What are the ABCs of behavioral therapy?

Psychotherapy Read more from
Chapter Abnormal Psychology: Mental Health and Mental Illness

One of the cornerstones of behavioral therapy involves identifying the consequences of various behaviors. If you want to change a person’s behavior, you have to consider what is reinforcing that behavior. Are there positive consequences that motivate the person to perform the behavior? Often the answer is not so obvious.

One of the basic techniques of behavioral therapy is functional behavioral analysis. In this process the behavior is observed carefully and a log is kept of the antecedents (what happened before?), behaviors (what exactly did the person do?), and consequences (what happened afterwards?), otherwise known as the ABCs.

After the target behavior has been studied this way, it is possible to identify what reinforces the behavior. For example, a toddler may throw up every night and the parents do not know why. Functional behavioral analysis might show that the toddler throws up at night after the parents put the child down to sleep. First the child cries to get her parents back into the room. The parents resist for a while but when the mother gives in, the child vomits. At that point the mother spends up to 45 minutes with the child, cleaning her up and soothing her. This functional analysis makes clear that vomiting is reinforcing for the child because it brings her mother’s attention. The treatment for this kind of problem would be to change the contingencies of the child’s crying. Instead of entering the room to reassure the child in response to the child’s crying, the parent should enter the room at a fixed time interval. This way the child’s crying loses the power to control the parents’ behavior. The parent first enters the room at a frequent rate, so that the child is only left alone for short time periods. The parent then spaces out the time intervals so that the child slowly adapts to falling asleep without the parent. This process is the basis of the Ferber method, a well-known technique for conditioning babies to sleep through the night.


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