Behavior Bursts: What They Are & What You Need to Know

You and your child are in the grocery store doing the weekly shopping. Your kiddo says she wants to play a game on your phone but you’re hesitant because 1) your kiddo has already watched her fair share of TV today, 2) you’re trying hard to not rely on electronics when your kiddo is bored, and 3) your phone is running low on battery.

 

You nervously say, “Not right now. We are almost done shopping.”

 

And here it comes.

 

“But I waaaaaant to!”

 

“I promise, we are almost done shopping. We have just a few more things to grab and then we’ll head home.”

 

“Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaase. I’ll stop bugging you if you let me play.”

 

“I said no. That’s my final answer.”

 

Then comes the leg swings, the loud moans, all the water works, and the screams.

 

You’re tired of it. This always happens at the grocery store. And you’re embarrassed. The grocery store staff are smiling politely. That elderly woman is looking at you with those judging eyes. Others don’t make eye contact. You feel embarrassed and ashamed, and you find yourself wondering if you’re a bad parent. You’re ready to bury your head and run out of the grocery store without any groceries, but you’re almost done.

 

“Here’s the phone. You can play until we get out to the car.”

 

Your child has just won the battle.

 

That, my friends, is a typical behavior burst.

 

A behavior burst, also known as an extinction burst, occurs when a child has a history of receiving something they want (we call this reinforcement  because that thing the child wants increases good or bad behavior) but no longer receives that thing (i.e., reinforcement) the child likes in a particular instance. When that thing that the child wants (i.e., reinforcement) is withheld, the child usually engages in all types of behavior to get the item that they want.

 

In the example above, the girl has a history of receiving the phone when she engages in those tantrum-like behaviors, especially out in public. The parent decided to not give the child the phone (the parent withheld reinforcement, the thing the child wanted), and the child engaged in a burst of behavior in order to get access to the phone. We saw that it worked! When the child whined, moaned, cried, kicked her legs, and screamed, she got exactly what she wanted… the phone.

 

Let me break it down for you a little bit more. Have you ever put a dollar in the soda machine, you selected your soda, and nothing came out? What did you do? I imagine that you pushed the button of your selected soda choice a few more times to see if that would do the trick. When that didn’t work I imagine that you ejected your money and tried the process all over again. When that didn’t work, you tried selecting a different soft drink. And when that didn’t work, I bet you hit the front of that soda machine a few times. Finally! Here comes your soda.

 

All of those behaviors that you engaged in to get your soda, yep, that’s what we call an extinction burst, a behavior burst. You engaged in a number of behaviors, which increased in intensity as you continued to try to get your drink, in order to get that drink that you so desperately wanted.

 

That’s exactly what our kids do.   

 

If our kids are used to getting what they want when they do X, they will continue to do X in order to get what they want.

 

Like the little girl in the example above. She had a history of getting access to her parent’s phone when she whined and threw a fit. When it didn’t work as immediately as she was used to, she upped the ante - - she engaged in MORE behaviors and engaged in more INTENSE behaviors as time went on until something finally worked.  And boy did it work! She got exactly what she wanted.

 

Behavior bursts can be tricky, and kids are smart. You see, if the child engages in all of those intense behaviors and we give in and give them what they want (probably because those intense behaviors are just too much to handle), the next time they want to get access to that item they will go straight to doing those intense behaviors because they have learned that those behaviors WORK!

 

Yes, the child has LEARNED that the screaming, crying, yelling, whining, and tantrums work for them. They have learned that they get what they want when they do those things.

 

Don’t lose hope. Not all is lost! I’ve got two main tips for you to help with behavior bursts:

 

  • If you already know that you’re going to give in and give your child what she wants, just go ahead and do it before your child gets to those really intense behaviors. This way, your child doesn’t have the need to engage in those really intense behaviors. Now, I’m not recommending that you give in, but I know that it can be difficult to change the way you parent and that it may not necessarily be the best time for you to change what you’re doing. In this case, I am suggesting that if you know you’re going to give in, do it sooner rather than later so your child does not learn to do the more intense behaviors right off the bat.

 

If you would rather address the issue and get rid of these behaviors, advice #2 is for you!

 

  • If it ever gets to the point where your child is engaging in those intense behaviors, it’s important to NOT GIVE IN. Hold your ground. Stand firm. Realize that you are teaching your child in the moment. You are teaching your child that those behaviors will not give your child what she wants. Your behavior, how you respond, is influencing what your child will do in the future.

 

But you’re probably thinking, “Wait, I’m still seeing these behaviors.” Realize that your child’s behavior won’t change overnight. You are UNDOING what your child has learned and teaching her something new. And be proud of yourself that you are enduring a difficult step in your parenting journey, and remind yourself that this is the right thing to do for you and your kiddo.

 

I don’t want to leave you hanging. There are LOTS of things that we can do to minimize the possibility that your child will get to the point of a behavior burst. Those things are called best practice strategies! I’ll be spending lots of time talking about them in the coming blog posts.

 

Stay tuned!

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