Dr. Gibson works with struggling you at the West Ridge Academy.
Your 7 year old clears the table, but leaves behind a bunch of crumbs. Your teenager mows the lawn, but misses a patch. You ask your husband to buy some mascara, and he gets the wrong kind. How do you react? Is your first instinct to criticize or correct them? Or do you praise the effort? Do you recognize the positive?
How many of you have heard a similar statement? “You never notice when I do something right!” I have—both from my family and students I work with at West Ridge. When I’m not in a defensive mood, I must admit that they are right. I don’t tell my children, my wife, or the girls on my caseload that I notice the positive things they do often enough. I know I recognize the positive things and think about how well they are doing, but somehow I forget to tell them. In those moments of realization, I often recommit to do better and tell them more often.
Why is recognizing the positive so important to our relationships? Studies show that positive reinforcement for desired behaviors is a much more powerful tool than punishment and increases the likelihood that the desired behavior will re-occur. To put it simply, when we praise our kids for something they did, we will probably see them do it again. Our children at West Ridge need our praise even more because many harbor the belief that they will never amount to what we want them to, thus creating a cycle of failure. In fact, a recent study conducted at West Ridge clearly showed that to have a successful program, we need positive reinforcement.
In this study, 42 participants (staff, parents, and students) were asked to share their experiences at West Ridge and tell what it was that created their Change of Heart which led to success in the program. Developing relationships on and off campus were noted as being critical to change, and one experience that created strong relationships was, “recognizing change in self and others.” In our program, for confidence to grow between parents and child, one thing that needs to happen is “seeing” the change that is happening. Then to encourage that change to continue, it must be reinforced as desirable.
To make this happen, here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
1. The praise/recognition needs to be genuine. We can usually tell when someone is saying something they do not believe, and we feel patronized for it.
2. Even small acknowledgements of change are beneficial. Simply acknowledging effort reinforces the good that is happening, even when there is much more that needs to be done.
3. Retrain your mind to notice the good. Too often our first reaction is to notice the bad so we can correct it. We must retrain the way we think to see the good that is happening all around us, including from our children.
4. Ask teachers, leaders, and others, “What good happened this week that I did not see?” Sometimes they are your eyes and ears. If they do not tell you, you will probably miss it.
5. Do not gush praise so much that it loses its power. Sometimes we get so excited to praise that we go overboard and the praise can become so prolific that it: 1) overshadows the work that needs to be done, and 2) doesn’t appear genuine because everything receives praise. In either case, it’s important to give recognition and praise in moderation and when it’s truly deserved.
This may be a shift from the way many of us are. But the effort it takes to adjust our perception and then our form of communication is well worth it. All you have to do is think of a time when you received praise, especially when you did not expect it, and you will recall the boost it gave to your self-esteem and the internal desire to get that praise again. Recognition of progress is not a cure-all, but it is critical to the positive self-concept that exists for our children and for us.
West Ridge Academy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, is a residential treatment center for struggling youth 9–18 years old. www.westridgeacademy.com, Call if you need help. 1-800-262-2697
Dr. Jacob Gibson is licensed in Utah as a Marriage and Family Therapist who joined the West Ridge clinical team working with young men in 2004 and is now working with young women on their campus.