What is your child escaping?

photo by dadblunders via Flickr

photo by dadblunders via Flickr

The reason your kid does everything in his power to not clean his room is the same reason you do everything you can to not do the dishes. It’s true. So let’s think about “escape” or “avoidance” behavior and what to do about it.


We put coats on to avoid the cold. We duck to avoid flying objects. We call in sick to escape boring meetings. We put on shoes to avoid the pain of walking on gravel. We complain to get help, avoiding the difficulty of an activity.

It happens all the time: your kid engages in a variety of behavior to escape chores, going to bed on time, or delay homework, getting ready to go to school in the morning, or eating carrots at dinner. This might not be complete escape or avoidance, but it might be escape or avoidance of the duration of the activity, the difficulty of the task, the amount of food, or the intensity of the environment.

The bottom line about “escape maintained” behavior is that it happens because something is aversive.

If we can focus on what is aversive instead of the behavior itself, we can begin to solve the problem a bit better.

The questions to ask:

  1. Which one of your kid’s misbehaviors are fueled by escape or avoidance?
  2. Can I follow through better to make sure they are not avoiding those things with behaviors I do not want? (e.g., getting off the couch to make sure your kid go to his room when you ask instead of letting him roam around saying, “NO!” while you continue to yell and threaten).
  3. What is aversive about what I am asking her to do and how can I manage that to make it more likely my child does what I want? For example, can I ask her to pick up a few things at a time instead of the whole room so she will be more likely to do what I say instead of tantrumming, which is usually followed by my help anyway.

Things to remember:

  1. Time out IS escape and is, therefore, a terrible idea for trying to “punish” behaviors that are ultimately fueled by escape. For example, sending your son to time out for not cleaning up his room (or for the tantrum he threw when you asked him to clean his room) is a bad idea. If this occurs repeatedly, you need to ask yourself question #3 from above.
  2. If you find yourself having to threaten punishment or yell increasingly louder to get your kids to do things you want them to do, you are in a tough spot where you are relying on YOUR aversiveness to overpower the aversiveness of the task. NOT a great place to be. Again, refer to question #3 above.
  3. More often than not, your child has complete control over escape. Sorry, but its true. He can put his head down at the homework desk, she can stop and pooch her lip out with her arms crossed, refusing to get dressed, and he can refuse to brush his teeth.
  4. When you come in to help is crucial…remember: it might not be total escape, it might be escape of the difficulty, amount of, or duration of the activity or event. For example, you ask your son to do his math, he refuses, pouts, slams his hands on the desk and screams, “I can’t do this…I’m stupid!” Following this, you come in to “help.” Guess what just happened. You are probably going to hear that again…

The moral of the story…

If it is escape that is fueling the behavior…escape is the most powerful reward. Use this as a reward itself. It can be more powerful than Skittles, stickers or stamps. Examples:

  1. If you clean your room tonight, you won’t have to tomorrow, you can play instead.
  2. If you put your pants on, I will put your shirt on.
  3. If you do the first three sentences, I will help you with the third.
  4. Let me brush your teeth first, then you can finish.

Think about it and adjust accordingly…don’t avoid it.

2 thoughts on “What is your child escaping?

  1. Well I think that this scenario works for some children; just think about when you decide to give the reward of playing because that 1 day the child cleaned their room. I think they would only keep cleaning only if there’s something to gain, but ultimately you as the parent will still have to tell your child to clean their room every time in order for the reward, of like playing outside to be apart of the equation. If these things don’t take place I think it’s safe to say that the child will always feel they have to get their way no matter what; it doesn’t really solve any problems. This is just my opinion.

    • I appreciate your comment. I do think there is a need to fade the reward out when the momentum is going. I also want to point back to your comment when you say, “they would keep cleaning,” which is a behavior that was not occurring before the intervention. Check this post out and see if it helps you:. Thanks again

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