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Recognizing Children and reinforcing Behaviors

Research indicates that we as human beings need stimulation to survive. Investigations by the Austrian-American psychoanalyst Rene Spitz in 1945 with infants reared in a children’s home indicated that infants who are deprived of stimulation may sink into a decline.

You wake up your little one and wish a ‘Good Morning’. You wave a goodbye when he/she leaves for school. As your child is back from school you may greet him with a hug or a “How was your day at school?”. You may praise him for a good job done or reprimand him for some mischief.

In the language of Transactional Analysis, all these above exchanges are called “strokes”. Simply put, a stroke is a unit of attention which provides stimulation.

The word ‘stroke’ comes from the infant’s instinctive need for touch. Physical contact is the basic form of contact and we crave for physical contact throughout our lives, from our growing up years, to adulthood. However, as we grow up, we learn to substitute touch with other forms of recognition.

Strokes can be:

Verbal or non-verbal:
All spoken words are classified as verbal strokes. Non-verbal strokes can include a stern look, a smile, hug etc.

Positive or negative:
Positive strokes are the ones which are experienced as pleasant and negative strokes are the ones which are experienced as unpleasant or painful.

It has been observed that we work by a particular principle when it comes to strokes: Any kind of stroke is better than no stroke at all.

This means that if a child is not getting the positive strokes he or she wants, the child will tend to throw a tantrum or drive the parent up the wall, to at least elicit negative strokes.

These behaviors can look like the child is punishing oneself, but the truth is nobody likes to be left ‘stroke-deprived’ and negative strokes tend to feel much more powerful than positive strokes.

Conditional or Unconditional:
A conditional stroke refers to what you do whereas unconditional stroke refers to what you are.

For example, “You have made a beautiful drawing.” is a positive conditional stroke. “You are a kind boy.” Is a positive unconditional stroke.

The above flavors of strokes give us a choice for different kind of ‘stroking’. Below are a few points to be kept in mind regarding strokes:

Children test all kinds of behavior to check which one results in maximum strokes. If your child has drawn on the walls and he gets a loud animated shouting for it, chances are that he’ll want to do it all over again.

Provide the child with an opportunity for an alternative behavior which garners positive strokes. In this case, for example, giving a sheet of paper and crayons and telling him how wonderful his drawing is.

Unconditional strokes are experienced very strongly and hence positive unconditional strokes are very desirable.

While giving negative strokes, it is important to separate the doing from the person. This makes it clear to the child that it is what he did which was inappropriate rather than believing that the whole of him is bad or unwanted.

For example, “I didn’t like you pushing the boy at the park.” is a conditional negative stroke, but “You are a horrible child.”, is an unconditional negative stroke.

Giving children a choice to reject strokes they don’t like, asking for strokes they like and encouraging them to give themselves strokes foster healthy development of self-esteem. Touch is a powerful way of stroking. Massages, hugs, etc. count as strokes through touch. So don’t hold back that hug!

Some may believe that positive strokes are ‘good’ and negative strokes are ‘bad’. However, too much of anything can be a bad thing and so a healthy stroke quotient will include both positives and negatives, conditionals and unconditionals.

Avatar About the Author

Sapna Sajan

A psychotherapist practicing Transactional Analysis(TA) as her primary modality.

She is also trained in NLP, Gestalt and Psychodrama and integrates all these modalities in her work. She holds a post graduate degree in Management specializing in Human Resources. She practices individual therapy and group therapy.

She is passionate about working with parents and a lot of her work as a psychotherapist focuses on the relationship between parents and children. She also works with parents of children with special needs and with adults on the autism spectrum. Traveling and spending time with nature are some of the things she enjoys.

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