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How to Cope with Children's Tantrums Using the "Extinction" Technique

When and how to apply the "Extinction" technique for excessive tantrums.

By Teri Dolittle, PA, MHP

Extinction is the withdrawal of all attention after a child engages in an undesirable behavior.  (It is a tough method to use at first and bystanders may be shocked if they aren't prepared.)  Children live for attention and they love exaggerated emotional responses. Attention is stimulation.  Whether that attention is good or bad, it is stimulating and they like it.  The idea behind Extinction is that you do not reinforce undesirable behavior by giving the child a reward for their bad behaviors -- the reward being attention and an exaggerated emotional response.

In the case of tantrums, the idea is to literally go about your business as if nothing at all is going on.  You might casually finger a toy or even talk about some activity that is fun and is coming up next.  Do not offer any enticements or bribes.  Do not try to talk them out of the tantrum.  When the child has peaked out of the tantrum and starts to calm down (anything that suggests calming and self-regulation -- more organized behavior, a sigh, softer crying) you immediately begin to pay benign positive attention to them.  No exaggerated responses here, either.  Just start to interact again and be happy that they are rejoining the fun and games (or shopping!) and provide them with some caring comfort.  You might hand them one of the toys you were playing with before, or take the opportunity to calmly switch activities.  Hugs are OK if they want them, but should not be forced.  Remember: the idea is to reinforce the self-calming behavior, not the actual tantrum behavior.  You have to respond to the child's calming behavior.  That is the key to success with this technique.  Ignoring alone won't work.

One problem with the Extinction Technique is that it may actually cause an increase in the behavior in the beginning.  This is called an extinction burst.  This is especially true if the child has been getting exaggerated responses from you for their previous undesirable behavior.

It is not easy to maintain your own sense of balance during a serious tantrum.  You have to go through your entire repertoire of relaxation techniques -- and at the same time be careful not to reveal them in any way by facial expression or physical response.  It has to be going on in your head.  You have to remember what it was like to take those deep breaths and imagine yourself on that sunny beach -- but you can't close your eyes or take the deep breaths.  This ain't Lamaze!  You really have to go about your business.  And then, you have to reinforce the self-regulatory behavior without making it a game to get that attention, too.  Piece of cake!  Don't go overboard with your own sense of relief that it is all over.  Go about your happy business together, but don't get euphoric.  It will happen again, believe me. Another key is to hold your tongue.  Don't give a lot of rationalistic explanations to the kid about why they shouldn't behave that way.  The less said, the better. Don't punish them later, either, and try not to bring it up in conversation within the child's earshot.  You want to reinforce the self-calming, not remind them of the excitement of the out-of-control experience. When you do talk about it, talk about how disappointed you are that you couldn't finish your game (or whatever), because you had to stop early or leave -- "Too bad, what a shame!" -- but no direct blaming or shaming of the child.

Of course, if the child is in real physical distress, in harm's way, or the environmental situation just isn't conducive to this technique, then you most certainly do not ignore their behavior.  That would be very wrong.  You address the issue, or you calmly pick up and go, preferably without a lot of hysterics.  If the child is a danger to themselves or others, or to property that isn't yours or that you care about, they certainly should be restrained and redirected.

The biggest problem I had with this technique was bystander reactions. People cannot believe what they are seeing is part of a behavioral plan -- they think you are neglecting a suffering child.  (Just who is really suffering here?  Probably everyone within sight and earshot.)  They don't see the tantrum as an inappropriate acting-out behavior resulting from inadequate self-regulation, they see it as a reaction against the Bad Guy -- you.  Getting people to back off when they start to come to the child's aid can be very awkward.  They are thinking "Poor baby!" and here you are asking them to please back off.  Here you get into privacy and intrusion issues, which you have to handle with tact.  Asking them to mind their own business does NOT work.  I would recite a little mini-speech, which usually worked somewhat:  "This child has a serious behavioral disorder, and I am handling it according to a Plan.  Please don't interfere." And if they seemed like they were about to call the police I would offer the name of our social worker.  Well, nobody called the police.  A few butted in anyway, and looked at me like I was a criminal. Par for the course. (One of those Looks makes up for 20 "You are a saint" comments.  When I hear one of those comments, I just remember the Look.  Keeps my feet on the ground.)

The extinction technique is very, very old.  It is standard Behavioral Psychology. It may not be effective for manic children, children who are seriously aggressive, and children who are hip to the technique.  Works great on toddlers, though, even those with severe language and communication disorders.  It takes a lot of work.

N.B. - Acute tantrums and their aftermath are NOT an appropriate time for therapeutic Holding Time. Holding Time is a very powerful technique which can work well for children who have been through the adjustment period and can express their feelings, but Holding Time is supposed to be Bonding Time, not Behavior Control Time. You don't want to reward a tantrum with a cuddle, and you don't want the child to associate cuddles and bonding with out-of-control behavior -- not even the resolution of out-of-control behavior. By the same token, you don't want to deny the child a chance to cuddle because they had a tantrum and ruined your outing. That would be punishing, and Extinction isn't about punishment. Cuddles are precious. Get 'em when you can.

1999 Copyright Terry Dolittle

Teri Dolittle is the adoptive mom to a son with special health care and developmental needs adopted from Romania at the age of 3, and the birthmother of a daughter with mild neurological issues and learning differences.  She  worked as a Physician Assistant in neurology before returning turning to study Maternal and Child Health issues as a graduate student, and has been studying and writing about special needs adoption issues since 1992.


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