Extinction Bursts: Why What You’re Doing “Isn’t Working.”

To watch the video version click here.

“Extinction Burts” is used to describe a child’s behavior that “just getting worse” in response to an intervention/change in parenting tactic.

Parents commonly complain over and over again: ” I tried what you suggested, and she/he just screamed louder/hit harder/ bit/ freaked out/ enter terrifying child behavior here… Until I did what I always do and it stopped.”

Sound familiar?

Enter Extinction Bursts

Extinction Bursts occur when an individual uses a social behavior to either get their way or get the desired reaction from someone. When someone isn’t getting the reaction they want or expect, they up the ante. They escalate the behavior in severity in an attempt to get the reaction they anticipated. This is one of those concepts that once you understand it, everything changes

Let’s talk about Extinction

Extinction is what happens when a behavior that was previously reinforced (intentionally or not) is no longer reinforced. This is why being consistent in our parenting is absolutely vital to everyone’s sanity: when we inconsistently reward undesired behavior, there’s a lot more extinction going on.

The burst refers to when someone ups the ante to new highs. Your child will perform more of the behavior you are trying to get rid of. They continue to escalate the behavior searching for that old reliable reaction.

This is often why parents will report that the crying on the second night of sleep training is worse than the first. Or that their toddler is throwing all their food on the floor without even trying a bite when you don’t offer an alternative. Or your preschooler starts tearing apart their room after you put your foot down and limit them to one glass of water at bedtime. All extinction bursts.

Think of it like a balloon: When they don’t get the reaction they’re expecting, they go bigger, badder, stronger…in essence, filling the balloon with their attempts to return to the status quo. If you give them what they want, the balloon deflates. If you don’t give in, and they keep filling their behavior balloon- eventually it POPs. And then it is quite literally over. There’s no more balloon to fill. As a general rule: it doesn’t occur again.

If every time your child hits their baby brother, you say “That’s it! We don’t hit! Go to the corner for a timeout!”…and then you stand over her explaining to her that hitting hurts, babies get hurt easily, we have to be gentle with the baby…on and on and on until her time out is finished, she’s going to have a strong expectation for that reaction.

Now say you decide to move away from timeouts and into natural and logical consequences and planned ignoring. So the next time she hits her baby brother you rush to the baby, pick him up and say “Oh no, did your sister hit you? Are you okay? That must have really hurt! Here would you like some milk?” and walk away from her…she’s going to pitch a fit.


Because you’ve just reacted in the total opposite fashion to what she’s expected. She was supposed to get the attention. She may scream. She may come and try and hit you or the baby. She may start trying to destroy objects or hurt herself. The motivation on this is pretty clear: hitting the baby got her attention. And she isn’t getting any. So how far does she have to go before you give her that attention? This is their Oscar meltdown, their Hail Mary, their Brittany Spears head shave.

Depending on how tenacious your child is and how long the history of this behavior is- they will either escalate very quickly or give up quickly. The longer this reaction has been expected, the worse the burst is going to be. If you’ve reinforced this behavior once or twice and then change course the burst will be relatively small.

So how do you react to these?

You’ve got two choices here:

1 Stick to your guns, continue with the Logical Consequence Process and Planned Ignoring and ride this thing out so that you can move on.

2 Give in, go back to doing what you’ve always done and continue experiencing this behaviour that’s driving you to drink.

(Believe me, you want to take route 1.)

Something to keep in mind is that if you give in before the behavior has burst, that is now your new baseline. If you’re an hour into an epic extinction burst and thinking “I can’t take this anymore!” …remember: this is where they’ll START if you try and break this habit again. My husband is a soldier so I often make a comparison to trench warfare: once they dig a trench, they stay there.

Have questions about Extinction Bursts? Pop them in the comments! Let me know what you’re currently struggling with, or come join us in the Parenting Posse.


What Children Need From Parents III

Side Effects of Extinction

Counselling Parents of Children With Behavior Problems: The Use of Extinction and Time-Out Techniques

Durand, V. M. (1990) Severe Behavior Problems: a Functional Communication Training Approach. New York, Guilford

O’Neill, R.E., Horner, R.H., Albin, R.W., Sprauge, J.R., Storey, K., & Newton, J.S (1997) Functional Assessment and Program Development for Problem Behaviour: a Practical Handbook (2nd Ed.) Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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2 thoughts on “Extinction Bursts: Why What You’re Doing “Isn’t Working.””

  1. Does this work for all ages? My 9 yr old is a very picky eater and refuses to try new foods, so we’ve fallen into a terrible routine of allowing him to eat only the foods he likes, most of which aren’t healthy. Can extinction be used to get him to eat normal foods? He’s becoming overweight and I don’t know how to break away from what we’re doing. We’re also expecting a baby in a couple wks. Is this a good or bad time to try something new? My 5 yr old is picky too, but less so than the 9 yr old, and has a few healthy foods in his diet. I would want to try to change both their eating habits at the same time. Thanks for any advice.

    1. Hi Elizabeth! The concept of extinction bursts absolutely applies to all ages- even adults. The bursts just look different for older kids.

      Extinction CAN be used to change feeding habits- however, it’s usually pretty ugly. And there’s LOTS of tears. I’d recommend looking into a dietician/ Occupational Therapist before going that route to see if you can adjust some things that will result in less resistance- making food a battleground rarely gets the results we’re after.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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