3 Behavioral Techniques for Parenting: Reinforcement, Punishment, and Extinction

3 Behavioral Techniques for Parenting: Reinforcement, Punishment, and Extinction
Laura Reguera

Written and verified by the psychologist Laura Reguera.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Tantrums, crying, screaming, biting, hitting … When it comes to parentingsometimes we don’t really know how to stop inappropriate behavior. But behavioral techniques can help us to control these and other behaviors.

They will also help us to encourage what we consider appropriate behavior. As you can imagine, it will take some effort on our part, but once it gets under way, we’ll see remarkable results … Read on for useful behavioral techniques you can use with your children!

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”.

-John Dewey-

Behavioral techniques for parenting: reinforcement

The behavioral techniques that we’ll see are divided into three groups: reinforcement, punishment and extinction. These can make certain behaviors increase, stay the same, decrease or disappear. A reinforcer is the thing likely to cause the child to continue doing a certain behavior or to do it more often.

“The best way to make children good is to make them happy.”

-Oscar Wilde-

Now, reinforcement can be positive or negative. The first would be a stimulus that occurs immediately after the behavior we want to maintain or enhance. For example: if we tell a child that they did well after picking up their toys, we can bet they are more likely to do it again the next day.

On the other hand, there is also negative reinforcement. This would mean the withdrawal of something negative from the child once they did what we want them to do. Practically speaking, for a small child the fact that their mother is angry with him can be unpleasant. But if the mother gets really angry when the child apologizes, she will encourage him to apologize more times when he notices that his mother is upset.

Behavioral techniques for parenting.

Behavioral techniques for parenting: punishment

Just as reinforcement will help us encourage desirable behaviors, we can use disciplinary techniques to reduce other behaviors. These include punishment and extinction. These behavioral techniques must be used immediately after the actions that we want to change.

Punishment can also be positive or negative. Positive punishment will mean presenting something unpleasant to the child after he or she does what we think is inappropriate. When someone in the family scolds the child after he has carried out a prank, they are using the technique.

Negative punishment, on the other hand, would be to remove something that the child likes after they do something we want them to stop doing. An example would be to take the child out of the game for two minutes after hitting another child or causing a conflict.


A little boy sticking out his tongue.

Behavioral techniques for parenting: extinction

Certainly some parents have seen reprimands not really work in eliminating a certain behavior. In fact, it may happen the other way around, encouraging it. It’s ok, this happens sometimes. Why? Because reprimands can act as positive reinforcement for the child.

But how? It turns out that this somewhat angry way of talking may not act as an aversive stimulus for the child, but rather an attractive one. To explain: the child may notice that now they’re getting attention from his parents.

“Children are educated by what the grownup is and not by what he says.”

-Carl Gustav Jung-

It turns out that social attention is one of the greatest positive reinforcers there is, both for children and adults. Thus, the child sees that the more they behave a certain way, the more attention they get from their parents. Here, what we will have to do is extinction.

Extinction consists of suppressing reinforcement of a behavior that has been previously reinforced. That is, if the child pulls a prank, what we have to do is act as if nothing happened. To put it another way, we will withdraw attention, a positive reinforcement. This means that we keep doing what we were doing without saying anything. That way, the child will stop carrying out that behavior. Interesting, isn’t it? Try it!


Images courtesy of Zivile & Arunas, Alexander Dummer and Hunter Johnson.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.