Over the past twelve years in my profession, I’ve noticed recurring themes surrounding behavior change. Ultimately, I decided to make an FAQ covering some of the most common questions I get concerning changes in behavior. I hope that using this format will serve you well!
Behavior Change FAQ
Q: I’ve identified why my child is throwing tantrums but not what is reinforcing them in the moment (ex: my child is looking for attention, so I ignore the tantrum). This is causing the behaviors to get worse. What is happening?
A: This is 100% normal and to be expected. Let me say that again; if you change the way you interact with your child during a tantrum, etc. their behavior will go up in occurrence before they come down. In my field, we call this extinction.
Why extinction? A behavior (or behaviors) you previously gave in to/reinforced are no longer working. The reinforcement is gone. Think about the dinosaurs! In reaction to this change, your child will try harder to get the old behavior to work, hence they go up… temporarily!
This can last a day up to a couple of weeks. Stay the course. As Newton would say, “what goes up must come down.” Stay consistent and these bursts and behaviors will disappear.
Q: I’m totally on board with not rewarding my child’s (fill in the blank behavior) but is there any way to prevent how often it occurs? It feels like my child is screaming etc. all day long!
A: Absolutely! Remember, we are all looking for things throughout our day to either fill ourselves up or remove ourselves from uncomfortable environments. If you pack almonds as a good morning snack you’re less likely to drive through the McDonald’s starving when you’re starving at noon.
In the same way, if someone is asking too much of you (maybe a boss like me!) you’re more likely to shut down and disengage from work. Our children work in the same way. They have a perfect little recipe for actions that fill them up with what they love and removes them from what they don’t.
Take notes for a few days on how often/long your child vies for your attention, asks for items (especially food), or complains when you ask them to do something. Using the number of times that your child either requests these things or protests your demands you’ll see how often they want attention, items, or escape.
Using this schedule will increase your little one’s attention/items a little and decreases the number of their demands by a bit. This isn’t permanent but can be a big relief quickly!
Q: I’m a working parent and while I can be consistent most of the time, sometimes I’m at my wits end. Can I give in sometimes and still see effective change?
A: I’m hoping at this point you’re considering us friends so I’m going to be really honest here. The answer to this question is a firm, “No.”
As a fellow mama, I know this is hard to hear because sometimes you’ve lost your shit and just need to let your little one eat skittles in bed after a tantrum. But here’s the thing; When you only sometimes reinforce a behavior (called an intermittent schedule), you actually strengthen the behavior!
This means when you give in intermittently you are more likely to increase future tantrums, etc. A way to be gentle on yourself with this is to choose your battles wisely but be consistent 100% of the time when you decide a behavior is no longer tolerated in your home.
Q: I’d like to teach my child new skills to replace their problem behaviors. What do you recommend?
A: Words, waiting, tolerance to the word ‘no’ and doing something else! Children (and, let’s be real, adults too) engage in problem behaviors because they are missing a skill.
I’ve never met anyone (excluding the criminally insane) who enjoys engaging in maladaptive behaviors. People generally want to do good things and be recognized for them.
You can help your child at any early age to speak up about what they need, how to wait for what they want, tolerance to ‘no,’ and how to entertain themselves.
Usually, I’ll prompt using words if I know my son Henry can have what he is tantruming for (a break, attention, a snack). Once Henry uses his words I’ll honor his request. If Henry is tantruming and cannot have what he wants I either use waiting or tolerance to, his “Nos.” When we’re working on “Nos,” I model for him to tell me how he feels, i.e. “I’m mad!”
Lastly, developing independent skills is a lifesaver because it teaches our children that we as parents are not the keeper of all goods. Eventually, children can actually navigate their environment joyfully alone!
Q: Help! It seems like my child is engaging in tantrums for escape, attention, and access to items. How do I figure out what they want so I can put a plan in place?
A: Go back to the data! Record what happens before and after the behaviors you’d like to decrease for a couple of weeks. Then, take a look at the consequences (the after).
Using the data you collect, count how many times your child was engaging in maladaptive behaviors for each function.
The highest counted action in your data is the ‘maintaining consequence.’ Use this function first to work on the behavior (ex: it’s an escape, so you need to work on the follow-through of demand). The runner ups are the secondary functions that you just need to keep an eye on.
Q: I’m totally on board with using some of these tips but my partner doesn’t agree. Will this still work?
A: Once again, we’ve gotten close (as author and reader) at this point; the honest answer is no. When a behavior is reinforced by one person and not another, something called behavioral contrast occurs. This means the behavior goes up around the person consistently saying ‘no,’ as the child is testing to see if they will give in. The family, caregivers, and school all need to be on the same page with behaviors.
Q: When do I throw in the towel and ask for help?
A: This is a hard one for me to answer because my gut says, “anytime you need relief!”, but I know many families are looking for when they should seek professional help. In regards to problem behaviors; if you have created a plan, been consistent with that plan for a month (or longer) and problem behaviors are still occurring–I would recommend asking for help at this point.
A professional eye is most likely needed to uncover the more complicated patterns of behavior.
More on Behavior Changes in Children
When we’re talking about therapy for your child, I choose to stand my sacred ground. I know many parents don’t agree with immediately taking action and want to wait to see if their child will grow out of developmental delays. I also know many parents who agree with getting help as soon as possible.
My answer to both parties is as soon as you notice your child is behind in language, social skills, or physical delays go and get an evaluation. Find out what therapy can help your child. Remember, my stance is these are all symptoms that can be treated but without diagnosis and therapy there can be long-lasting effects for children. If a child does have autism I want to see them by the time they are 2 years old in ABA clinic and home-based therapy.