Friday, May 27, 2011

Negative Reinforcment

My husband and I have parrots.  They are loveable, funny, and are a constant source of birdie hilarity, especially the Umbrella Cockatoo, Houdini.  She is definitely in her own category of silly, clownish, and demanding.  We put a deposit down on her when she was still in her egg.  She was breed and hand-raised in the US (not trafficked) by a wonderful avian expert.  She was hand-fed and raised to a proper age before she was given to us.  I enjoyed that she loved to snuggle under my hair, near my ear, in the crook of my neck.  She was very affectionate and still is. 

But there was this one thing…she liked to scream, and I mean SCREAM this awful screech when she wasn’t getting all the attention from me or my husband.  Anyone who has ever known or owned a cockatoo knows what I am talking about.  She was an angel and a snuggler with us but as soon as we put her in her cage, she would scream like there was no tomorrow.  Our gut instinct was to come in and tell her to “shusshhh”.  We tried that for a bit but the screaming got worse.  Come to find out that as new bird parents, we were reinforcing the negative behavior of screaming.  Houdini learned that if she screamed then we could come into the room, so she did it all the time.  Needless to say, she is now almost 6 years old and doesn’t scream for attention anymore. 

I am sure you are wondering why I went on a bird tangent.  I have noticed, over the years, that teens can learn negative reinforcement from their abusers.  As teenagers, we learn to crave positive attention from admirers, teachers, parents, coaches, and friends.  But what of that attention when it comes from an abuser in a dating violence relationship?  For example, you have a young teen couple that has been dating for awhile.  The abuser is slowing isolating the victim from friends, family, and once-loved activities.  The victim is also learning what makes the abuser mad or upset, perhaps a specific friend of the victim or wearing certain clothing sets off the abuser.  So the victim learns to not see the friend or wear those clothes.  The victim then begins to do only what makes the abuser happy.  The victim only sees the abuser, reports back to the abuser about where they are and what they are doing, and makes sure only to do the things the abuser finds acceptable.  The victim wears only what the abuser picks out, does only what the abuser says, and maybe even does things sexually that the abuser wants, willingly or unwillingly.  As the victim does these things, the abuser lavishes attention and love on the victim, thereby reinforcing negative behavior on the part of the victim. 

While it is a bit of stretch to compare a human and a cockatoo’s behavior, the outcomes are the same.  Undesirable actions are rewarded.  In the case of the cockatoo, undesirable behavior was rewarded unwittingly by me.  In the case of the victim and abuser, the behaviors that a teen dating violence advocate would find unacceptable (and so would the victim if they weren’t so damaged or blinded by the abuser) are being reinforced for the abuser unwittingly by the victim.

It is my sincere hope that as individuals, parents, teachers, and advocates for teens, we can teach our teens to recognize negative behaviors and attitudes.  We want our teens to know how to reinforce positive behaviors and actions and disassociate themselves from negative ones.  Help me help you teach your teens about teen dating violence, healthy relationships, and boundary setting.  Together we can make a positive change away from negative reinforcement because of a bad relationship.   

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