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Are Behaviors Bad?




So often in the field of ABA, we hear a caregiver say that they are hesitant to do something because it may cause a behavior or tantrum with their child. Maybe a Behavioral Therapist says that they avoid running a certain program or focusing on specific skills, to avoid the potential of a behavior occurring. In life, we may find our own behavior is governed by a series of steps to avoid an argument, confrontation, or the adult version of a tantrum (yes, we all know what that looks like.) Whether we are trying to avoid an argument with our spouse or hesitant to follow through with an instruction we gave our child, our behavior is being dictated by the notion that "behaviors," such as tantrums, emotional responses, and arguments, are bad. I think we can all agree that they aren't fun, but are they bad? The long and short answer is, no!


Behaviors are a learning moment for both people involved. You can also think of them as a hill or a mountain, with a comfy padded sled waiting at the top. Walking up the hill is certainly not fun and takes quite a bit of energy, determination, and deep breaths. But once you make it up the hill, you get to sit on the nice comfortable sled and fly down the other side. Remember though, you won't make it to the sled until you do the heavy lifting to get up there. As they say, "the best things in life are rarely easy." You must make a commitment to not avoid and instead, to take the risk of facing whatever behavior you are afraid of. Short-term pain for long term rewards.


Let's start with one of the most common examples we see as ABA practitioners when working with younger children. A child named Joey wants another cookie once he finishes his first one. His mom says "no" and that one cookie is enough. Joey starts screaming, crying, and stomping his feet on the floor. His mom knows that all she has to do is give him another cookie and he will stop, so she compromises and gives him half a cookie. The next time Joey is eating a cookie and asks for another one, his mother agrees and gives him part of another cookie, in fear that denying him altogether, will produce another tantrum. In that first instance, both people learned something. Joey learned that if he wants something, he can scream and cry and get what he wants. His mother learned that if she denies Joey something he wants, he will likely have a tantrum. Pretty soon Joey starts to realize how easy it is to get what he wants and begins to tantrum at the first inclination that he will be denied anything. His mother is now dealing with tantrums happening every day, multiple times a day, and she lives in fear of another one occurring.

But what if Joey's mom could push the rewind button and go back in time to that first instance with the cookie? Instead of giving Joey the cookie, she allowed him to have a tantrum and empathized with him that "it's hard when we don't get what we want." Joey's mom is exhausted after this and has a splitting headache, but eventually Joey calms down and goes into the other room to play with his toys. The next time Joey asks for a second cookie, Joey's mom hesitates before telling him "no," recounting the long tantrum that ensued last time. Even so, she tells him that he would only be getting one cookie, but he is welcome to have a piece of fruit if he is still hungry. Sure enough, Joey screams and cries but calms down even faster than last time, and still doesn't get a cookie. Finally, the third time he is eating a cookie and asks for another one, his mother again says that he can only have one cookie. This time Joey accepts this limit, having learned that tantrums are hard work and he still won't get what he wants either way. From this point on, he no longer tantrums when he is denied a cookie and his mom is able to set boundaries with a variety of foods and toys. She has climbed the hill and now is able to sled down the other side because she faced the behaviors she was afraid of.


What about adult behaviors? Sure, some of us tantrum when we don't get a cookie too, but obviously there are quite a few common avoided behaviors specific to adulthood. We all know those couples that pride themselves on never fighting or arguing and deem their relationship to be perfect due to this accomplishment. In Graduate school they would say "if you're not arguing at least occasionally in a relationship, there's something you're not talking about, that you need to be." So often we hear couples say that they lied or kept something from their partner to avoid a fight or argument. Let's use the example of Paul and Julie who have been a couple for about 4 years. Paul recently reconnected with an ex-girlfriend and has been talking to her again as friends. He doesn't tell Julie in fear that it may cause an argument. Paul continues to talk to his ex-girlfriend and has to continue to lie to Julie. Julie feels that something isn't right and this starts a series of bickering and disagreements between them. Anytime Julie tries to talk about what's going on, Paul snaps at her and avoids the conversation. Paul has learned in this situation that as long as he lies about his ex-girlfriend and snaps at Julie, it avoids further arguments and he can go about doing what he wants to do. Julie has learned to stop bringing up her suspicions or feelings because she will be snapped at. Eventually, Julie finds out about Paul talking to the ex-girlfriend and they break up.


Let's push the rewind button on this as we did for Joey's mom. What if Paul went back in time to the first conversation with his ex-girlfriend and then faced his fear of Julie's reaction and behaviors? Paul went home after talking with his ex-girlfriend for the first time and told Julie about it. Julie became upset and it starts an argument between Julie and Paul, with Julie pressing Paul about why he didn't have a discussion with her before agreeing to meet up with his ex. Paul is exhausted after the argument and a little frustrated. Through their argument, Julie and Paul came to a compromise as to what boundaries they were both okay with regarding his communication with his ex-girlfriend. The next time Paul talks to his ex-girlfriend, he comes home and is reluctant to tell Julie as he remembers the last argument. Even so, he is honest with her and although Julie is not happy and another argument occurs, this one is much less severe and Julie thanks Paul for being honest. This occurs a few more times until Julie and Paul no longer argue about the ex-girlfriend and Paul decides it may not be healthy to continue talking to his ex. Julie feels that she can trust Paul and Paul feels that he can be honest with Julie. And they live happily ever after. . .well happyish. Paul faced his fear of the argument and Julie's response or behavior, and it resulted in mutual learning and a healthy relationship.


To conclude, behaviors may not be enjoyable all the time, but they are a valuable learning moment. Facing them rather than avoiding them, will likely result in long term benefits and lead to a world of possibilities. They may present hardships at first, but as long as we continue to labor up the hill, we will hopefully find our cozy sled waiting for us at the top.


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1 Comment


Philip Grant
Philip Grant
Mar 14

What an insightful piece! Face the difficult !!

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