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Do Rewards Change Behavior in Sensitive Spirited Kids?

Do rewards change behavior in sensitive spirited kids? Not usually, or not for long. And here’s why.

I often hear from parents, “Rewards worked for a while, and then they stopped working.” Parents are often understandably at their wit’s end when that happens. If even one of your children is dysregulated, that can contribute to a lot of chaos to your family. It can be hard to parent in those situations, as well as exhausting.

The most common situation in which rewards stop working with your sensitive, spirited child, is when you’ve been using rewards to encourage your child to stay calm, or to encourage them to control their behavior when they’ve been having intense emotional outbursts of some kind. When this is the case and your child’s behavior has an underlying component of nervous system dysregulation, rewards don’t work because your child still will not have learned to calm themselves or regulate their nervous system system. And when the nervous system is dysregulated, the rational part of their brain is mostly not accessible.

Sometimes the rewards appear to work for a while. That’s usually because your child may have dug a little deeper and “overridden” their dysregulation, because they were excited about the reward. However, when they reach the end of their ability to do that (their capacity**), the old (unwanted) behavior will re-appear. It’s physiological and involuntary; it’s not because they’re not trying harder anymore.

Changing the Pattern

It’s a slower, but more steady and reliable way to help your child manage their behavior by recognizing when they’re dysregulated and supporting them to regulate. When you as the parent hold steady and stay calm with your child, and help them get regulated again, they will begin to build more capacity in their nervous system. This happens over time, with much repetition.

Having said that, there may be times when you end up transitioning from using rewards to focusing more on foundational regulation, especially when your child’s behavior brings a lot of chaos to the family or threatens safety, or you’re struggling to stay regulated yourself.

Using rewards may sometimes bring temporary relief for long enough that you can start to bring in some practices that help your child (and you) regulate, but it doesn’t work for all children, especially if your child is very spirited.

It’s individual and there’s no perfect prescription or one-size-fits-all.

Lifelong benefits

Ultimately, my observation has been that the more you can focus on helping your child to regulate first, the benefits are:

  • Your child learns the valuable lifelong skill of calming and regulating themselves – which is useful in all or most future relationships and life situations,
  • Your child is learning to manage their behavior through their intrinsic motivation system rather than being externally motivated, and
  • Even though behavior changes may be slower to happen, they tend to be longlasting.

How does this land? I’m curious about your experience with rewards vs. regulation. If you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.

** Capacity, in nervous system regulation, can be thought of as the amount of “space” one has in their nervous system to hold emotional tension or charge when they meet up with a stressor. If you think about a balloon, you can only add so much air before it reaches the end of its capacity and pops. The nervous system is the same. It can only hold so much. But it can be “trained” to hold through co-regulation–that’s when you stay regulated and support your child to regulate with you. It’s never about telling them how to be calm.

Image Credit: Elina Fairytale, Pexels