How To Get Rid Of Behavior You Don't Want
Updated: Oct 30
8 Options For Changing Unwanted Behavior
Option 1: Get rid of the person doing the unwanted behavior.
Get a divorce, move out, send your child away, fire that annoying employee! Banishing the person with the behavior (that is a problem for you) from your life is definitely one way to solve the problem.
Option 2: Punishment.
The popular favorite!
The first thing we usually do is threaten to take away our child's allowance or smack the dog. We rarely notice if what we are doing is actually effective. We just keep increasing the punishment.
Our child didn't do their homework, so we take away their phone for the
day. They still don't do it, so we take away their bike. Then, we eliminate television privileges. There is no end to it. The punishment might stop the behavior temporarily. However, as soon as the punishment ends, the behavior often reappears. The cycle of resentment, anger, fear, shame and avoidance begins. The person can become habituated and callous to punishment. They might give up, become hopeless and no longer care about anything thereby rendering punishment useless. When people or animals are subject to unrelenting punishment they may withdraw from social interaction, retreat into lethargy and give up life's pleasures. If used extremely rarely, thoughtfully and appropriately, punishment can be effective.
Option 3: Remove an unpleasant condition when the desired behavior occurs.
For this to work, you must know what the other person finds unpleasant. For example, "nagging" our child to do the dishes and continuing to nag until they are washed, dried and put away. The "nagging" is the negative reinforcer and doing the dishes is the desired behavior. We are constantly shaping each other's behavior with negative reinforcers. A glare, frown, eye roll or disapproving comment are often used to make another person stop doing something. Our child rolls their eyes and looks away to get us to stop giving advice. So, if our child wanted to shape us out of giving unwanted advice they might gently turn away from us and "zone out" when we are in lecture mode. Then, as soon as we are silent or resume talking about something other than advice they would return their pleasant attention to us IMMEDIATELY - timing is very important.
Option 4: Extinction.
You allow the behavior to go away on it's own. You withdraw all reinforcement for the behavior. For example, when your child takes a disagreeable tone and tells you to "Shut up" you maintain a civil demeanor, do not appear upset in any way or retreat into cold silence. There is no result to their moodiness, neither good or bad. You ignore the behavior without ignoring the person. You can combine this with strategy 3 by "shutting up" as soon as they return to an agreeable tone or do anything other than yelling at you to "shut up." This will often eliminate hostile behavior because it takes a great deal of energy to be angry.
Option 5: Train an incompatible behavior.
Teach someone to do something different than the unwanted behavior. My husband and I like to go out for a family dinner on Friday nights. My kids would often start bickering and complaining when we went out. Therefore, we bought a deck of cards and taught them card games as an alternate behavior. It is tough to argue when you are learning a new game! We combined options 3 & 4 as well by ignoring arguing and proceeding to talk and eat. The moment they did something other than argue, we would start talking with them about what to have for dessert - always a favorite topic.
Option 6: Put the behavior on a cue and then never give the cue.
Most of us have been heart broken at least once. After the break up, we usually have very strong urges to text or call our exes. However, this is not an effective behavior if you are trying to stop loving someone. Therefore, you might want to extinguish your behavior of texting, calling or "cyberstalking" (admit it - most of us have done it at least once). One strategy is to set up the cue that you will only text or call your ex in response to a text or call from them. The cue is a communication initiated by the ex. Most likely, the cue will never be presented. Eventually, your urges will go down and the behavior will disappear. Furthermore, you can use strategy 5 by calling a close friend or family member every time you have the urge to text or call your ex. This might address a potential motivator (loneliness) and give you a behavior that is helpful to do instead of attempting to engage with your ex. This plan only works if you have an ex who is not continuing to call you. In that case, we would have to change the cue for this method to be successful.
Option 7: Shape the absence of the behavior.
Wait for the person to do anything other than the problem behavior and reinforce it. The moment your child is sitting down to do homework bring them their favorite snack. Your partner is being pleasant and agreeable, reach over and squeeze their hand, hug them, smile. Your teen is out of their room, be pleasant to them (i.e. do not bring up school, chores, tease them about being out of the room or other aversive topics.)
Option 8: Change the Motivation.
This is generally the most effective and caring approach. You must understand the reason a person (or oneself) is engaging in the behavior. Your child comes home irritable and tells you to shut up because they are tired and hungry. Offer snacks and some down time before engaging in conversation. Your teen does not like to hear advice because it causes them to feel shame and frustration. Listen quietly with curiosity instead. You find yourself getting drunk most nights because you feel empty and bored. Do something exciting, a little risky and/or deeply fulfilling. The solution must be well matched to the underlying cause of the behavior.
Complex problems require the careful consideration of causes and the use of multiple methods.
Miller, Matias (2021). The Uncontrollable Child. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Pryor, Karen (1984). Don't Shoot The Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training. Bantam Books.