As parents, we have all likely encountered this situation: your child wants a candy bar at the grocery store. Perhaps they say, “I want the candy bar,” or they simply reach for it with all their might. Most parents today would rather not allow their child to have such a high-sugar snack each time they visit a store, but when the child hears the dreaded, “no,” a meltdown is often not far behind.

How many of you have given in and said, “Fine, but this is the last time!” Getting into the car, your child is filled with the temporary happiness of their sugary treat, while you are overwhelmed with a wave of frustration, guilt, and irritation. You say to yourself, “why do I keep doing this?” or “next time will be different,” or “I am such a terrible parent.”

But, are you a terrible parent? Have you ever considered that giving in with the candy bar does not relate to the quality of your parenting? Plenty of good parents do this every day. The more important question should be, “why do I keep doing this?” Now, your situation may not be a candy bar. Perhaps your pressure point is bedtime, where your child keeps managing to find themselves tucked in the middle of your bed instead of their own. Regardless of the situation, the important thing to realize is that you have fallen into a cycle that is not at all uncommon.

Your child’s inappropriate behavior creates an aversive situation for you as a parent. We place a great deal of attention on why the child misbehaves. Obviously, the grocery store meltdown or the bedtime tantrum are both associated with your child producing a desired outcome—getting what they want. Behavior analysts would suggest that by giving in, the behavior is positively reinforced, making it more likely for the behaviors to occur again.

What does not receive as much attention is how and why parents react to unpleasant situations. Perhaps you are worried about judgment from other parents. Maybe you feel guilty when your child misbehaves, or it could simply be that you can’t stand the behavior itself. When you give in, that aversive stimulation stops, thus delivering sweet relief. Behavior analysts would say your behavior is negatively reinforced. So, by giving yourself relief from the behavior, you are directly making it more likely to happen again in the future. It’s a recurring cycle of escape!

The answer is not to simply ignore these behaviors, as they will likely get worse. At Canopy, we train parents over a diverse set of basic management techniques to help them gain freedom from difficult situations and increase the quality of the relationship with their children. For more information, contact a Care Coordinator at 800.388.6247.

This article was contributed by Canopy’s Director of Autism Solutions Dr. Jim Moore, BCBA-D.