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  • Writer's picturePeter Bogart LPC, NCC, BC–TMH

Intense Behaviors Are Not Binary: Change Your Measures To Change Behaviors

Let’s talk about the “B” word… I’m referring to “Behavior,” of course! We are constantly monitoring our children’s behaviors, especially when they are turning negative, unsafe, explosive, or extremely disrespectful.

Parents are very good at describing these behaviors; how they are triggered, what they look like as they are escalating, how long they last, what type of language is utilized to express negative emotions, where they usually occur, what time of day is most problematic, who is the frequent target of these behaviors, how destructive they are in the house, etc.

So many descriptors are essential because behaviors are complex! They are incredibly complex when you layer in all of the negative thoughts and emotions that are occurring simultaneously. All of these negative thoughts and emotions are either unseen or unknown, so we focus primarily on the behaviors because we can see them. Parents (myself included) want the negative behaviors to stop. We want behaviors to be binary.

For most of our lives we utilize a binary system to evaluate behaviors. Did you pass or fail the test? Did you yell at your father or not? Did you do your homework or not? Is your room clean or messy? You are on time, or you are late. Either you did behavior X or you did not do behavior X, and so on.

But, behaviors are NOT binary; and this mindset is a crucial component for positive behavioral changes to occur.

Negative behaviors usually evolve over several years, and much like a virus, they can mutate or splinter off into new variants based on responses and interactions with other people. Using a binary mindset is an unfair and ineffective way to approach a child or adolescent with explosive/negative behaviors (that have evolved over several years). Behaviors that have grown and mutated over time cannot simply end overnight with a magical intervention. A binary mindset regarding behavior sets everyone involved up for failure, and may even trigger more disruptive behaviors.

Complex behaviors do not have simple, binary solutions. Yet, most parents measure behavioral progress with a binary mindset - did the behavior happen at school today or not? Were you nice or rude to your grandparents? Did you steal my credit card or not?

Instead, parents should measure complex behavioral progress in three key areas: frequency, intensity, and duration.

Frequency - measure how frequently these behaviors occur each day, week, month, etc. and then compare data from the previous week, month, year, etc. If you have an isolated behavior (ex. weekend arguments), restrict your data collection to that isolated area (how many arguments occurred over the weekend from the previous example).

Intensity - measure how intense the behavior is and give it a rating on a 1-10 scale, where 10 is the most intense it has ever been, and 1 is incredibly mild. This is somewhat subjective, so utilize input from the entire family to assign a number. Ask observant siblings, or spouses to rate the intensity of the argument, fight, disrespectful behavior, etc.

Duration - measure how long the behavior lasted with a timer, or just write down the current time when the behavior begins, and then again when it ends. You might need to assign a timekeeper (spouse/sibling not involved) proactively in order to get an accurate reading (understandably, parents tend to forget to set the timer or write down the current time when their child is escalating).

Another piece of helpful information would be to write down the antecedent (what happened right before the negative behavior) and consequence (what happened right after the behavior). All of these measurements help us create a baseline of negative behavioral patterns. Once we have this baseline data, we can start to implement behavior interventions and then collect new data to track our progress. Although they will continue to occur, we can decrease the frequency, intensity, and duration of these negative behaviors with appropriate, quality interventions that utilize the appropriate ways to measure behavior.

Please contact me today if you would like some help with this process.

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