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Has your child ever thrown a tantrum and to alleviate the situation, and you give them what they wanted? This is commonly known as a behavior trap. Parents may often fall for behavior traps which promote and reinforce challenging behaviors over time. Luckily, there are ways to recognize behavior traps and get out of them.

What is a Behavior Trap?

A behavior trap is when real-world events reinforce and maintain challenging behaviors. Everyday experiences can have natural contingencies that inadvertently support the unwanted behaviors, resulting in increased occurrences.

Let’s look at a typical experience that many parents experience with their children.

After a long play session, you ask your child to pick up their toys and clean the room. Instead of doing so, your child throws a tantrum, and you pick up the toys since it’s quicker and easier.

When you give in, you’re reinforcing your child’s tantrums and increasing the odds that this will keep reoccurring.

What Are Natural Contingencies?

A natural contingency is a consequence that occurs in a natural environment. You or a therapist do not plan them. Instead, natural contingencies are the things that happen in your child’s daily life. They are not planned by anyone, and they happen in your child’s daily life.

For example, feeling full and satiated is a natural contingency of eating an entire meal. The same goes for getting good grades after studying hard or gaining muscles after working out regularly.

Are Natural Contingencies Bad?

As you can see in the examples above, natural contingencies aren’t necessarily a bad thing!

In fact, many therapists strive to build those natural reinforcers. The more reinforcement a child gets without anyone’s intervention, the easier things get when learning new skills and positive behaviors.

How Do Natural Contingencies Affect Behavior Traps?

On the opposite side of things, natural contingencies can also be the cause of behavior traps. The natural setting also makes them difficult to identify during the moment.

Let’s go back to the room-cleaning example from earlier. In that situation, the natural contingency is you doing all the work. You didn’t intend for that moment to be teachable. In the eyes of your child, it showed them that throwing a tantrum works to get them out of doing something they don’t want to do. You accidentally reinforced this behavior.

More discrete natural contingencies could include events like reprimanding your child or sending them to time out. These events seem like an effective way to address challenging behaviors, but they may do more harm than good.

Identifying Behavior Traps

To effectively get out of behavior traps in the future, you must learn how to identify them.

The best way to do that is to recognize the function of your child’s conduct. There are four functions of behavior, and each one reflects what your child gets out of the action.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of them and see how potential natural contingencies come into play.

Tangible Access

This function is all about gaining access to an item or activity.

Say that your child notices a sibling or classmate playing with a toy, but they want that same toy. They engage in a tantrum and to calm them down, you provide your child with a toy or make the other kid share.

This situation presents two problems.

The first is that you’re reinforcing the tantrum. The act of offering up a toy is showing your child that tantrums lead to a reward.

The second issue is that you’re bribing your kid. You’re giving the toy after the challenging behavior occurred. This action does not help reduce challenging behaviors overtime, and instead helps increase these behaviors.

Attention

The attention function prioritizes social interaction.

Your child is playing on their own while you work in a separate room. To grab your attention, they start banging their toys on the wall and you go out of your office to talk to them.

In this case, giving your child attention by talking to them is what they wanted, and it reinforces the behavior.

Escape

Escape-based behavior is about getting out of situations.

During your child’s math lessons, they start throwing a tantrum and as a result, you send them to another room for time out.

If your child doesn’t like their math lessons, you just gave them an out. You reinforced the behavior and showed them that the challenging behavior will pay off.

Concluding Behavior Traps

Behavior traps are more common than parents think. Learning to identify the functions of behavior and the natural contingencies supporting the challenging behavior will make all the difference. That information can help you implement proactive strategies and reactive strategies to reduce the likelihood of challenging behaviors from recurring.

Author

Dorothylou Santiago-Liu