Parent like a Therapist: One Secret to Conquering Parenting Challenges at Home

Do you ever feel like every time you ask your child to do something, no matter how big or how small, the answer is immediately no? Do you want to help mom bring in groceries? NO. Do you want to go to the store with me? NO! Do you want to try this piece of cake? NO!!! Fine… more for me… 

Although immediate “no” answers are very common for kids, parents often feel as though their relationship with their child is deteriorating. It becomes harder to have patience when asking your child to perform an expected task. But the truth is, not every interaction between you and your child will be positive. According to Dr. Gottman and his Magic Relationship Ratio, in order to maintain a healthy relationship, we should strive for five positive interactions to every one negative interaction.  

The secret to avoiding as many negative interactions and increasing positive interactions is Pairing! In fact, teaching pairing often a first priority when training new therapists, and anyone can learn to do it! Pairing, simply put, is the act of transforming yourself into a reinforcer for your child.  A reinforcer is any consequence that makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future. Reinforcers can come in the form of things we like, attention from people, escape from things we dislike, or physical sensations.  As parents, when we make fun things happen ‘just because,’ or regardless of behavior, we, ourselves, can become a reinforcer for your child’s behavior. 

Kelly (Bergin) Bevans, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA, has some tips about how to become a reinforcer for our kids.

Let’s take a look at some examples of reinforcers in the real world. 

  • My students turn their homework in because, in the past, I’ve given them a shiny sticker after they hand it in. 
  • My ten-week-old daughter repeats “Ah-Goo!” over and over again on the changing table, because the last time I broke out into a huge smile and told her “Great job baby girl!” 
  • A four-year-old client consistently cries when served broccoli because in the past, his parents took it away when he started crying.

Think about it like this… wouldn’t you be much more likely to go above and beyond in a task for a boss that always made you feel good about your work? They might not praise you every time, but knowing they appreciate your work will make you more likely to give it your all.

So … Why should I try it?

Taking time to pair will establish YOU as the reinforcer. Giving prizes, rewards, and treats after every “good” behavior isn’t practical. When we become reinforcers ourselves, our presence alone can signal to our kids that good things are to come and can help set the stage for appropriate behavior. We won’t always need to promise cookies in exchange for eating vegetables or take a trip to the toy store when our kids refuse to brush their teeth. 

Pairing, presenting favorite things to your kids ‘just because,’ will strengthen your instructional control. Eventually, our presence and our praise will function as a reinforcer and our kids will be able to follow directions with more success.

And .. How does pairing work?

We all do things to get what we want. We will engage in certain behaviors to gain access to reinforcers more frequently when we know that those reinforcers are available. 

For example, when I’m seated at a restaurant and a waiter approaches the table, I know that it’s time to order. Since waiters have brought my food in the past, when I see the waiter, I know food will be available and so I place my order. I wouldn’t place an order before the waiter gets to the table- I don’t expect that behavior would be rewarded.  

We also know that when we present favorite things immediately following a certain behavior, that behavior is more likely to occur in the future. With our clients, we might give a Tootsie Pop to a student who is learning to ask “May I please have a lollipop?” In this case, the reinforcer is the lollipop. Presenting it immediately after the behavior (asking politely for one) will strengthen that behavior. Once we become reinforcers ourselves, we can use praise to increase appropriate behavior instead of lollipops. Then when you say, “What a great job brushing your teeth!” your child will be more likely to brush in the future.

How do I do it?

There are a few different ways to teach your child to view you as a reinforcer…

Spending one-on-one time together

Providing undivided attention here is crucial. As parents, we know how packed schedules can be, and finding time without distractions can feel overwhelming. Start small! Try to find two-minute blocks during the day. Running errands? Take advantage of some of that time spent waiting to pair. While standing in line at the grocery store, chat about what you might cook at home. Afternoon carpool? Put on your child’s favorite song and jam out together.

Joining in on favorite activities

While your child is happily engaged in one of their hobbies, join them! Your little one is building with Legos? Sit on the floor next to her and build your own tower. Your eight-year-old is shooting hoops in the driveway? Pick up the ball and take a few shots! The key here is to follow our children’s interests before they ask. Of course, we can also join in when asked to do so and when feasible. And remember, start small! Two or three minutes of playing favorite activities with our kids will go a long way to pair us with these favorite activities.

Talking about preferred topics

Offer topics of conversations about favorite things, and then follow their lead. Baseball fan? Try “Hey! I heard the Yankees won last night!” Loves Paw Patrol? You might say “Everest is my favorite- he always saves the day!” See how your child responds. If they seem enthusiastic and come back with their own comment or question, keep chatting about their interest. If they don’t take the bait, no worries! Give yourself credit for trying, and make a plan to try another day. The key here is to express interest in the child’s favorite things.

Once in a while, give out a treat!

Parents will often ask, “You want me to give my child unlimited access to (candy, ice cream, donuts)?!” No! The goal is for you and your family to be able to incorporate treats (whether that be snacks, desserts, iPad time, video games, etc.) whenever and however it works for you. Are tantrums frequently resulting in access to fun stuff? Consider switching it up! Present the fun stuff “for free” before undesirable behavior occurs. This will help to 1. Connect or pair you with the fun thing and 2. Separate the fun thing from the behavior we want to decrease.

When we provide free access to reinforcers “just because,” we can stress less when a tantrum sometimes results in access to that same thing. Since our kids are getting to, for example, eat cupcakes, in their lunchbox on Tuesdays, they’ll learn that other circumstances will also lead to treats.

Providing fun stuff “for free” will connect us with the fun stuff. When we are paired with reinforcers, our presence will help our kids follow directions more consistently. 

We understand this takes time and practice (and we’ll have future articles that break this concept down even further), but it’s worth starting to think about now!

Pairing is just one way you can connect with your child, (but it’s a fantastic place to start). If you’re interested in adding more tools to your parenting tool box, be sure to follow Just Parent on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok where we’ll be publishing a lot more helpful information just like this. And if you want to be notified when our Just Parent app launches later this year, be sure to sign up for notifications on our website!

Kelly (Bergin) Bevans, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA