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The Unique Pain Of Random Rewards And Variable Parenting.

“Annie, I feel so stupid. I called her. I called her again looking for support thinking that maybe I’d get it this time. And you know what happened? She shamed me. Again.”

She looked at me, eyes wide and tears starting to well.

“Honestly, how many times do I have to make the same mistake before it sinks in and I stop being so naive?”

I looked back at her and said, “I don’t think you’re naive and I don’t think that you’re stupid. The reality is, I know something about your history and I know that some of the time your mom can show up for you, and some of the time she can’t. And I’m guessing it’s those times that she shows up for you that keeps you going back, hoping and wishing you’ll get her support again. Am I right?”

She nodded, vigorously.

The Unique Pain Of Random Rewards And Variable Parenting.

“Okay, then,” I’ll say, “We need to talk about Skinner’s rats in the cage experiment.”

Note: This conversation is not a real one with an actual, single client, but it is an amalgamation of conversations I’ve had over the last decade with real clients.

And each time this conversation happens, I share what, to me, is one of the most helpful analogies and psychological studies I know to help illustrate why those of us from dysfunctional families of origin “keep going back for more” in the hopes this can bring some self-compassion, increase understanding, and generate curiosity about what to do to instead.

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The Unique Pain Of Random Rewards And Variable Parenting.

B.F. Skinner was a renowned American psychologist and behaviorist.

He made great contributions to the fields of psychology and sociology and one of his most helpful theories was that of operant conditioning – a method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for certain behaviors.

Skinner studied and formulated his ideas about operant conditioning using rats and pigeons in a “Skinner Box” during the mid-twentieth century.

Effectively, Skinner tested patterns of responses by providing or withholding rewards for his test subjects across varying intervals and frequencies.

His work is complex and fascinating but one of the takeaways from his study that strikes me the most is that:

“Skinner found that the type of reinforcement which produces the slowest rate of extinction (i.e., people will go on repeating the behavior for the longest time without reinforcement) is variable-ratio reinforcement.”

Variable ratio reinforcement means, in lay terms, sometimes a reward is provided, and sometimes it isn’t.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, in these situations: You never know what you’re going to get.

This unpredictability of reward is what keeps the test subject engaged with the behavior the longest, delaying the behavioral “extinction” (eg: stopping the behavior).

Analogously, I think Skinner’s findings can, for some of us, apply to our patterns of engagement with our family of origins.

For those who turn to their families and consistently receive care, love, support, these folks will, of course, learn through this kind of operant conditioning that they can consistently receive this “reward” from their families and will consistently go back for more.

For those who turn to their families and consistently receive absolutely nothing in return (no love, no goodwill, no help of any kind, no nothing) they will also learn through the principles of operant conditioning that this “source” can’t be counted upon (eg: punishment) and their “behavior” of turning to them for help will likely extinguish through this experience of consistent “punishment.”

But what about those who turn to their families of origin for support and sometimes get love, care, goodwill and support (reward) and then, at other times, receive shaming, derision, a lack of empathy, a lack of safety (punishment)?

What about those who receive proverbial random rewards from variable parenting? What then?

Inevitably, there is suffering.

There is suffering that is utterly unique to having the experience of “random rewards” and variable parenting across time.

It’s a kind of suffering that can make you feel crazy and foolish for having thought that this time things would finally be different.

That maybe he or she could show up for you when you needed them.

After all, they did once before, and it felt so good. Like a missing piece of you clicked back into place when you finally had their love and help.

So maybe they will show up for you again? Yes? No?

Drawing a parallel to one of my more popular essays – Stop going to the hardware store for milk. – experiencing variable parenting is a lot like sometimes you go to the hardware store and they have milk and it’s just what you need – sweet liquid relief!

So you go back again when you’re thirsty, hoping that there will be milk for you again, but there isn’t. And you’re utterly parched.

It’s a hardware store that sometimes looks and acts like a grocery store but then sometimes doesn’t.

It’s the principle that keeps people glued to slot machines and it’s the principle that keeps some of us turning towards our families of origin in moments of need.

I share all of this with my clients and with you to help you see that you’re not crazy, you’re not naive for turning towards your family of origin for support.

You’re “just” experiencing the type of operant conditioning that’s the hardest to “break” (so to speak).

And coupled with operant conditioning and the principles it teaches us, there’s the completely normal and natural impulse to want to turn to those who birthed and raised you when you’re vulnerable and in need.

That’s totally normal and natural, sweetheart.

But also, at some point, we may have to ask ourselves: What is the cost to me if I keep engaged in this cycle of random rewards and variable parenting? Is it worth it?

No one besides you can identify at what point it may no longer be worth it to stay engaged in a cycle of random rewards — only you are the expert of your experience and only you will know when this operant conditioning pattern is no longer serving you.

And when and if you decide that staying engaged in that operant conditioning cycle is no longer working for you, and after we’ve helped you grieve and accept your reality, analogous to Skinner’s rats, we must then focus energy and attention on helping you get your proverbial “cheese” from more consistent sources and help you cope with the inconsistent sources.

We do this by recalibrating our expectations and cultivating emotional regulation tools and boundaried choices to support ourselves when we’re in contact with them.

And we do this, too, through identifying, finding, forming, and keeping healthy, functional relationships that give us reparative relationship experiences, including the re-mothering and re-fathering that we’re so psychologically hungry for.

I’ll share more about what this can look re-parenting like (and share an example from my own life) in two weeks when my next essay comes out, but, for now, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

Did today’s essay feel helpful to read? Do you relate to being the proverbial rat who sometimes does and does not get the cheese? If you do, who and what are 2-3 resources that have or could potentially give you more consistent “rewards” and help you break this cycle of random rewards and variable parenting experiences?

Leave a message in the comments below so our community of 20,000+ monthly blog readers can benefit from your wisdom.

If you would personally like support around this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.

Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.

And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Julia Taylor says

    Your writing is so good, and so emotionally evocative. I guess that’s how I ended up subscribed to it. But this article is an excellent example of the many, many (many) essays from you that show up in my inbox and leave me asking “huh? What does she actually MEAN, exactly?” I would like to be a better parent, but this–with its metaphors about milk–does NOT help. It is meaningless to me without multiple concrete examples of situations and what the parent would do or say. What is a reward? What is not? What is a concrete example of “goodwill?” What is rejection versus a reasonable response to an unreasonable demand? As an older parent with children who are transitioning to adulthood it would be helpful to have concrete examples of how to meet their needs for both support AND separation or they will both live in our basement and on our retirement savings for the rest of our lives. Maybe your blog is meant for those with unfailing depths of empathy and social skill (not me). But then, hey, why would those people need to read it? Maybe I keep reading it for the intellectual challenge of attempting to extract meaningful practical advice from it.

    • Annie says

      Hi Julia, thank you for your kind words about the quality of my writing. I can understand why you would feel confused about this post since I didn’t give concrete examples (and used metaphors instead). I also imagine – reading between the lines of your post – that you may have felt some judgment that there’s only two ways to be as a parent: unfailingly supportive and endlessly empathetic or not this. I don’t think this is the case. And I think you raise a good point: how do you make hard parenting decisions and say potentially hard-to-hear things that may ultimately be in the best interest of your children when, in the moment, it looks like you’re not being empathetic? I think this is such a good and valuable point because parenting is so, so hard and doesn’t always look like empathetic collusion but that doesn’t mean we’re failing to be good parents. I’ll think more about how I can better nuance this idea and the intent of this post. Thank you again for your feedback and I’m wishing you all my best. Warmly, Annie

  2. Christine Johnson says

    This is my family. I remember as a child thinking I needed my mother, but I was never sure if she was in the body or not. I was always afraid of reaching out for fear of being rejected, but I usually did anyway. I never knew what would happen. Same with my father. I just find my family to be incredibly painful, but I love them very much. It’s been such a painful struggle to deal with them.

    • Bonnie says

      Wow how true but I am experiencing the same thing but with my son. My father passed years ago and my mom three months ago. A big struggle to deal with a parent or a adult child no matter the problems or the struggle you still go back for more hoping for a change and there is none but you still love them.The rejection is very hard. My mom never rejected me but at times she did not talk to me for days so I guess it is some sort of rejection now I have no one my son is the same. He has so many of his own issues how can he really help me. I know it must be hard but least you have your parents still aroundAt times it was a painful struggle to deal with my mom but she ended up with a sickness. Sometimes I think how could or have done things differently with my mom. Hope you find your answer.

    • Annie says

      Hi Christine, thank you for your openness and vulnerability in sharing your story. I can imagine how painful and conflicted you must feel. Loving people who we also experience as painful can be such a struggle. I’ll be thinking of you, and sending you all my best. Warmly, Annie.

    • Annie says

      Hi Carolyn, I’m so happy you found this post helpful. I write my posts in the hope that they can serve as a supportive resource for my readers, so I truly appreciate this affirmation. Thank you for commenting! Warmly, Annie.

  3. Lesley Spencer says

    This resonated with me in many ways. I have never felt ‘loved’ by either of my parents. However, I did survive my childhood so it can’t have been that bad (except for those few occasions when my Mother tried her best to kill me but in a way that would make it look accidental). But what has caused me pain is the pressure from others to seek love and support from them because ‘of course they love you, they’re your PARENTS!’ Over the years it became embarrassing to have to repeatedly tell people that I came from a horribly dysfunctional family so I invented a story that made them (and therefore me) appear normal.

    • Annie says

      Hi Lesley, thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment and for sharing your story. I know personally and professionally how hard it can feel to be pressured by others to forgive and love your family of origin; most people won’t understand the level of dysfunction you experienced and so they won’t really “get it” even if you do take a risk and share your story. But I get it. And I bet that many blog readers will get it. Of course, share whatever story with others that helps you protect your own vulnerability, but please know that there are some of us out there who see you and get you. Warmly, Annie

  4. Maria C. says

    This is my mother’s motherhood, she is a very low self-esteem person, and she was also a daughter of a distant, abusive mother, she enjoyed hurting me with words of hate because she hates herself. I understood she can’t love anyone when she doesn’t love herself first, I never wanted to accept that my own mother was the person who hurt me the most but when I realized how toxic and bad she was for my emotional stability I took physical and emotional distance from her, and it was the best decision I have ever made, my life improved a lot without her around and I finally accepted I’m better off without this mother. There are orphans that live all their life without any parent and I consider myself one and it’s ok, I don’t judge her anymore. I can’t say I love her as a mother, but I do as a human being and I wish her well.

    • Annie says

      Hi Maria, what a powerful share about your mother, thank you for your openness. I’m so proud of you for respecting your boundaries and putting your personal growth first. It can feel painful to let go of our parents, but ultimately we must honor ourselves and our healing journeys and sometimes that means distancing ourselves and being an “orphan by choice”. Thank you again for leaving a comment. Warmly, Annie

  5. Laura G. says

    I love your essays. They are so well-written and so useful. As I read this one I thought of my sister who badly betrayed and let me down a year and 1/2 ago when I was taking care of our bed-ridden mother. She avoided me for most of my stay and was always “too busy.” This has been going on for years. But she sends me what I consider guilt money and presents, which I know is her attempt to love me while accomplishing the avoidance she really needs. I am the scapegoat now because I have been going to therapy for my father’s sexual abuse and my mother’s co-dependent enmeshment for years and gradually getting stronger and better. But my sister is such a sore spot for me! Talk about intermittent reinforcement!

    Sha and I were “Irish Twins” born a year apart to a big Catholic family of 8. We were the oldest two and were worked very hard while being subjected to yearly moves and being the new kid in 9 schools (for me). I left home at 16 and my younger siblings seem to believe I have abandoned them which I kind of did. Once a very supportive sibling, my sister turned on me in our 20s and 30s and grew increasingly cold and even cruel, treating me with this maddening push-pull of needing me then discarding me, over and over. I was as many states away as I could get from my smothering mother and cruel father and gradually developed the ability to keep a job and to have truly supportive friends. But over and over, I kept swooning with a kind of hopeless “in love” feeling for my little sister (I adore her) and this awful dawning realization that she doesn’t like me much at all!

    This last betrayal was so egregious that I have been unable to recover or believe in Tinker Bell any more. No more clapping her to life with my cards and loving texts. And, I truly don’t know what to do. She has an uncanny knack of noticing when I have closed the door and provocatively knocking on it with gifts, compliments, what seems like genuine concern. I have begun to wonder if she is narcissistic like my father as she has charisma and deep insecurity and a very narc husband who is so much like our father (but doesn’t physically beat her). I honestly keep thinking “This will be the time she gets it and change.” I keep thinking that! I write her long explanatory letters in my head.

    God, I am in hell over this. We went through so much; new schools, a new house every nine months, abuse, domestic drudgery, my mother’s screaming rants and I can’t seem to untangle myself from her.

    This is way to long of a response for me to end with this but here goes: I am at a loss as to what to do. My heart won’t let me quit hoping.

    • Annie says

      Hi Laura, thank you so much for your vulnerability in sharing your story. You highlight something important: random rewards and variable interactions aren’t just relegated to parent/child. They can be between siblings, too, and this can feel extremely painful. I hope that you have some good supports you can turn to right now. If you don’t have a skilled therapist on your team, now may be a great time to reach out for more support.

  6. Anne says

    Thank you so so much as alwasy Annie. I always find such comfort in your words. Thank you for all these blog posts.

    • Annie says

      Hi Anne,

      Thanks for your lovely comment! You’re so very welcome and I’m happy to hear that my words bring you comfort. Take good care.

      Warmly, Annie

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