What Children Need From Parents III: Beware the Extinction Burst!


Popular culture gives us just enough information to be confused.

Not surprisingly, many parents who have never taken a psychology course know 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 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 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 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 the catch is what is called an “extinction burst.”

Let us assume 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 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 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 you want to teach him; in other words, learns 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 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 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 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.

18 thoughts on “What Children Need From Parents III: Beware the Extinction Burst!

  1. […] child will amp up the crying. Or take a break for a few days and then resume the crying. This is an extinction burst, which basically means that your child is doing even MORE of the behavior you are trying to […]


  2. […] I was also very concerned at the start of this training, about psychological harm to Benji, if any, especially since he was going through a bad phase of separation anxiety when we started this sleep training. I read an onslaught of information online about cortisol levels in babies during sleep training.  One site that really broke down information into digestible bits for me, is scienceofmom.com. Written by a scientist-now-mom, the author wrote a series of articles about sleep training and I read up every single one of them. One of them, about “helping babies cope with stress and learn to sleep” was particularly interesting. As mentioned in a previous post, this article by Dr. Canapari, a doctor who specializes in childhood sleep problems, was also extremely helpful, especially his reminder about “extinction bursts.” […]


  3. What a wonderful article. As the founder of the Family Sleep Institute where we help educate families to establish healthy sleep habits in their children this “extinction burst” is a critical component to a successful outcome to sleep training. I will share with my families who need clarity when we discuss how critical “consistency” is to the success of the plan.


  4. […] our babies get the sleep they need too.  We also don’t want to risk falling victim to the extinction burst.  The typical ages that most parents complain about sleep regressions are at 4M, 8-9M, 12M,  […]


  5. […] outbursts (called extinction bursts) are estimated to occur about 25% of the time in situations where parents stop responding the way […]


  6. Just a heads up. someone has stolen this and charges people for ‘individual’ sleep tips for the child. all they’ve done is replace the word ‘baby’ with the child’s name. it is word for word the same. she charges a fair amount for consultations and sends these out, which don’t appair to be specific to the child at all. This ‘business’ is making a lot from your work. Look into ‘Baby Sleep Constultant’ and you will find them 🙂


  7. […] been almost two weeks and she still has her good and bad days. We’ve also encountered an extinction burst, which is apparently a thing I will be dealing with for years to come as a parent. But Baby D has […]


  8. So my baby has self settled since 8 weeks and now shes 15 weeks , i seem to have hit a regression. her awake time is still pretty much the same. 1h15m ish but now when i put her in the crib. first thing she does is cry… the second her head hits the mattress she begins to cry
    i have tried earlier and later awake times and it still doesnt make a difference. i’ve even went as far as making it only 40 m !
    her cry doesnt really dwindle.. she would cry and stuff her fingers down her throat, making herself gag. its horrifying to listen to .
    I follow babywise, and would let her CIO but havent these days. I feel like i’m reinforcing a bad habit because i’ve just been getting her up and feeding her to drowsy or rocking her to sleep these days ( i know. a step back for me )
    should i just let her CIO like babywise suggests and hope that she’ll get over this hump? I have a feeling is the extinction burst or whatever. but how many extinction bursts are there even suppose to be!?


    • In response to your last sentence, extinction can take a while. Thus, it is sometimes hard to know whether a behavior is extinguished fully since occasional repetitions of the behavior, if reinforced, can abort the attempted extinction process. Indeed, intermittently reinforcing behavior can make it harder to extinguish. I am writing all of the above to describe the process in general, not specifically about your child. For that, I suggest you speak to your pediatrician.


  9. Thank you SO much for this. We are entering hour two of the standoff… send help 🙂


  10. Isabel Cristina Candele Porro

    My child cries when I brushing her teeth , What can I do?


    • I’m afraid I’d need to know far more about your daughter and your family than would be possible in this format. I’d suggest you discuss this first with your pediatrician, who then might refer you to an appropriate therapist. Best wishes and thank you for your question.


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