Tips on the Misuses of Negative Reinforcement for Parents

Negative reinforcement can perpetuate negative behavior.

The website for Educate Autism explains that, “negative reinforcement occurs when something already present is removed (taken away) as a result of a person's [behavior], creating a [favorable] outcome for that person.” While negative reinforcement can be used to promote positive behaviors, parents can unintentionally perpetuate undesirable behaviors through negative reinforcement. “When thinking about reinforcement, always remember that the end result is to try to increase the behavior,” according to the website for the Chicago-area counseling firm North Shore Pediatric Therapy.

Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Negative reinforcement and punishment are not the same. Punishment is a specific act designed to decrease a certain behavior, such as taking away a child’s TV privileges because he hasn't finished his homework. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, is believed to perpetuate behavior. For instance, say that your child does not want to do homework and tries to tear up his textbook. You take away his textbook to prevent him from destroying property, but you are using negative reinforcement because the next time he does not want to do homework, he knows that if he acts destructively, you will take away his study materials, thus giving him what he wants -- not to do his work. In such an instance, letting the child destroy the book then making him complete chores to pay for its replacement would constitute a punishment rather than negative reinforcement.


Giving into a child’s temper tantrums is one way in which parents might misuse negative reinforcement. For example, if your child is screaming in a supermarket because he wants to go home and you leave out of frustration, this might constitute a misuse of negative reinforcement. Because your child knows that yelling will get him what he wants -- in this case, to leave the store -- your negative reinforcement might lead him to choose this course of behavior again when he is somewhere he does not want to be.

Avoidant Behaviors

Children with anxiety about social circumstance such as school or sports might cry or complain of headaches or stomachaches to try to get out of these uncomfortable experiences. While the child might, indeed, have actual somatic symptoms and distress in these settings, letting the child stay home from school or avoid new experiences can be an example of the misuse of negative reinforcement. By giving into your child’s anxiety, it will become difficult for her to address her anxieties constructively. In such situations, talking to your child about her fears and providing her with comfort and encouragement might be a more effective parenting strategy.

Safety and Well-being

Negative reinforcement can be used positively. For instance, if your young child is crying because she is in distress from illness or injury, comforting her will show her that her action -- crying -- will get your attention and allow her to obtain help when she needs it. Older children might try to abuse this negative reinforcement, however. For example, if your 4-year-old knows that crying will elicit your attention, she might cry when you are on an important phone call even if she is not experiencing any real distress. While meeting children’s emotional needs is a crucial parenting task, negative reinforcement can leave room for children to use disruptive or inappropriate ways of asking for time with you.