This term is probably unfamiliar to most people, but you’ve most likely seen one before, especially if you have kids. If you don’t have kids, you’ve probably seen one unfold at the store or the mall or even at a friend’s home. An extinction burst is a sudden and temporary increase in “undesirable” behavior when the behavior is no longer reinforced. Simply put, an extinction burst looks like a tantrum, in fact, that’s pretty much what it is. So why is it called an extinction burst? To better explain this phenomenon let me tell you a story.
The Story UnfoldsA three year old boy named Billy goes to the store with Mom. On her way in to pick up some flour for the cake she’s making for Billy’s birthday, they pass the bane of every parent: the candy aisle! The theme from The Twilight Zone plays in the back of her mind as the hair on her arm raises. Silently she pleads, “Please don’t see the candy, please don’t see the candy!” “I want candy!” comes the inevitable demand. The inevitability does nothing to allay the dread that creeps into Mommy’s heart. “Not right now,” she answers bravely, “you’ll spoil your dinner.” Unfazed by her conventional tone, Billy raises the stakes, “I WANT CANDY!” he screams louder than before. “How many times have I told you not to yell in here?” she demands. “You can’t have any candy!” Billy’s screams echo through the store, “I WANT CANDY, I WANT CANDY!” At this point Mommy usually relents and gives Billy his candy to avoid further scrutiny from nearby shoppers, but this time she decides enough is enough and turns and walks away. The extinction burst is now unfolding. From Billy’s perspective, things just got serious because Mommy called his bluff and is not deterred. Afraid that he won’t get his way by employing his usual bag of tricks, Billy does something drastic; he throws himself to the floor kicking and screaming with tears coming fast and hard as he shouts his demands that Mommy deliver the goods or ELSE! By now he is attracting more attention than Mommy can bear and Mommy finally relents and gives Billy the candy.
Did you see where the extinction burst occurred? The extinction burst was not the initial demand for candy, nor was it the second or third demand because those were the same tactics Billy’s used on numerous occasions to get his way. The extinction burst unfolded when Mommy, who would have normally given Billy what he wanted decided to react differently in Billy’s last ditch effort to secure his ideal outcome: getting his candy! It began at the point when he realized that she wasn’t going to cave to his demands. His behavior was perfectly calculated to get his mother to give him candy, but when she unexpectedly resisted his attempts at manipulation, he had very limited options: he could accept that she was not going to give him candy and go with her, or he could manipulate her more forcefully. In this case Billy decided to to manipulate more forcefully and it happened to pay off.
Why this is relevant to you and your family
Just because we grow up, doesn’t mean that we fundamentally change our basic behaviors. Believe it or not, adults manipulate too when they don’t get their way and they also have extinction bursts… often more subtle or just hidden from the public eye. Let me give you an example:
A husband argues with his wife about getting a new motorcycle but she disagrees. The husband becomes frustrated so he begins to raise his voice and give reasons at to why he feels a new motorcycle would be a good decision but she still doesn’t budge, so he yells louder. Normally at this point his wife concedes out of intimidation, but this time she decides to hold her ground. When the husband realizes the intimidation isn’t working he takes it to the next level and begins to throw things in a rage. That is the extinction burst.
Another example: A teenager has an issue behaving appropriately at school. The principal of the teen’s school calls his mom to report another incident. He is caught performing a sexual act in the classroom and is being held accountable for his actions. Mom tries to talk to her son when they get home, but he refuses to talk about it. When Mom persists, he heads for his room and slams the door. The teen knows that eventually Mom will back down. Mom who normally let’s things slide at this point, decides to draw a hard line, walks to his room, opens the door and let’s him know that he will need to see a therapist. The teens usual evasive tactics didn’t work this time, so he threatens suicide. Mom immediately backs down and tries calming him down. The teen now knows that Mom will back down when he threatens suicide.
So what is the use of knowing about extinction burst? Well, the biggest benefit to knowing the extinction burst is that it helps parents see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially when their child is acting up and there’s seems to be no end in sight. Parents don’t know what to do, but when they understand the extinction burst, they can see what’s around the corner and respond appropriately to a difficult child or situation. When parents understand it and apply it correctly, it saves them a lot of grief. On the flip-side of the coin, when not understood or not applied correctly it only reinforces the intensity and frequency of the negative behavior. The question is, “Are you going to use it to your advantage?”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eric Hatton has spent most of the last six years working as a field staff in wilderness therapy where he coached students on primitive fire skills, making and setting traps and other important wilderness skills. He also coached staff as they learned leadership skills and as they learned to disrupt dysfunctional behavior in the students. Eric loves brainstorming with people. He loves to help people organize their thoughts and change their dreams and desires into tangible, achievable goals. He loves to help people to discover their passions and to help them find ways to use their passions to realize their goals. He is passionate about building great teams and organizations and helping others succeed.