Behavioral Traps and How To Avoid Them

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused


Behavior is reinforced when something is either given or taken away and that action results in the behavior happening more in the future. For example, if a person asks for a piece of cake at a party and then someone gives them cake, they will ask for cake at parties in the future.
There are many times that a parent might want to reinforce their child’s behavior – such as when he does well on a test, is nice to his siblings, or learns a new skill. However, there are other times when parents don’t want to reinforce their child’s behavior, but do so anyway – sometimes inadvertently.
For example, have you ever been at the grocery store with your child, said “no” when she asked you to buy her a candy bar, and watched in dismay as she started to throw a tantrum? What did you do? If you eventually gave in and bought her that candy bar, you got caught in a behavioral trap.
It was a behavioral trap because not only did you reinforce your child’s tantrum behavior by buying her candy, you also reinforced your behavior – your choice to give in – because you were “rewarded” by being able to continue shopping without encountering judgmental stares from your fellow shoppers.
Falling into a behavioral trap can be very hard to avoid in some situations. There are times in which safety becomes a factor, or the social context of a given situation may require you to “give in” and do something you would rather not do. However, there are some steps you can take to help yourself avoid falling into this kind of situation.

  • If you’re going to give in eventually anyway, do it right away: providing the reinforcer (candy or another “treat”) after a long tantrum means that next time you decide to stick it out no matter what, there is a chance that child will work longer and harder at getting what he wants. Giving in immediately means you have a better chance of being successful if you choose to really put your foot down some other time.

  • Build in reinforcement from the start: offer your child something she really wants at the end of a trip or activity if she will refrain from engaging in a behavior you don’t like. This will help motivate her to “let it go” when something else catches her eye.

  • Establish rules: set expectations and do your best to stay consistent. If sometimes a rule is a rule and sometimes it isn’t, it leaves room for your child to try to bend those rules.

  • When making decisions surrounding these kinds of situations, assess how important it is that your child is able to do or have that “thing.” If it is not a big deal, allow access. If it is a big deal, it is always okay to say no.

  • Only make rules or consequences “on the fly” if you are willing and able to follow through with them. It’s easy to make empty threats (as they can at times be effective), but kids will learn if you make threats and don’t follow through with them that your verbal rules are unreliable.

With a little planning ahead to set your child’s expectations, you can both experience more enjoyable outings!
By Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA, LABA  

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit