Ask An Expert / Behavior Problems

Is it normal to have “waves” of bad behavior? Our son is good for a week, then starts again.

Maintaining behavior change is about being consistent

Matthew H. Rouse, PhD, MSW
Matthew H. Rouse, PhD, MSW

Clinical Psychologist, ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

Is it normal to have "waves" of behavior issues? It seems like once we reward our son for good behavior he's good for a week, and then it starts up again. We feel very helpless, and like consequences don't matter to him but rather throw fuel on his fire. It's difficult to figure out how to consistently handle these issues.

This is a question we get a lot. It’s really difficult to feel like things are going well — like you can let your guard down — and then have everything go back to the way it was.

The good news is you’re already on the right track. You’ve seen a connection between rewarding your son, or “positive reinforcement,” and a change in his behavior. The next step is maintaining that behavior change, and that’s about being consistent and thinking about your goals for his behavior even when he’s being “good.”

Think about how hard it is to start a new habit or stop doing something you’ve done a certain way for a long time — and how strong the pull is to go back to the way it was before. It’s the same with your son’s behavior and your patterns of interaction. You want these new behaviors or different ways of interacting to become a habit for both of you, and that takes time and consistency.

It makes sense that you’re seeing problem behaviors come in waves. It’s like ruts in a dirt road: you try to steer away from them and they pull you back in. You’ve developed these “ruts” in the way you interact with your son, and though you can change things for a while the old ways pull you back.


So, if you try something for a week and you see improvement, and then you ease off, things might go back to the way things were. Understandably, parents often focus on the times when things aren’t going well, and when things are good the feeling is, “Let’s not rock the boat.” But when things are going well is exactly the opportunity to give praise and attention. Letting your son know that you’re pleased with his behavior will increase the likelihood that it “sticks.”

As to his reaction to consequences, that’s also common. When parents try to implement consequences or set limits it “adds fuel to the fire.” It’s possible your son has become so sensitive to being criticized or reprimanded that there is a huge reaction. One solution, backed by lots of research, is to rely on positive reinforcement and overwhelm the situation with motivation for desired behaviors. We try to get all of the movement out of positive consequences — and they need to be applied consistently, whether his behavior has just changed or he’s been good for a week, or a month, or a year. Don’t worry — it’ll become a habit for all of you!