Reaction as Reinforcement: The Importance of Keeping a Neutral

Reaction as Reinforcement: The Importance of Keeping a Neutral

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*This post is written in reference to parenting, but it applies to adults with ADHD as well.

Why do my kids try to shove me over the edge?

Every so often, my children make me want to scream.  Each has an innate sense of exactly how to get an explosive reaction from me. (By explosive, I mean yelling.  We do not engage in any form of violence in this home—in case that’s where your mind went.)

Another way for my kids to really stress me out is by dawdling during morning routines.  I’m getting ready for work, and my kids are supposed to be following their charts, getting ready for their day. Instead, I get out of the shower to find my son still in his pajamas, playing with some random toy he found on the floor in his room.  My reaction? Start yelling. Start threatening.  “You have five minutes to get dressed or no Xbox for the rest of the week!” Commence chaos.

ADHD kids lack stimulation in varying areas of the brain, which is why they are typically prescribed stimulant medications.  Whether medicated or unmedicated, these brains crave some action. (In our home, most of the problems occur when the medication has yet to kick in or has worn off.) When the child acts out and triggers an intense negative reaction from his caretaker, his brain releases adrenaline, which is highly stimulating.  This is a perfect look at reinforcement from the inside out. Basically, every time we lash out, we are most likely making the problem way worse.  They grow to crave conflict and they don’t even realize it.

Click here for more information on the true meaning of “reinforcement.”

If you’re anything like me, you’ve known the whole, “reacting is bad,” spiel forever.  Knowing exactly why it’s bad motivates me a bit more to learn to curb my temper—which is HARD.  Having ADHD myself means that my impulse control is already stacked against me. How, then, am I supposed to suppress my emotions in the moment my child seems to intentionally make me angry?

 So glad you asked. 😉

What do I do about it?

At my job, we have this little jargon phrase: “keeping a neutral.”  A “neutral” is essentially the ability to maintain a neutral facial expression, tone of voice, and as neutral as possible body language while simultaneously dealing with a problem behavior.  Problem behaviors vary by function, so keeping a neutral can mean anything from not laughing when Johnny says the word “poop” seventeen times during instructional time to not crying when Susie punches you in the nose to not vomiting when Jimmy pooped on the floor and smeared it for because seeing people get grossed out is reinforcing.  (Obviously a neutral is impossible to keep at all times, but we do our best.)

Why do we keep a neutral in the field of ABA? To remain ethical and professional, and to refrain from reinforcing problem behaviors.

Admittedly, this is much more difficult at home with our own spawn than it is working with children who have more distinguishable developmental delays. While we are fully aware that our child has special needs, it’s harder to change our expectations because they’re ours.

Here are some helpful tips on keeping your neutral:

1.Wear a bracelet.

A bracelet or other wearable visual reminder can be incredibly helpful.  When the emotions start to take over, a glance at your wrist can be just the reminder you need to be the queen (or king) of neutral in that moment.

  1. Determine the function.

Immediately thinking about the function of the behavior puts you in the frame of mind to help your child work through the issue as opposed to getting mad and reacting.

  1. Make each behavior your project.

As soon as your child engages in a problem behavior, recognize it as a challenge to keep your neutral no matter what.

Most importantly: STAY NEUTRAL

Redundant much? Yes, but here’s what I mean.

Why is it so important?

In a previous post, we talked about this cute little thing called an extinction burst: a period of time during which the behavior increases in frequency and intensity. This means that since Johnny can’t get you to freak out by his usual means, he’s going to try harder.  The brain basically experiences withdrawal from the adrenaline rush usually caused by the conflict.  The behavior goes on extinction.  Once the withdrawal period/extinction burst is over, the behavior will decrease—unless you lose your neutral during the extinction burst. If you give him his desired reaction during the extinction burst, he’ll skip the small stuff and go straight to “big guns” behaviors.  He’ll try harder to get a rise out of you and get that adrenaline fix—all the while having no idea why he is behaving the way he is behaving. The brain is a complex organ. I’m obsessed.

My personal goal is to keep my reactions aggressively neutral when my kids seem like two chickens pecking at each of my shoulders. I’m doing better.  Definitely not perfect, but every day is a step in the right direction.

Do you have any special way to keep your cool when you’re angry with your kids? I’d love to hear about it!

Your friend, Miss Shannon



Amen, D. (2013). Healing ADD: The breakthrough program that allows you to see and heal        the 7 types of ADD. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.


  1. Ugh! This is seriously the HARDEST part of parenting, in my opinion. I constantly find myself struggling to show no reaction at all when my kids irritate me. Even when my voice is calm, I struggle to hide my glare or the stiffness in my shoulders! But you’re absolutely right – ANY reaction of any sort just reinforces the behavior. It’s a constant battle!


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