“Get me outta here!” Lesson 1: Escape behaviors.


Lets talk about one of the reasons why behavior occurs.  Lesson 1: Escape. 

Let’s take the example of a kid that wants to leave the store (an hour in Bed Bath & Beyond has taken its toll).  He begins whining, “I wanna leave.  I wanna leave!”  You think, ”I really wanted to check out those PedEggs before I leave, so I’m going to try to stretch this out a bit.”  

He screams more and you get embarrassed.  You grab him by his arm and say “If you don’t calm down I am gonna take you outta here and you will not have dessert when we get home.” 

He thinks,

“Sweet!  I would rather get out of here than have some lame fat free cookies any day.” 

At this point, the value of the escape (leaving the store) FAR outweighs the value of anything else.  This includes, by the way, the embarrassment of being yelled at in a store, being carried out by you, or sitting in “timeout” in the parking lot.  Wrenching him up and taking him out is what he actually wanted!   

Leaving a store is an easy example of an “escape” behavior because we automatically think “escape = leaving,” but other common culprits of escape behavior are chores, homework, baths, going to school, getting ready in the morning and going to bed at night.  Kids engage in a lot of behavior that is motivated by escape from something aversive or undesirable.  We have all done it…we call it procrastination (e.g., cleaning the house to avoid doing your taxes).  We identify it sometimes when we say they are “stalling” or “avoiding.”

This is important to talk about because strategies we use to respond to behavior depends a lot on why the behavior is occurring in the first place.  

Very simply, if your kid wants to escape something or somewhere, there is something aversive about that something or someplace. This is important because sometimes the answer is to initially make those things less bad so it is more likely to happen.  If you have figured out what is so bad about a chore or part of a routine, try by reducing the effort, helping, or defining the parameters of success more clearly (i.e., socks off the floor, shoes in closet, books in shelf).  Don’t be such a stickler…if you are having problems with this, you need to do something to make it more likely he will do what you want without yelling and screaming at him.

For actual physical escape (stores, Grandma’s house, or the Christmas parade) listen to your kids’ behavior and, yes, sometimes their words when they start acting funky and giving you signs that you are on borrowed time and want to leave. You might be mad that your calloused feet will have to go another week without the incredible “smoothing action” of the PedEgg, but at least you won’t have to drag your kid through the appliances section yelling and screaming.  

Please remember: not all escape behaviors can be overpowered by the reward at the end, so you have to face it from the front.  Reduce the difficulty, the effort or the time needed to actually do it so it is more likely.  Reward that, then slowly fade back to where you started now that you have created some success.   

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