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Help Your Child Build Healthy Reward Pathways

by Loretta Graziano Breuning

When you reward bad behavior, you literally wire your child’s brain to repeat the bad behavior. No parent intends to do that, but it happens so easily. When you know how, you will reward only good behavior, and give your child a good start.

Imagine that your child grabs a cookie from someone.

You tell them it’s not nice, but you let them keep the cookie. “Just this once.”

A young brain learns from the cookie more than your words Cookies trigger dopamine, the brain’s reward chemical. Dopamine paves a neural pathway that turns on more of the good feeling in similar future circumstances. That wires a brain to expect grabbing to get rewards. Each reward strengthens the pathway.

A similar example is the child who screams when you say “no cookie.” You want the screaming to stop for good reasons, so you let them have the cookie “just this once.” Dopamine surges, and builds a pathway that anticipates rewards from screaming.

Over time, rewards become subtler than cookies, and bad behavior becomes subtler than grabbing or screaming. But the bottom line is the same: neural pathways connecting good feelings to bad actions.

It’s tempting to “disease-ify” the problem. Then you bring in “experts” to fix it. But nothing changes as long as bad behavior is rewarded. You can fix this without the baggage of disease labels. You can help a child build new neural pathways by choosing your rewards with great care.

Understanding dopamine is Step One.

Dopamine creates the feeling we call “joy.” Your brain releases it when you find a way to meet a need. You may think you’re too sophisticated to feel joy about meeting a need, but your brain is inherited from ancestors who had to forage constantly to survive. Our brain keeps looking for rewards because dopamine makes it feel good. Social rewards become important once physical needs are met.

Neurons connect when dopamine flows, so each brain gets wired to expect rewards from whatever brought them before. Imagine the frustration of a young brain that links good feelings to bad actions. They don’t want to do this, but the electricity in the brain flows like water in a storm– it finds the paths of least resistance. You rely on old trails until you blaze new ones.

Of course you don’t want to go to the other extreme of attacking the bad behavior. That would just wire a child to expect attacking to get rewards.

But you must extract the cookie for the non-verbal part of the brain to get the message that bad behavior will not get you rewards.

In sticky situations that involve more than cookies, monitor yourself carefully to see what you actually reward with your attention and approval. Adults with the best of intentions often reward bad behavior with their attention and tacit approval. I did it myself! We want our children to do the right thing, but at the same time, we don’t want to deny them the cookie. I was a peace-at-any-price parent until I understood the reward pathways I was creating.

You can help a child build new pathways by rewarding new behaviors. This may seem hard at first: you don’t see many good behaviors to reward; and the reward power of cookies is hard to compete with. But you can learn to zoom in on small steps toward desired behavior, and reward them in healthy ways. Plan your healthy rewards in advance so you don’t yield to junk food, junk entertainment, or junk philosophy.

Each brain learns from the rewards it experiences. The reward pathways built in youth become the superhighways of your brain for life. We all seek the good feeling of dopamine with the pathways we have. When you reward your child for healthy steps, you give them peace of mind for a lifetime. Nothing is more precious. 

Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels.  Her work has been featured on Forbes, NPR, Psychology Today, and a wide range of podcasts. The Inner Mammal Institute offers free resources that help you build power over your mammalian brain chemistry.  Dr. Breuning’s many books, videos, blogs, and digital resources have helped thousands of people make peace with their inner mammal. https://innermammalinstitute.org/

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