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The ABC’S of Behavior

Most days I think about how dog training has influenced my therapeutic style. If you are a client, you have probably heard some of my favorite dog stories.

I often talk about how I forgot my training and turned my dog Sadie into a frightened mess of fur whenever a thunderstorm rolled through. It was pretty cute when she was a puppy and would cuddle up next to me for protection. I’d pet her and say whatever silly dog stuff you say to your dog when she’s scared. Now, she weighs well over 60 pounds and when she gets too close between her fur, dog breath, and weight—it’s not quite as cute.

Let’s take a look at what I did wrong with Sadie and see what lessons I can learn.

First, there was the antecedent (the original thing that happened), in this case thunder. Then the behavior (Sadie gets close to me and wants comfort). Then the consequence, I pet Sadie and whisper soothing words to her.

Okay—here it is in behavioral terms:

  • A (antecedent): Thunder
  • B (behavior): Seeks comfort
  • C (consequence): Gets comfort

All well and good. Now Sadie feels better, so what does she think, okay not really “think,” but, what does she learn? She learns that if she wants to be petted, she acts scared. So, now she starts to get scared of not only thunder but fireworks, trucks rumbling by, jets—you get the idea. Pretty soon the A part of behavior grows because the C part of behavior feels good.

So, if you have a child that is afraid of something, make sure that you don’t make the fears grow by mistake. Instead, give your children the confidence and power over things that make them nervous. For example, let’s say your child is worried about traveling on an airplane. So A, in this case, is getting on an airplane. Your child stays close to you and wants your guarantee that nothing bad will happen. You don’t want to lie and say that airplanes never crash.

But you might be tempted to give lots of comfort and reassurance. If you read the earlier part of this blog, you see that could be a problem. You could actually make things worse.

So what’s a good, caring parent to do? Well, you can talk briefly about how safe airplane travel is and that millions of people fly every day without problems. And you probably want to tell your child that planes often experience a little turbulence which is not a problem and doesn’t mean the plane is going to crash.

In other words, you give kids simple, brief, clear, realistic expectations and you avoid excessive reassurance. More later, we’ll keep talking about ABC’s.

The ABC’S of Behavior

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D.

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of adults and children with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as personality disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and learning disorders. Dr. Smith is a widely published author of articles and books to the profession and the public, including: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2E), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, and Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be? Her website is:

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APA Reference
Smith, L. (2012). The ABC’S of Behavior. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 May 2012
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