Parents, When You’ve Tried Everything


Ok, so I’ve done all this and the behaviours aren’t changing. In fact, they are worse! So, you have decided to take the initiative to try to figure out why your child is misbehaving, what they are getting out of it and how you can change it. You’ve started to respond differently to problem behaviours but you aren’t seeing the results you are hoping for.

Here are some questions to ask yourself and some considerations:

– Have you been at it long enough? I would normally advise parents on trying a new strategy for 2 to 3 weeks, responding consistently to that behaviour. You are not going to see changes overnight, or even in a few days, so keep at it.

– Are you and everyone else being consistent? Do you respond in the same way EVERYTIME the behaviour occurs? In order to be effective you need to respond consistently and so does everyone else.

– Are you or someone else giving in sometimes but not all the time? The prospect of getting what you want once in a while is enough to keep the problem behaviour from occurring. In fact, that is the worse schedule of reinforcement you can give. Think about gambling. Why do people gamble when most of the time they lose their money? Because once in a while you win a little bit of money, or maybe even a lot of money.

Is it really decreasing and you didn’t notice? In the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) we love to take data and make graphs. Why? So we can see how often or how long the behaviour is happening before we start changing a behaviour. This is called baseline. Once we start changing a behaviour (treatment) we continue to take data to see if the behaviour increases, decreases, or stays the same. Perhaps your child hit one time less than yesterday or your child cried and screamed for 1 minutes less than a week ago. Those are small but significant steps.

Maybe the behaviour isn’t happening for the reason you think. Going back to the discussion of functions of behaviour, maybe you thought your child was misbehaving to get your attention but it is for another reason. So, re-evaluate.

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– Maybe you are experiencing an extinction burst. An extinction burst occurs when we are decreasing a behaviour (aka, extinguishing a behaviour). I always tell parents that this is a good sign, even though it isn’t a joy to live through. This means that the behaviour gets worse before it gets better. If we were to look at it on a graph, you would see the behaviour go above what it was at the baseline level, but if you keep up your new response you will soon see it decrease. And why is this a good thing? Think of it this way: your child is used to you responding a certain way (learned history) and once you change your response to a problem behaviour, they are going to try harder, faster, and longer to get the response they are used to getting. A child that tantrums for 5 minutes may then cry harder, scream louder and start kicking their legs for 10 minutes. At this point keep up your new response!!! Be strong, you can do it!!! Otherwise you will…..

– Shape up behaviours to be harder, faster, and longer. Your child that was crying and screaming for 5 minutes has begun to cry harder, scream louder and starts kicking their legs for 10 minutes. You just can’t take it because now it’s worse and you feel bad because it’s all your fault, so you give in. You give your child whatever it was that they wanted. Now my friend, you have shaped that behaviour to be worse next time. Next time you give your new response, your child will go straight to the crying harder, screaming louder and kicking for 10 minutes, because they remember that the last time THAT is what got them what they wanted. This time you feel strong, you are not going to give in. But after 10 minutes, your child gets even louder and starts hitting as well as kicking and this goes on for 5 more minutes. Now your child has been tantruming for 15 minutes and you just can’t take it. The guilt is setting in and you give up. Guess what? Next time your child will go for this last big behaviour and for 15 minutes. See the pattern? That’s how behaviour gets shaped to be longer and bigger.

Moral of the story, DON’T GIVE IN!! Don’t let guilt get in the way of working on problem behaviours, you have nothing to feel guilty about because you are doing this in the best interest of your child. And really, all this is teaching your child is what they can get away with, how far they have to go to push your buttons.

Kids are smart, they can quickly figure out how to play you. If you feel overwhelmed, make sure your child is safe and walk into another room, take a few deep breaths, and remember why you started down this road in the first place. These things take time and patients. It can be difficult too, when you are second guessing what you are doing and if you are doing it right. Remember, you are doing this for the benefit of your child, so as Churchill said, “keep calm and carry on”.

Written by: Jennifer Tysick-Frigault, M.ADS (ABA), BCBA

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