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How over praising and rewards are having an unintended effect on the mental health of children and young people



By Michael Hawton

4th May, 2016

Natasha Bita, Education Editor at The Australian recently cited the findings of a landmark study published in the latest Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in relation to the way that parents might be inadvertently contributing to children’s mental health problems.

I could not agree more that while not exclusively being the sole factor in how children and young people become mentally unwell, parents can play a role in this abnormal development.

A little known mental health problem that appears to be emerging over the last 20 years is that of children presenting with inflated self-esteem which may develop into more narcissism as they get older.

The thing is, that praising and rewarding children all the time, as Michael Carr-Gregg says, - giving them "participation ribbons" - will not teach them self-regulation.

The misuse of praise as a way to change behaviour and some of its unintended outcomes is highlighted by Jean M. Twenge, PH.D, who underlines the problems with wrongly using praise as a behavioural lever for children’s behaviour in her newly revised book ‘Generation Me’.  Further Carol S. Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University says that using the wrong type of praise can stop children from putting-in effort in her article The Perils & Promises of Praise.

A worldwide study by UNICEF released in late 2014 Hidden in Plain Sight,  found that around 6 in 10 children between the ages of 2 and 14 worldwide (almost a billion) are subjected to physical punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis but only 3 in 10 believe that physical punishment is necessary. In other words, they ‘hit’ their children because they don’t know what else to do.

My experience, as a teacher and child psychologist, is that many Australian parents come across as angry towards their children mainly because they don’t know how to promote self-control in children – something that is easily learned. They often don’t know how to respond calmly, and the prevailing model of praise-and-rewards-parenting is generally not focused on helping children (or their parents) learn restraint, but to ‘behave’, because they will get rewarded. Moreover a 'one size fits all’ approach to parenting education programs has been bemoaned in other countries.  The simple truth is that a praise-and- rewards model of parenting will not teach children how to use their ‘mental brakes’. So what we see happening are the longer term outcomes cited in Twenge’s work.

About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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