Loving Attention as Therapy

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Most people who have come into contact with the ABA way of doing things perceive it (correctly) as systematic, methodical, objective, and disciplined. ABA does often involve taking the emotion out of consequences; for example, not showing anger because that display might have been shown to inadvertently reinforce the behavior, or not “comforting” a child when he is having a tantrum. 

However, none of this should be perceived as a recommendation to cut down on the overall positive emotion and attention in a home environment. High rates of love and affection are therapeutic for many reasons, not least of which is that anytime a child is engaged in appropriate behavior, which does not necessarily mean compliance or completing a task or “doing something right,” positive attention is desirable. One of the best things a parent can do is to bestow as many emotionally charged positives for their children as possible. Pats or kisses on the head, “I love you,” snuggles, hugs, getting down at the child level and playing for a second, quick little tickle, going outside for a few minutes, silly games, endearing looks and many other half-second activities are all therapeutic. And it is super useful if you can do it when the silent kid is making vocalizations or the super loud kid is being quiet, or the super active kid is sitting with an activity for a few seconds or the completely passive kid is trying to engage. Your ABA supervisors have probably told you, you have to “catch your child” being good and that does not mean that you have to say “good sitting” and quickly deliver a specified reinforcer. It means when you see your child do something desirable (no matter how small that something is and should be possible many many times per day), you can say to your spouse how impressed you are with your little one within earshot, or just run over and give them a little squeeze, a wink, thumbs up, or a 2-second hug.

When your ABA supervisor tells you to put undesirable behaviors on extinction, definitely do if attention is maintaining an inappropriate behavior. But, it is necessary to fill in the non-extinction period with that very desirable attention. That valued attention needs to be provided when appropriate behavior occurs. Use the power of your own affection to communicate to your child what behaviors are desirable. It is a vital reinforcer that you constantly have at your disposal. A child might not like hugs, but they might like eye contact with a funny face, a joke, or rhyme or song with their name in it. Of course, some kids need the big guns for difficult skill acquisition or to compete with established undesirable behaviors; however, I think one would be hard-pressed to find a child that was not at some level sensitive and receptive to love and affection from their parent. Happy hugging : )