not perfect, of course, but it still is a reminder to your child that you are paying attention and you will indeed continue with the reinforcement system when things go back to normal.

Losing your cool. Anyone who has a child knows this is very understandable. You are exhausted, it has been a long day, and you have nothing more to give. Instead of calmly following your reinforcement plan, you yell and scream at your child to get a task finished. 

Instead do this: If you are having a hard time, go to the bathroom and take some deep breaths. It can even be a good idea to loudly announce that you are ‘taking a break’ or ‘getting some space.’ If you can go for a walk or a drive on your own, that’s great. In the absence of that, try to get a breather somewhere in the house. If it is just not happening today, just let your child know that you will pick this up tomorrow when everyone is calm.

If your child follows you all over the house, screaming for the reward, try to calmly refuse. Remind your child, “It’s up to you. Do your task and you get the reward. I am not going to debate this with you right now.” Next, walk away. If you would like some strategies you can use to help keep your cool, this blog on managing stress and anger may help. 

Setting a rule you do not intend to keep. For example, let’s say you tell your child “no snacks before dinner.” Your child starts to whine, cry or scream about how they are starving and they only want candy. You are tired, and you give in to your child because you don’t have the energy to hold your ground right now. You know this isn’t great but you just don’t feel like a battle. 

Keep in mind, you have just tiptoed into the danger zone. When you say no and then give in, your child has found a loophole in your system. Next time you set a rule, your child will cry and scream louder and longer. 

Instead do this: Reconsider your rule. It is better not to set a rule than to let them get away with breaking it. You might say something like, “If you can, please wait for dinner. If you really are hungry, okay, have a snack but let’s make this the exception, not the rule.” This approach still lets your child know that throwing a fit is not the way to get what they want. You are paying attention to your child’s wishes while also staying in charge of the household.

Taking on too much at once. As a good parent, you have so many things you want to work on with your child. You want your child to sleep in their own room, go to bed on time, get out the door on time, finish their homework, and be nice to their siblings. You have incentives around every behavior you would like to change in your child. Or maybe you don’t even start the reward system because you are so overwhelmed with all the areas that need to change.

Instead, do this: Pick one behavior or focus area. If you are worried about your child hitting their siblings, target that one behavior. Once you are seeing positive change that is consistent, you can target another behavior. 

Giving up. You have started a new behavior system with your child, but it feels like a disaster. Perhaps, you tell your spouse, “I actually think he’s getting worse!” At this point, most parents give up, thinking it doesn’t work. 

Instead, do this: Expect the ‘extinction burst.’ One of the most helpful tools I learned as a clinician is the idea of an extinction burst. An extinction burst is a ‘burst’ of negative behaviors that serves as a last ditch attempt to get the reward the old way. Adults do this too! Imagine you got into the elevator and it didn’t go up. You might push the button 3 times before you give up and take the stairs. That’s an extinction burst. Often with our children, it will get worse before it gets better. If we are able to ride the wave and get through the challenging moments, change could be right around the corner. 

A story here from my own experience: I was working with a client yesterday, who had set up a system of doing chores to earn screen time. At the start, their child would not complete the tasks. Rather than ‘getting with the program,’ the child would melt down by screaming and throwing things. Even though they felt frustrated and exhausted, the parents decided to stick with it. Every day for 3 weeks it was a battle. Then slowly, their child started to complete the tasks and earn screen time. The parents reported that although occasional meltdowns still happen, their child’s behavior has dramatically improved with the new system.

Often when we set up a new way of doing something with our children, they will protest.  Your child may become more demanding because they don’t like the rule. Let your child vent to you about their frustrations but keep the new system in place. 

If you can stick with it, things will improve over time. As the saying goes, “It may get worse before it gets better.”

Thank you for reading this blog post on common parenting pitfalls with gentle parenting and positive discipline. You are here reading this article because you care. Here at Cadey, we know this is tough. Know we are here with you and here to help. If you found these strategies helpful, try Cadey’s iOS mobile App

Try Cadey’s Mobile App to discover specific ways you can help your child. Created by a team of child psychologists, the Cadey mobile app is for parents like you who want to help their children. From hyperactivity and impulsivity to sensory seeking and other concerns, ask a question and get an answer. Here is the link to the google play store

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