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The Myth of “Gradually Tightening the Reins”

Every parent I’ve ever known has made a choice (or several), at some point or another, that they later think is really, really dumb. We all fall into easy patterns of parenting that might not have the best consistency or the most effective tolerances.

It happens to everyone – even those perfect catalog parents with perfectly behaved children.

What’s important is that we don’t settle into those habits for long periods of time. And what’s equally as important is that we understand HOW to get out of those habits once we’re in them.

The myth a lot of us believe is that if we gradually tighten up the reins in our household, the kids won’t go through culture shock and freak out about how “strict” we’ve gotten.

Here’s why that’s a lie:

It doesn’t matter how little we change our expectations of our kids. They’re almost always going to have an “extinction burst” when we ask more of them than they’re used to.

An extinction burst is a child’s last-ditch effort to reverse your decision about making things more difficult for them. It happens right after the new expectation is put on them, and it can be quite powerful. It’s often seen as relational manipulation, physical lashing out, or emotional tantrums/whining.

As overwhelming as that extinction burst can be, though, it won’t last long if you stay the course. They’ll learn that their efforts aren’t working and that it’s less miserable to just obey.

That’s when you start to reach an emotionally neutral NEW set of expectations. That’s the sweet spot. You just have to maintain it.

An example of an extinction burst that came from a VERY TINY ADJUSTMENT to my kids’ routine was when I started giving them 10 minutes to play after bath time than 15 minutes to play after bath time.

You’d think they wouldn’t even notice that, right?

Wrong. They noticed, and they were NOT happy about it. My kids have mostly learned that throwing tantrums doesn’t work (mostly), but there was a LOT of whining. There was feet dragging. One cried. The other said I was “NOT NICE,” and I felt overwhelmed.

I knew better than to show my exhaustion though, and I knew better than to go back on what I’d already said. If I changed my mind after they threw fits, then they would learn that throwing fits gets them a better outcome.

Their extinction burst would have worked.

However, I held my ground through the burst, and we made it to bed time. The next night, we stuck with 10 minutes, but a few nights later, we went back even further to only giving them 5 minutes.

Cue another extinction burst.

After going through this, I felt like my problem was glaring at me, right in front of my face. All my time in the behavior field, and I didn’t see it coming.

No matter how much or how little I’d taken away from them that very first night, they would’ve had an extinction burst. I should have just “ripped the band-aid off,” so to speak, all at once so that I wouldn’t have to keep going through the bursts over and over again.

It should be mentioned that kids are much more successful with new expectations when they’re given a fair warning ahead of time (sometimes even for several days leading up to it) so that they can prepare for the change.

Ripping the band-aid off without having even told them about the change is setting them up for failure. Then when they earn a consequence for throwing a fit, it will feel doubly unfair.

If you’ve given them a warning about the new change, then it really is okay to “tighten the reins” to exactly where you want them all at once. You don’t have to go little by little.

In an ideal world, we would all set our expectations as parents EXACTLY where we want them right out of the gate, but we’re pretty dumb when we’re new parents. We don’t even know what we want or how to achieve it.

So once we’ve finally gone through some trial and error, and learned just what we wish to have in our family and home, then it’s okay to start reaching for that expectation.

We can jump out of the muddy ditch quite quickly. We don’t have to crawl through it for a while first, in hopes of not irritating those around us.

So here’s some encouragement if you’re looking to change the expectations for your family! Go for what you actually want. Not what you think they’ll be okay with. Not what you think will get the least pushback from them.

Expect your kids to live a lifestyle that you want them to live (barring developmental concerns).

They’re going to dislike it either way, until they discover how much better it feels.

Go for the gold, parents! Haha.

Happy parenting.

The Myth of “Gradually Tightening the Reins”

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2018). The Myth of “Gradually Tightening the Reins”. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 16, 2019, from


Last updated: 20 Aug 2018
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