The Extinction Technique for Negative Behaviors

There are many negative behaviors that children repeat over and over because they draw attention. The extinction technique can help parents substitute these behaviors with more appropriate ones.
The Extinction Technique for Negative Behaviors

Last update: 20 October, 2019

Every child (and every family) is unique. Not all little ones have the same personality and not all families have the same dynamics. It’s up to parents to choose what child-raising techniques and strategies are best for their family. Today we’ll talk about one discipline technique in particular: The extinction technique.

The objective of discipline is to guide children so that they learn to deal with frustration and choose behaviors that help them navigate their environment.

However, on occasion, children choose manipulative behaviors that lead to problems on a personal, social, family, or academic level. Children that disobey, insult, or challenge us constantly.

Our role in these situations is to help them substitute these conflictive attitudes for other healthier and more appropriate alternatives. But it’s important to always do this in a caring and respectful way, staying away from violence and punishment. Keep in mind that children are still learning how to live and get along with others.

The importance of attention

The Extinction Technique for Negative Behaviors

It may be difficult to realize just what we’re doing to reward this negative behavior. Without a doubt, when the behavior appears, we correct or punish the child somehow. But what we’re overlooking is the fact that the attention that we as parents, teachers or caretakers give the child is one of the biggest reinforcers.

Adults tend to pay more attention to children’s transgressions and negative behaviors because we find them bothersome and annoying. However, we far too often overlook our children’s good behaviors. So then, little ones come to understand that the only way to really get our attention is by behaving badly.

How to apply the extinction technique

This isn’t about punishment or revenge. The idea isn’t to give your child the cold shoulder because you’re annoyed with whatever he or she is doing. It’s simply a question of refocusing your attention on more positive and desirable behaviors. You’ll be helping your child, in a loving and caring way, to substitute one attitude with another.

If, for example, your child is kicking and screaming because you turned off the TV, don’t try to argue or persuade your child. Nor should you scold your child for crying or getting upset. Rather, just ignore the undesirable behavior and try to redirect your child by offering to play a game together or share some other enjoyable activity.

If the tantrum continues, then you must explain in a calm and caring way that you won’t tend to him or her as long as the tantrum continues. And explain that you would love to talk and play as soon as he or she calms down.

As soon as your child manages to calm down and address you in a normal tone, then receive him or her with a smile and reward your little one with all of your care and attention.

The Extinction Technique for Negative Behaviors

Keys to keep in mind

  • Make sure that children understand the conditions from the start. It’s very important that you clearly explain that you expect your little ones to speak and make requests in a calm and polite manner. What’s more, that you won’t respond as long as they’re screaming and being disrespectful.
  • Being consistent with your application of this technique is fundamental. If you only ignore negative behavior some of the time and pay attention to it the rest of the time, then your inconsistency will only make the situation worse. You need to be firm and make sure to always ignore undesirable conduct and reward the positive.
  • While this technique is truly effective, it takes time. Therefore, you can’t use it with behaviors that need to stop immediately. For example, if your child sticks his or her finger in an electric socket, you can’t ignore it – you must take action right away.
  • Keep in mind as well that the application of this technique tends to cause a temporary increase in undesirable behaviorsThis is normal, but it’s still important to remain firm and consistent until your child understands the new system and the negative behavior finally fades away.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Albert, M. (2007). Técnicas de modificación de conducta.
  • Caro, I. (1991). Tratamiento conductual en un caso de rabietas. Psicothema3(1), 45-58.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.