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Creating a Behavioral Reward System That Actually Works

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

By Rachel Martin, AMFT

Supervised by Marté J. Matthews, LMFT

“Rewards don’t work! We tried that, and it didn’t help at all!” “He’s only motivated to make our whole family miserable!” Sound familiar? As parents, we’ve all tried to parent positively at one time or another because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? And as busy, overwhelmed parents, we’ve probably found ourselves resorting to yelling and threatening, which at least shows the misbehaving child how angry we are. We do that once. It works. The misbehavior stops for awhile. But then they do it again. And we get angry again. There seems to be no solution to this endless cycle of frustration and anger.

Reward systems can work. I know, most of you just rolled your eyes and thought “Here’s another out-of-touch therapist who doesn’t see how ridiculously hard it is to control my kid!” You’re right, I’m not right there when your child slams the door in your face again. But I have successfully worked with many families to target and eliminate some awful behaviors. Setting up and enforcing a behavioral reward system is hard!

And here’s the thing: I’ll bet you’ve been missing a few key steps.

When trying to set up a reward system, we usually spend all of our energy focusing on finding the perfect reward that will always work to make our children behave. It doesn’t exist. And even if you find a reward that works (Hurray!) for weeks, suddenly it will stop working. Or it will work inconsistently. We want to match the reward to the child’s needs, the situation, and even your child’s fluctuating moods. First, sit down with your child and start a list of things they enjoy and want. Let them write down anything that comes to mind (even the ideas that are never going to happen). Think about ways you enjoy spending time together. What’s fun for both of you? Think about time you spend, think about the attention you give them, not just the toys and video games they can earn.

Then work together to include some medium size wishes that they could work towards for weeks or months. Then add some smaller ones that they could actually earn on a day-to-day, or even hourly basis. Create a huge list of options. Then figure out together how to match it to positive behaviors you want to see. Don’t just hand them their list of rewards. Create it together and you might find out that your child actually is motivated!

There’s more! To find out the other missing steps and get started on your path to a peaceful home, join Rachel Martin, AMFT this October for CFCG’s next class at the Campbell Public Library: When Everything is A Battle. This series of three classes is open to parents who want to find ways to make family life a little easier.


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