I Feel Like I’m Bribing My Child! What’s the Difference Between Bribes and Rewards?

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Children with ADHD often need rewards and structure to succeed with challenging or mundane tasks and learn new behaviors.  While rewards are a valuable ADHD management tool, it’s not uncommon for parents who use rewards to say that feel like they are bribing their child to get them to meet basic expectations. It’s important to remember that kids with ADHD actually need rewards to help with motivation. However, bribes and rewards are two very things with very different effects on behavior.   

Rewards are something your child earns for their hard work and effort. They are established ahead of time, paired with clear expectations, and given only after the child has followed through. Rewards are part of a plan that parents are ultimately in charge of managing, and lead to positive interactions that foster feelings of accomplishment. When children are rewarded after a behavior, they are more likely to repeat that same behavior again.   

Bribes, on the other hand, are typically given to a child before they follow through with a desired behavior. Often, bribes are used as a last resort, and as a result, they frequently come about during a power struggle or negotiation. They rarely lead to long-term changes in behavior. In fact, they often accidentally encourage negative behavior!  

Consider this example: A child is at a restaurant with his family. While he’s waiting for his meal, he whines and complains about being bored, and is up and out of his seat bothering the diners at the neighboring table. This is an uncomfortable, common situation for many parents, and one everyone wants to change as quickly as possible.  

If you respond by pairing a reward with clear expectations, you’ll remind your child that you agreed before dinner that first, he would stay seated for the entire meal. Then, as a reward, he would be able to order dessert. You’ll then give him an activity to keep him busy and praise his good behavior during the meal. He’ll earn his reward, feel good about his effort, and have more motivation to stay seated the next time he’s in a restaurant.  

If you respond by using a bribe, you’ll first ask your child repeatedly to stop getting out of his seat.  When he doesn’t comply, you’ll feel frustrated and worry that the family dinner will be ruined. So, you resort to a bribe by asking your child if he will sit down if you give him a piece of candy. He takes the candy, sits down for one minute and then is up out of his seat again.  

In this example, the bribe actually reinforced the child’s negative behavior. He received candy while he was out of his seat, and was not required to first meet any expectations. Once the candy was finished, he stood up again because he was bored and restless, and had nothing motivating him to stay seated. Chances are, he’ll leave the restaurant feeling bad about his behavior, and will not be motivated to behave differently next time.  

So, how can you avoid bribes and instead focus on constructive rewards? Set clear expectations ahead of time whenever possible, and share these expectations and the possible reward with your child. Using a “when-then” statement can be helpful, such as, “When you stay seated for the entire meal, then you’ll be able to order dessert.” Don’t allow your child to negotiate about the reward in the moment, and make sure to provide rewards only when they’ve been earned. This shows your child that you are in charge of the plan, and removes their ability to negotiate or engage in a power struggle.   

When rewards are used correctly, they can set your child up for success, reduce family conflicts, and teach your child that they can accomplish challenging tasks when they have the right motivation. So, rest assured that when you stick to a behavior plan that includes rewards, you’re not bribing your child. Instead, you’re using a valuable tool designed to help them manage their ADHD symptoms.  


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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