Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Relational Responding in Parents

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Relational Responding in Parents

Article excerpt

Parenting is perceived and experienced as difficult (Wahler & Dumas, 1989). Parenting involves a complex set of behaviors that emerge through a given parent's learning history, including respondent and operant processes. These same processes lead to the emergence of problematic parenting behaviors (e.g., the "coercive process"). To use a classic example, think of a mother and child in the checkout line at the grocery store. The child begs, softly at first, to get a toy. The mother says no and asks the child to be quiet. The child raises his voice and begins to cry. The mother still says no, and the child's behavior escalates. The mother gets embarrassed. Elicitation goes up, and she is extremely uncomfortable. At this point, many mothers would respond in one of two ways: aggression or acquiescence (Patterson, 1982). Let's say that the mother gives in and buys the child a toy. Both the behavior of the mother and the behavior of the child are reinforced. The child's screaming and crying is now more probable, because it worked to get what he wanted. The mother's acquiescence (and the same would be true of aggression) is negatively reinforced as the child stops misbehaving in response to it. This can be a problem in the long run.

Another common feature of parenting difficulties is parenting stress. Parenting stress is the "aversive psychological reaction to the demands of being a parent" (Deater-Deckard, 1998, p. 315). Parenting stress is related to insecure attachment (Teti, Nakagawa, Das, & Wirth, 1991), child abuse and neglect (Mash & Johnston, 1990), and a host of parent and child emotional problems (for review see Deater-Deckard, 1998).

Numerous strategies have been employed to reduce the problems associated with parenting and parenting stress, including behavioral-parent training. Behavioral-parent training programs teach parents the necessary skills to positively interact with, and discipline, their children. These programs, which are based on principles of respondent and operant conditioning, have demonstrated large and lasting improvements in child behavior (for review see Kazdin, 2003; Patterson, 1982). However, there is evidence that gains are attenuated if the parent is experiencing psychopathology, is economically disadvantaged, or has frequent negative interactions with other adults (Dumas, 1984; Kazdin, 1997).

Perhaps problems in parenting are not sufficiently explained as skills deficits resulting from direct conditioning processes alone. Certainly respondent and operant conditioning processes are featured prominently in a parent's learning history. Data indicate that these processes contribute to the development and maintenance of problematic parenting behavior as well as to the failure to respond to treatment. It is possible, however, that problems in parenting, and in the application of parenting skills, are the result of indirect relational conditioning processes as well.

Indirect Learning and the Matching-to-Sample Paradigm

Verbally competent humans show a form of indirect learning called derived relational responding. Stimulus equivalence is the basis for relational conditioning. In Sidman's (1971) classic experiment, a learning-disabled participant was trained to match spoken words to pictures that represented them and then trained to match those spoken words to their printed forms. The participant, without additional training, then matched printed words to pictures and pictures to printed words. Sidman stated that the stimuli became equivalent to each other, and thus formed an equivalence class.

Equivalence classes have three defining characteristics: reflexivity, symmetry, and transitivity or equivalence. Reflexivity means that the events related to each other show the same relation to themselves. As evidence of reflexivity, when presented with the stimulus "1", participants will select "1" from an array of 1, 2, and 3. …

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