Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting XIX. Preparing for the Extinction Explosion

Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God (Luke 18: 16).

In previous essays (Morelli, 2008c) on marriage and parenting I pointed out the importance of parents perceiving the spiritual and the psychological implications of their vocation. A male and female, blessed by God in Holy Matrimony, are called up to be "[united] in one mind and one flesh, and grant them fair children for education in Thy faith . . . ." This has to be in the context that the married couple are individuals themselves, as are their children, made in God's image and called to grow in Divine illumination and become like Him.

Neglecting our intelligence: Sin

The Church Fathers told us that intelligence is one characteristic of God's image in us. (Morelli, 2006b, 2008b) Thus, by the very fact that we are made with intelligence, it behooves us to use the findings of scientific researchers which have been shown to be effective in behavioral control. It is morally necessary to use the scientific techniques which have been found to be beneficial in helping raise Godly, morally and socially responsible children. Not to do so, in fact, would be neglecting an important gift given to us by God. It would be "missing the mark:" Not to use the results of efficacious scientific behavioral research would be an illness and infirmity, that is to say, it would be sinful parenting.

One aspect of disciplining children which remains a problem for many Orthodox Christian parents is the use of effective punishment techniques. In actual fact, correct use of punishment actions can be a very effective form of behavior control. The operative term here is "correct use" of punishment. It must be psychologically, emotionally and spiritually 'correct.' The Punishment tool

Psychologically correct means that punishment is but one of a myriad of tools of discipline in a total program of behavioral intervention. Punishment is to be applied after a behavior is evaluated as inappropriate (Morelli, 2005a, 2006a, 2008b). This paper is going to focus on preparing the parent who uses negative punishment, also called extinction, for one of its major effects, the extinction explosion. This effect, if a parent does not expect it and is not helped to deal with it, can sabotage the correct use of negative punishment in behavioral control and, in fact, can make an inappropriate behavior even stronger. However, before considering the extinction explosion an overview of negative punishment (extinction) in the context of the total behavioral intervention program is useful.

Behavioral Intervention overview

Behavior is shaped by its consequences. There are four consequences which influence behavior. i

Consequences which increase behavior:

  • Positive Reinforcement: after a behavior occurs (whether or not the behavior is good or bad) a pleasant event occurs. The behavior increases.
  • Negative Reinforcement: after a behavior occurs (whether or not the behavior is good or bad) an unpleasant event is taken away. The behavior increases.

Consequences which decrease behavior:

  • Positive Punishment: after a behavior occurs (whether or not the behavior is good or bad) an unpleasant event occurs. The behavior decreases.
  • Negative Punishment (extinction): after a behavior occurs (whether or not the behavior is good or bad) a pleasant event is taken away. The behavior decreases.

Parents who are following Christ and His Church should want to increase good or appropriate behavior, but at times (hopefully inadvertently) good behavior is punished. For example, a child who is showing a proficient school project to their parent (an appropriate behavior) is told how awfully (even if objectively true) they are dressed. This 'put down' is found to be very unpleasant by the child and thus in the long run decreases his doing good schoolwork. [Hint: Better Parental procedure: praise the child for the school project; address his or her dress at a later, more appropriate time].

Important psychological caveats

Use behavioral pinpointing, that is to say, be concrete-specific. Never give general-abstract instructions or comment in general-abstract terms. Never tell a child to "be good" or "do better," rather say: "sit in your chair for the next 15 minutes," or "check the spelling of the words in this line," etc.

Spell out the behavioral contract ahead of time. Tell the child what specific behaviors are expected, or are not to be done, and what the consequences will be. If the child does a 'new' inappropriate behavior or fails to do an appropriate behavior they have previously performed, do not 'shoot from the hip' and say something like: "Ok! No TV this evening!” Rather, tell the child the consequence for the next time the 'infraction' occurs and be sure to follow up. Punishment temporarily decreases or suppresses behavior. Right after applying punishment is the opportunity to catch the child doing something good and reward the child for doing it. This is especially effective if it is a good behavior which would substitute for the inappropriate behavior the child was performing.

Be consistent. Do not give a consequence which will occur and then not follow-up and apply it. Furthermore, for teaching new behaviors or modifying the behavior of children who display inappropriate behavior, there must be no exceptions. The consistency of rewards and punishments must be 100%

Pleasant or unpleasant consequences must be defined from the child's point of view not that of the parent (or teacher). In fact, what a parent may think is pleasant or unpleasant may be quite different from the child's idea. For example, a child may do a good job fixing a broken fence. His/her parent may say "Great! you did such a good job, I'll give you a really challenging job now; you can repair the broken window frame in the living room." The parent may think they are rewarding the child; the child may feel they are being punished by this difficult 'extra' chore. They may feel it is better not to do a good job ever. Why try hard, since more will be loaded on?

Punishments should only be introduced by parents who are in total emotional control. (Morelli, 2005b, 2006c). Not only do anger, anxiety and/or depression prevent parents from effective behavioral management of their children, but children cognitively focus on the inappropriate out-of-control parental emotion and how awful it is to be yelled at, and do not attend to their own good and/or bad behavior and its consequences.

Critical spiritual caveat

Also needing to be overcome are fundamentalist and literal misperceptions of the teachings of Christ and His Church, specifically individualistic interpretations of scripture passages. In the Orthodox Church, scripture comes from tradition and can only be interpreted in union and in conformity with the Holy Spirit-inspired Church. (Morelli, 2009, 2010). If scripture is to be followed literally, without the Holy Spirit inspired Body of Christ, the Orthodox Catholic Church, it is without the Holy Spirit. Christians trace their founding to Jesus Christ, by His sending (descent) of the Holy Spirit on His apostles and disciples at Pentecost. According to St. Paul we know that the teachings of Jesus were understood by Christians by their being sanctified by this same Holy Spirit. St. Paul did much to spread the teachings of Jesus throughout the Roman world and writing to the Corinthians concerning the teachings which Jesus passed in tradition to His Church he says: "I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11:2).

Many who are sincere, well-meaning religious individuals, but who are seriously misguided and not in conformity to the Church, believe that corporal punishment is mandated by Holy Scripture, and that, if they be parents, they would be negligent in not employing corporal punishment in their families. The typical verse quoted in justifying corporal punishment is supposedly from the book of Proverbs: "Spare the rod and spoil the child." This is actually a misquote from the scriptural passage: "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him" (Pv 13: 24). There is another passage from the book of Proverbs which is also quoted in support of corporal punishment: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol" (Pv 23:13-14).

Consider the wisdom of our holy Church Spiritual Father St. Isaac of Syria. Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2000) summarizes St. Isaac's discernment: ". . . the Old Testament understanding of God as a chastiser of sinners . . .does not correspond with the revelation we have received through Christ in the New Testament . . .one should not interpret literally those Old Testament texts. . . .they are being used in a figurative sense. . . ." Thus it is the 'spirit' of the Old Testament message we have to discern in light of the mind of Christ and His Church. The spirit of the "rod" is not its use in corporal beating, but in effective behavior management informed by the science of the day. (Morelli, 2006d).

The Extinction Explosion

The extinction explosion is a result of using negative punishment. As defined above: Negative Punishment (extinction) is the removal, taking away, that is to say subtracting, a pleasant event following a bad (or inadvertently a good) behavior. The result is that the behavior decreases.

The behavior decreases if the removal (of the pleasant event) is consistently applied over whatever time period it takes for the behavior to significantly diminish or disappear completely. However, in practical use of this punishment technique a temporary surge, burst or explosion of inappropriate behavior occurs when the pleasant event is removed.ii This can be so unsettling to a parent that unless they are prepared for this 'explosion' they are likely to give up on the procedure. The child is also learning that they can persist in the behavior and the parent will eventually 'give-in.' Effectually this makes the child's behavior even stronger.

For example, suppose a child is constantly yelling out, a bad behavior, and interrupting his/her parent. Each time the parent would answer the child's query (a pleasant event for the child). If the parent were to be keeping a record of the number of such interruptions and then instituted a negative punishment (extinction) procedure involving not paying any attention at all to the child's interruption, they would note a dramatic increase or burst of the child's bad behavior interruptions. If unprepared for this 'extinction explosion' a parent may well give in and respond again to the child’s inappropriate behavior. The child will continue interrupting. The bad behavior will not only persist, but will more likely be harder to extinguish in the future. Extinction bursts will be more intense and pronounced. On the other hand ,if the parent expects the extinction explosion and is prepared to "wait it out," the bad behavior, as is shown in the graph below, will eventually diminish.

Case study

Extinction explosions can last from several minutes to several hours. One of the most severe clinical cases I had involved a 6 year old male child who due to previous ineffective extinction attempts (one parent was in the field of education and had minimal and inadequate training in use of the procedure) had temper tantrum outbursts which lasted 6-7 hours. His inappropriate behavior included yelling, screaming, throwing objects through glass windows, turning over kitchen and dining table set with dinnerware and food, etc.

Before I had the parents employ an 'effective extinction procedure,' I had to thoroughly train the parents and some extended family members. This training involved a didactic phase explaining all aspects of negative punishment (extinction) and probable consequences (extinction explosion), role playing, an assessment of the home, rearranging furniture and safety-proofing objects. It also involved stripping bare one room in the house which would serve as a "time-out" room (cf. Morelli, 2008a)

Upon the first outburst of a temper tantrum the child would be escorted (or carried) to the time-out room. The door to the room would be held shut by a family member. All family members were instructed not to answer the child at all or open the door until the child was quiet for 5 minutes. Upon opening the door the adult would, in a pleasant tone of voice, praise the child for how 'quiet they are now.' The program was explained to the child. I made myself available for telephone consultation during this week. Family members would take turns holding on to the door handle. The child's first temper tantrum lasted 6 hours. Over the next few days he continued to have temper tantrums, but the time-out period significantly diminished. Within two weeks there were no reports of outbursts. The parents came in for support counseling for consistency in continuing the procedure for several more weeks. A follow-up several months later indicated no more behavioral outbursts.

Body, Mind, Spirit

Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Agelogiou, 1998) reminds earthly physicians: "You must have a practical mind. Generally speaking, every one of us must take advantage of his mind which is a gift from God.”

It must be considered that in the Orthodox tradition the body and the mind, that is to say psychological procedures, do not exist separately from their synergia with the spirit. As St. James tells us:

Is there any one among you suffering? Let him pray . . . .Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (Jas 4:13 - 15).

St. John Chrysostom presented us with the idea that the entire Church of Christ is a hospital, thereby expressing in clearer theological terms the relationship between the healing of body and soul practiced by the early healers. (Morelli, 2006d). A prayer by St. John Chrysostom which is included in "The Book of Needs" concisely states the goal of our earthly life:

O Lord Jesus Christ . . . .We beseech You, look mercifully upon him (or her), and in your great love grant him (or her) relief from his (or her) pain . . .that restored to the vigor of health, he (or she) may . . . serve you faithfully and gratefully all his (or her) life, and become heir of Your Kingdom, For You are the Physician of our souls and bodies, O Christ . . . ."


Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.

Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion (2000) The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Morelli, G. (2005a, September 17). Smart Parenting Part 1. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/smart-parenting-i-raising-well-behaved-children.

Morelli, G. (2005b, October 14). The Beast of Anger. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-the-beast-of-anger.

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/smart-parenting-ii-raising-well-behaved-children.

Morelli, G. (2006b, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-asceticism-and-psychology-in-the-modern-world.

Morelli, G. (2006c, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/smart-parenting-III-developing-emotional-control.

Morelli, G. (2006d, December 21. The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-the-ethos-of-orthodox-christian-healing.

Morelli, G. (2008, May 28) Smart Parenting XII: The Time Out Tool. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/smart-parenting-xii-the-time-out-tool.

Morelli, G. (2008a, June 10). Smart Parenting XIII:Tools for Smart Punishing. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/smart-parenting-xiii-tools-for-smart-punishing.

Morelli, G. (2008b, July, 08). Good Marriage XIII: The Theology of Marriage and Sexuality. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/good-marriage-xiii-the-theology-of-marriage-and-sexuality.

Morelli, G. (2009, September 26). Secularism and the Mind of Christ and the Church: Some Psycho-Spiritual Reflections. http://orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-secularism-and-the-mind-of-christ-and-the-church-some-psycho-spirit

Morelli, G (in press). The Ethos of Orthodox Catechesis: The mind of the Orthodox Church. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/view/morelli-the-ethos-of-orthodox-catechesis.


i Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Reinforcement vs. Punishment

2 The Extinction Explosion (or Extinction Burst)

The Extinction Explosion (or Extinction Burst)

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: December 1, 2101

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