“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.   

Too comfortable? A parent’s unending determination to maintain “comfort”


I recently found myself in a meeting with a fairly large group of people meeting with a parent to discuss the pretty difficult behavior of a child with whom we were all concerned.  Heartbroken, the parent with face in cupped hands said, “I just want to make sure my children are comfortable…I don’t want them to be uncomfortable.”  AHHH, it makes me hurt to even tell the story.  

What happened was, along the years, the parent had done just that.  However, as the weeks and years passed, the work to keep the kids comfy had become more difficult.  It became harder and harder.  The children learned to have a paper-thin frustration tolerance and to react stronger and stronger each time something did not go their way. 

At the moment of discomfort (which came quicker and quicker and more often), their protests and anger were soothed and comforted either with nurturing and attention, access to some ridiculously simple tangible item (e.g. a pair of shoes, a piece of paper, a pencil), or escape from something or someone they did not like (e.g. a store, nearby peer or sibling, homework, etc.).  

The meeting continued as we all hovered around the problem.  Some in the room became a bit uncomfortable when one of the professionals mentioned (paraphrasing), “your child is going to experience discomfort and you don’t need to interfere with that discomfort.  It is reality.  You cannot continue to save your child from discomfort.  It is not working.” 

She was right.  Could not have been more correct. 

Then she said something that was pretty incredible: “we need to figure out why you do this. There is some reason you continue to do this.”  

Her point was right on target.  Lets look at this story from both perspectives.  The kids’ screaming, protesting and anger was functional in accessing comfort in any of the forms mentioned above.  Not good.  Let’s face it: we all live around people with similar behavior.   It’s not a pretty or a redeeming quality. 

As for the parent, the “comforting” behavior was functional in that it preserved FOR THE MOMENT AND FOR THE MOMENT ONLY peace and “happiness” amongst the children.  The opportunities to do this were only becoming more frequent.  The unfortunate side effect of this was children who were more and more difficult to keep happy.

Here is the point:

Children will experience frustration, pain, anger, sadness, disappointment: discomfort.  You can’t stop that, not should you in many cases.  You can teach them how to handle it.  You can teach them how to respond to those feelings and how to get through them. 

When these times occur, and they will (today), think for a moment about this and take the opportunity to teach your child to handle these situations effectively.  

Why grandma doesn’t leave the penny slots….


One of the best lessons or metaphors about behavior is the slot machine.  We use this example all the time to teach lessons about strengthening behavior.  

In the world of my profession, we measure the strength of a behavior by how hard it is to get rid of it when the benefit of the behavior does not occur (e.g., how many times will you push the Coke machine button without getting the Coke).  What better example than the behavior of playing a slot machine?  People sit for hours on end on these machines, NOT winning, and in many cases LOSING.  

Lets think about why this matters to parents and behavior:

Behaviors reinforced every now and then are harder to get rid of than behaviors that are reinforced every time.  Sounds weird, right?  Well, slot machines take full advantage of this.

How many times will you continue to pull that lever without getting paid? Much longer at a machine that pays every now-and-then when compared to one that pays every time. If you got paid every time you sat at a slot machine and all of a sudden it stopped paying you, you would leave much quicker than you would if you went to Vegas today and sat down to play the slot machine that has been programmed to pay just enough to keep you there. That’s not my opinion…that’s just how behavior works.  How many times do you continue putting money into the Coke machine after it has “eaten” your money?…exactly. 


When talking to parents about a certain challenging behavior they are dealing with, I wonder how often the kid is getting the benefit from the behavior.  I don’t wonder if it happens every time, I’m just wondering if it is happening just enough to keep the behavior strong.  If I’m talking to the parent about the behavior that is still driving them crazy, the proof is in the pudding (slung all over the wall after the last tantrum). 

This is especially true when the “pay out” occurs after longer and more intense behaviors/ arguments/ whining.  Think about a tantrum that lasts so long you finally give up and do something to satisfy the tantrum.  That’s the equivalent of paying out after 100 lever pulls.  Whoops.

How long your child “pulls the lever” (insert problem behavior here) depends on your consistency.  Tantrums are going to happen, your kid is going to refuse to do something, he’s going to yell when you say, “quiet.”  The question is, do those behaviors work more often than they don’t?  When at first they don’t succeed, do they keep going?  Do they amp it up if that doesn’t work? 

Perfection is not likely or necessary (thank goodness).  I’m simply asking you to just pay attention to these things, be mindful of the “slot machine” effect, and have a plan.

Walking in circles…


I was reading something recently that explained a phenomenon that occurs when we are lost in an area without landmarks: when we are lost and try to walk a straight line, we will undoubtedly veer to one side or the other and find ourselves right back in the same place where we started.  Some circles might be small, some might be larger and take longer to get back to the starting point.  But, it is almost a rule. 

Without some way to guide ourselves, without some landmark or way to focus on a path (and sometimes even in the presence of these things) we come back around to the beginning.

How telling is this?  I can tell you parents often feel “lost” having walked in “circles.” Sometimes it even comes in the form of “is this the best it gets?” which suggests we have gotten to a point where there is not a way out; that we should just camp out in the woods and consider ourselves lucky that we found some nuts and berries along the way (or simply consider that our children will never learn to behave differently). 

One more story, then I will get to my point.  I once found myself lost in deep woods (flooded at that) with a friend who was much more seasoned in getting out of strange places than I (he graduated from a military institute and would not be found dead without a compass).  He said, “the way out is that way” (pointing ahead, but looking at his compass).  Pick a tree along this line and walk to it.  Once we get there we will pick another tree along the line and repeat the process until we get out.”  Brilliantly simple.

My point? 

In changing behavior, we need to pick “trees,” guiding points, so we don’t walk in a circle.  We have to stay focused not only on the goal (the edge of the forest), the direction we have chosen (the compass heading), but also check-points along the way.  Sometimes I think we find the line, have the direction, then forget which tree we were walking towards because we finally had a way out, confident we were going to change things, but not diligent enough to keep our eye on the tree or even the compass. 

If you come up with a plan for changing a certain behavior, have check-points.  Review your implementation of the plan frequently enough to make sure you stay on course.  Think about how the behavior has changed (or not).  Check your line. 

Use me and my posts if your compass seems a bit off.

Horse pills for your parenting health


I hate antibiotics.  I really hate taking medication of any form, which means when I finally give up I have to take the nastiest, biggest pills for the longest time.  THREE A DAY FOR 10 DAYS?  But I feel better after the 3rd day!  I feel better and shake the extra large bottle that still contains 21 more horse pills and weigh out if I want to go through the next 7 days or just hope I have done enough to kill whatever it was that was turning my mucus a deep shade of green.

The doctor would tell you the prescription was written for 10 days for a reason.  A friend physician who doesn’t have to watch his language or bedside manner says, “Take the #$% pills you wuss.  You wanna strengthen your sickness to fight harder the next time?  Oh, AND you’ll be sick again in 2 days.  Let me know when you go to medical school.” 

GULP…20 more pills to go.

Behavior strategies are the same. 

I spoke about this a little when talking about Sticker Charts.  Think of your “medicine” having to work over time to maintain its effectiveness.  It worked immediately…cured?  NO.  It could have worked due to the novelty factor, or simply the fact you are finally paying attention to it.  Even though it worked, if you quit, you might suffer a similar fate as you would if you were to stop taking the antibiotics on the 3rd day: it would strengthen resistance against the “medication” and the “sickness” (your child’s behavior) would also be stronger. 

 A lot of families go through this.  They mention a strategy that used to work, but doesn’t anymore: “she keeps upping the ante…it takes more and more to get her to do what I want her to do.  She is manipulating this whole thing. Nothing works anymore.”  Yep.  Maybe they didn’t stick with it.  Maybe every time your kid sees a new sticker chart, a new behavior strategy, her experience is “oh, they are paying attention…I’m gonna get what I can out of this.” 

The Z-pack isn’t powerful enough…your kid now has the behavioral version of MRSA.

Treat early and maintain the treatment until you can slowly fade the strategies after the natural reinforcers have taken over and are supporting those more appropriate behaviors.  Keep working…your prescription was written for much longer than you might be willing to take it.  Gulp it down and keep it up…if its working, IT IS WORKING.