How Parents Can Handle Behavior Traps

Guest Post by: Joanna Acosta, Assistant Clinical Program Coordinator

Do you ever find yourself in situations with your child (whom we all know your genuinely love) where you will literally do anything possible to get them to stop crying or to stop yelling. You KNOW giving them the toy is bad and you KNOW that you should make them brush their teeth but you just want the yelling to stop. Or in situations where you would do anything possible to get your child to tell you they love you or that you are their favorite? It is impossible to talk on the phone or do something for yourself without your child screaming at you until you play with them again and then they look at you with those bright eyes and flash a big smile. You and your child are either constantly yelling at each other to get rid of something you don’t like or you and your child are so attached to each other that you can’t get much else done.

I am not a mother, but I have studied quite a bit about behavior and scientifically said, this situation is referred to as a behavior trap. Previous research has shown that these traps are easy to fall into and that they are extremely difficult to get out of. You can see this happening because even though as a parent know you shouldn’t give in and in the same sense your child knows they have to do what they are told but they will fight to get out of it. Both of you are trying to avoid a situation that you don’t want to be in! It may be difficult to follow through with what you want from your kid because you are having all these thoughts that it has been such a long day, or you have been at work all day and need to spoil your child, or you are just so tired from everything that you feel absolutely at a loss of energy.

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I am here to tell you that these thoughts that are getting in your way of doing what you absolutely know is best for your child, do NOT have to control you. They do NOT have to keep holding you back from teaching your kid to ask for things nicely, or teaching them to ask you for help or tell you that they are not quite mentally prepared to do whatever you are needing them to do. I’ll give you a list of a few guidelines that may help you and your child break free from the trap and in return they may help you learn new strategies to communicate with each other in an effective way.

1. It is important to be mindful and pay close attention to what you child is trying to communicate to you. THIS IS HUGE! Stop and look around for a moment. Figure out what are they trying to tell you with their cries. Once you know what they want you can help them get it in way that is not going to drive you crazy! Like asking nicely for the toy, or letting you know they need more time. If the toy is not available, or you do not have more time to give them (say you are in a rush) you can give them alternatives or help them along the way.

2. Then be mindful to what is going on within yourself. How are you feeling, are you stressed, can you not deal, are you too tired for this? Did you get enough to eat today? Are you having self doubts about whether you can be strong enough? Be aware of what is going on inside of you.


3. Realize that this is a relationship between you AND your child and think about how you want your child to learn skills they can use out in the real world.

4. Bring whatever feelings you are having with you, the tired, the drained, the annoyed, and make the choice to do the thing you know you should do. It may feel as heavy as a brick wall on your back, like you have the weight of your world on your shoulder; but realize that these can’t be excuses for not disciplining. Try to find a way to relax or get alone time so that you’re better prepared to handle the responsibilities of motherhood without feeling like the world is collapsing on you.

5. If you still find it difficult, if you are thinking this is not the way things should be, or my neighbor’s child never acts this way, or why does everything bad happen to me, then take a step back and also be aware of those thoughts and address them in a healthy way: recognize all parents and children are different. Comparing is not healthy and won’t help you move forward with your progress.

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6. Do not be so hard on yourself. What would you advice would you have for yourself if you were 5 years old and felt that way? You may be a little nicer to that young child inside of you. Remember, that child is you.

7. Think about the advice your parent would give you, or your grandparents, or a great mentor. What would they tell you to do in the situation where you did not want to do something you had to do because of negative thoughts.

8. Remember consistency and reliability. You child must know that crying is no longer going to work, tantrums will not longer get your attention or get them out of a task. Be consistent in rarely giving in and always following through, otherwise they will continue to take their chances if they know you might change your mind.

9. All it takes is one small step. One small change. Today, decide that one time you won’t buy them that candy bar. Make goals for yourself that you can achieve today, this week, this month, and this year.

10. Get an accountability partner. Call them up and tell them your victories and your failures! Share stories with each other, share challenges, share successes! You’ll survive despite the toughest days…


It is up to you how you want to raise your child, I am not here to say you are doing anything wrong or the situation you is in bad. I am here to provide information about what I know. It is only meant to help you if you want it. If there is nothing to change, then that is amazing! This advice might help parents stuck in a rut with their child to move forward a few steps towards progress.

Joanna Acosta has been working with children with a variety of disabilities such as cerebral palsy, down syndrome, and autism and in various settings including their homes, daycares, and schools for 8 years now. She also has experience training adults with mental illness and parents of children with autism. For the past 3 years, she has focused her career on applied behavior analysis. Behavior analysis is a science based on what we know about behavior, showing how we can change the environment to alter the behavior in a way that’s beneficial to others. Joanna obtained her bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida and is about to complete her master’s degree in order to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). 

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