Why do things get worse before they get better?!

When we implement research-based parenting strategies, it can sometimes feel like we are having epic parenting breakthroughs. “Did she just put on her sneakers without a single reminder?” “Did he just complete that math homework without ripping it to shreds?”  “Was that vegetable just eaten without being hurled at my head?”  We feel like a million bucks-like all of our insanely exhausting hard work and countless hours spent sitting on the couches of therapists and doctors is really paying off.  Finally!  We pat ourselves on the back one minute but yet moments later feel the impact of a sneaker striking the spot we JUST PATTED!  Wasn’t it just the day before that those sneakers were put on…without a single reminder?  How can this shift from parenting breakthrough to breakdown be so sudden and, with that suddenness, so crushing?

What is an “Extinction Burst”?

It may very well have something to do with what we technically call an “Extinction Burst”.  In your breakthrough phase (the one that came about a day before the breakdown one), you were likely setting firm boundaries and ceasing to reinforce the behaviors that make life feel like a 3 ring circus.  You had donned your ultra strength parent armor and were ready to hold firm with clear, consistent expectations.  And you did.  So why this sudden shift?  When the game changes and behaviors that were once functional for your child are no longer achieving the same outcome…kids tend to tweak (while not exactly a “technical” term, I know you’re nodding in understanding). And they can tweak BIG time.  I like to envision a frantic little rat in his maze furiously pressing his lever, desperately trying to figure out why on earth he can no longer get his food pellets.  In no uncertain terms, kids will express their grave displeasure with you for ceasing to reinforce their poor behaviors.  Enter parent breakdown.  To say this process is draining is a gross understatement.  Every cell in your body will likely beg you to just give in, just make it stop!

Stay strong.  Stay resolute.  This burst of what can often feel like unbearable behavior is to be expected and it will not last forever…if you stay the course.  If you find the strength to do so, well, that’s when the lasting breakthrough happens.


  1. Behaviors occur because they are being reinforced.  Something is happening after the behavior occurs that keeps it going and going.  And going.  When it comes to a behavior like making one’s bed, this is a great thing!  When it comes to problem behavior…?  Not so much.
  2. When reinforcement is discontinued…your child is going to make it known that she is less than thrilled. In fact, the behavior will likely get temporarily get worse!  Yikes.
  3. You must, must, must hang in there. Stay the course.  The behavior will start to fade and you will regain your sanity.  This is called an “Extinction Burst” and it is to be expected.
  4. Remain firm!
  5. Remain firm!
  6. Remain firm!