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April, 2011:

I don’t want to hurt their feelings!

One of the more common reasons clients’ give for not behaving assertively, for not saying something or confronting someone, is that “I don’t want to hurt their feelings”. I think this is very much a cultural thing in New Zealand. Children are often reminded by parents not to do something because it will upset someone else. “So-in-so will be sad (upset, worried, angry)”etc. This trains us to modify our behaviour on the basis of how other people might feel. This has two main drawbacks.

Firstly, and primarily, we should not be responsible for others’ emotional states – just as others should not be responsible for ours. We cannot “make” someone feel bad, others cannot “make” us feel bad. Our emotional reactions, how we feel inside, are the result of how we interpret what happens to us – how we make sense of things, explain or understand them. Our feelings are the result of our “cognitive processing” of the things that happen in our life. That is really important, because it means that we are able to be in control of our emotional states. That is the second drawback – if we believe that our behaviour causes others’ emotional states, we give up control of our own emotional lives.

All of this presumes that our behaviour is appropriate – assertive, reasonable – not aggressive, abusive or unreasonable. So be assured that if you behave appropriately, other people can be responsible for how they feel in response – not you!

Premack Principle

Parents often tell me that they don’t know what rewards to use for their children’s behaviour, or for that matter, what consequences to use. A large part of that problem is that children in today’s society have access to so much in the way of leisure activities – it’s difficult to find things that they will find rewarding. The Premack Principle comes from the Behaviour Modification literature. It states that “if a high-frequency behaviour is made contingent upon a low-frequency behaviour, that low-frequency behaviour will increase in frequency”. Or in other words, if there is a behaviour that children do a lot, change the rules so they can only do that if they first do something they don’t do very much, and then that second behaviour will occur more frequently. Some examples?

Homework (low-frequency behaviour) has to be done before television is watched (high-frequency behaviour), in order to increase homework behaviour.

Cleaning the bedroom has to be done before facebooking friends.

Having a meal with the family is necessary before going out with friends.

The high-frequency behaviour isn’t necessarily an undesirable behaviour – but it is one that the child would choose to do in preference to others.

The Premack Principle relies on the fact that people, including children, will be willing to do something they don’t really want to do, if that means they are able to do something that they really want to do. It does rely on parents being able to exercise control over some aspects of their children’s lives. That is often the challenge for parents – taking back control of the computer, television, or i-pods – or not allowing children to regard freedom as their right.

The difference in “frequency” doesn’t need to be large, so spend some time observing your child’s behaviour and then see if you can get them doing those activities they manage not to do if they can.