Has this ever happened to you? You realise that you need to take a new approach as a parent. Perhaps you realise that you’ve been accidentally rewarding a particular behaviour with your attention or just that the come has come to be firm about something. You think through your new approach and you are confident that you’ve figured out a strategy that will work. Or maybe you’ve heard about using planned ignoring, deliberately not giving attention to challenging behaviours and decide to try it out. You try it and whoa! Things get a whole lot worse really fast… The screaming gets louder, the running gets faster, the tantrum gets even more out of control. So, what happened? And what should you do next? What you are experiencing is something psychologists call the extinction burst and it is actually an indication that your new approach is working. I know, right? So… the parenting strategy that works will, first of all, trigger a massive storm? How can that be?
It is absolutely crucial to truly understand the extinction burst otherwise it is very hard to find the strength to persist through the storm. I’ve found that the best way to understand the extinction burst is to think about a broken vending machine. So imagine you really, really, want a chocolate (or whatever your weakness is). You see a vending machine and you know how this works. You can almost taste the chocolate in your mouth. You get out your coins, you put them into the machine, you press the button and nothing happens. There is no chocolate. In that moment, what do you do? Be honest, you push the button again, don’t you? Maybe you push it lots of times, punch it even, yell, or you may even shake the machine? That is the extinction burst. You know how to get chocolate from a vending machine and you don’t quit the first time your button pushing doesn’t work. Your child won’t quit the first time their button pushing doesn’t work either… they’ll push the button rapidly in a panic, punch the button, yell loudly or they may even shake the machine. But, after the rapid button pushing, the yelling and shaking, then what do you do? Eventually you accept that the machine is broken, that pushing the button isn’t going to get you the chocolate and you walk away. That’s exactly what your child will do too if you persist.
Oh, and how can you be sure that your new approach really is working? You can tell that your new approach is actually working if, after weathering a few storms, the frequency of your child’s challenging behaviour drops.
Apply it to your life: Have you noticed the extinction burst in your parenting? Are you able to weather the storm?