Dayna Sharp, LCSW
Escaping Negative Feedback Loops
The term "negative feedback loop" used in the context of family dynamics refers to the periods of time when your family is caught in a negative spiral and is, as a result, off balance. If you've ever been in a negative feedback loop, you probably feel angry, anxious or distressed about your child(ren) or their behavior and your child(ren) also feel angry, anxious or distressed, but then those negative feelings and behaviors bounce off of one another, making each party's feelings and/or behaviors more intense. Let's take a closer look:
The Negative Feedback Loop Exposed
Child is running around the house playing instead of getting ready for school.
Parent is flabbergasted by child's behavior and worried about being late: “It's not playtime, it's time to get ready for school. Put your socks and shoes on.”
Child continues screaming and laughing, running through the home.
Parent, frustrated: “I said, get your shoes and socks on! We're going to be late!”
Child continues playing.
Parent, now angry, touches child's arm: “It is not playtime. It is time for socks and shoes! Now!”
Child sulking, puts on sock and shoes.
Parent, angry: “Every morning, you think it's playtime. It's not! Mornings are for getting ready. I'm going to be late again!”
Child, doing "Loser" dance from Fort nite.
Parent, furious: “Are you doing that at me right now? There's not going to be any tv tonight, and no dessert! Get in the car!”
This is a snippet. It starts when the child may be avoiding getting ready for school, engaging in play while they have a chance. The parent feels frustrated and angered by the child's behavior and the lateness they face. The child feels the parents anger, and retaliates by doing the "Loser" dance. Parent becomes more furious and instills a consequence.
The Negative Feedback Loop, Continued
Parent picks up child from school.
Child, reminded of this morning and that parent was disapproving, ignores parent, hides with friends.
Parent, angry: “Child, it's time to go home. Let's go.”
Child ignores, laughing.
Parent, angry: “Child, I'm counting to three, then I expect you to come out...1...2...3...”
Child comes out, sulking.
Parent, angry: “When I come to pick you up, I expect you to follow directions.”
Child: mimics parents face, mockingly
Parent, angry: “ I don’t know what’s gotten into you! You're being very disrespectful. When we get home, you'll spend ten minutes up in your room.”
The thing about these snippets is that there's nothing necessarily "wrong" with either one. Kids don't follow directions all the time, and no parent is happy and approving all the time. The negative feedback loop occurs when these snippets become an escalating pattern and parent and child become stuck in it. The ten minute time out will likely make the child more distressed, who will then act out more, parent will become more distressed, and on and on. Negative feedback loops can harm relationships.
Getting Out of the Loop
Step 1: Recognize that you're in a loop
Step 2: Find any way possible to re-connect with your child.
Step 3: Own your part in the loop and apologize.
Step 4: Directly communicate your expectations to your child.
Step 5: Tell your child how much you love them.
Sometimes it can be hard to recognize that you're actually in a loop at all. It can just start to seem like something is "wrong" with your child, or that they are just "bad". If you ever start to feel that way, test to see if you're in fact in a loop. Do this by seeing what happens when you try to reconnect with your kid. So, let's say you're the parent in the second snippet. You pick up your child at school, and they're hiding. Maybe instead of telling them it's time to go home, you remember that it was a stressful morning for everyone, and you try to turn it around by playfully looking for them. Do you think the scenario might end differently? What about the first snippet...what would have happened if the parent completely ignored the "Loser" dance, and went to the car. What would happen if the parent said something like "You know, one of the things I love about you is that you still have good dance moves even under stress. I'm sorry I was grouchy and lost my temper this morning. I want to have fun too, but I can't be late for work everyday. We can't do playtime before school, but what if we make time together after school?".
Words like these can bring the entire loop to a stop. Sure, your kid will probably act out again, because they're kids. But if you can intentionally react in a way to deflate a situation, you can at least prevent it from escalating and getting in the way of your relationship.
Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can help you find the way out of a negative feedback loop by listening, bringing light to the loop and identifying ways of response that will help you break through. Get out of the loop and back into balance!