Popular culture gives us just enough information to be confused.
Not surprisingly, many parents who have never taken a psychology course know that it is important to set limits on their children and to be consistent in enforcing those limits. Despite this, a good many parents don’t have the strength of will to withstand the repeated pleading of their kids, or the energy to do so.
If your child wants you to buy him a candy bar or a toy while you are in the store, many parents believe that it is simply easier to give in than to listen to the endless entreaties of their offspring.
In some cases it can be too exhausting or overwhelming to have to deal with a persistent child, in other instances the parent might fear losing the child’s affection if the desired treat isn’t forthcoming, and in still other situations the parent feels guilty if he or she deprives the youngster of something.
For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I always tell parents that before they intend to change their style from one that inconsistently reinforces their child’s misbehavior, they have to be strong enough and knowledgeable enough to be prepared for what comes next.
And what comes next is something pretty powerful.
Its called an “extinction burst.”
First, what is “extinction?” Extinction occurs when a behavior that has been previously “reinforced” (some would use the word “rewarded”), no longer receives that reinforcement. Eventually, the organism (animal or person) will stop performing the behavior. Put differently, the undesirable behavior is “extinguished.”
Take, for example, a laboratory rat. You can teach these creatures to press a bar in order to get a food pellet. Rats are good at this. But, if you no longer give the rat food pellets for pressing the bar, the critter will eventually stop doing the bar press. But there is a catch here and it relates to the word eventually. And that catch is what is called an “extinction burst.”
Let us assume that your child, like the lab rat, has learned something about how you deliver reinforcers. The reinforcer could be the aforementioned candy bar or toy; it could be money; it could be your attention; it could be staying home from school; it could be a lot of things.
And, let’s further assume that you no longer want the child to keep pestering you for whatever it is that he wants. Now, remember that he hasn’t gotten what he wanted every time, but often enough to learn to be persistent and keep at it until you “break” under the assault.
The “extinction burst” consists of the young-one doing even more of the behavior you want to eliminate at the point that you stop reinforcing him.
That might mean he will be louder, or pursue you longer, or repeat more often whatever has worked before. It can go on for a very long time until, finally, the child learns the lesson that you want to teach him; in other words, learns that he will no longer receive what he wants for his inappropriate actions.
But if you finally do break down and reinforce the child with what he wants during the “extinction burst,” he will have learned an awful truth: “Well, maybe I just have to do this behavior longer or more or louder in order to get what I want.” Indeed, the child doesn’t even have to be able to think or say this to himself.
Even laboratory rats operate according to the same rules of learning, and no one I know has had a very deep conversation with a rat lately.
At least, not the four-legged kind.
Parents sometimes tell therapists that they have tried to be consistent and it failed. In other words, that the science regarding “extinction” and setting limits is inaccurate.
But what has really happened in this kind of case is that the parent wasn’t ready to deal with the extinction burst. Their inability to tolerate the “burst” of seemingly relentless pestering or complaining eventually led them to reinforce the child once again for the undesirable behavior; and, in so doing, made it harder to extinguish the behavior than when they started.
Had the mom or dad only be able to stay-the-course and resist the child a bit longer, the “extinction burst” would have ended.
The moral of the story is to prepare yourself before changing your parenting-style in an effort to become more consistent. If you aren’t absolutely sure that you have the organization, energy, strength, patience, and self-confidence to withstand the “extinction burst,” don’t even try. You will only make things worse.
And don’t expect your child to really believe you when you say “this is the last time I will let you do this” while you once again reinforce troublesome behavior.
Talk is cheap and, like those same lab rats who can’t understand your language, your child will pay attention to what you do and not what you say.
But, if you do have the requisite qualities that any good parent needs and you are fully prepared to hold your ground with your child, you might be quite pleased at how you have reasserted yourself and gotten control over the home situation.
To do that, the earlier you start in your child’s life, the better.
You may be interested in the following post on the topic of consistency: What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines.
The photo of an Albino Rat was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.