Teenage boy exhibiting challenging behaviors and struggling with mental health.

Using Behavior Chains to Understand Your Teen’s Behavior

A behavior chain is a tool to help teenagers understand why they are doing, saying, and thinking certain things. A behavior chain can be used to help identify what is contributing to behaviors your adolescent wants to change, as well as ways to build more effective behaviors. Behavior chain analysis is a component of treatment for different mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety, and is a central treatment technique in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Breaking Down Behavior

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re often engaging in behavior because it serves a purpose, or function. In order to successfully change that behavior, it’s helpful if we first understand why we’re doing it. A behavior chain analysis is a tool to help identify the sequence of events that led up to the behavior we want to change, as well as the consequences after engaging in the behavior that are maintaining it or reinforcing it. 

How to do a Behavior Chain Analysis

1. Label the behavior. 

The first step of a behavior chain is identifying the behavior you want to change. Be as specific as possible. 

2. Identify what led up to the behavior. 

What was happening right before you engaged in the behavior? What thoughts were going through your head? What physical sensations were you experiencing? What emotions were you feeling? Thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations are all individual links in the chain.

3. Notice how you felt when engaging in the behavior. 

What emotions did you experience in the moment?

4. Pay attention to the consequences of the behavior. 

Pay attention to both the immediate, short-term consequences as well as the long-term consequences. Also pay attention to how your behavior impacted the people around you. These consequences reinforce the behavior, or keep the behavior going.

5. Find places to make changes. 

Were there points leading up to the behavior that you could use different coping strategies or make different choices? Using coping strategies or making different choices allows you to break the chain and stop the sequence of events leading up to the behavior you want to change.

A Behavior Chain Example

You notice your teen seems extra tired and irritable on school mornings and that their grades are slipping, despite spending a good amount of time on their homework every night. When you ask, they tell you that “everything’s fine” and they’re getting all their work done, they just have a lot to do. In instances like these, going through a behavior chain analysis together can help both you and your adolescent figure out what the problem is, and in doing so, find the best ways to solve it.

  1. Labeling the behavior: 
    a. Starting homework an hour past the desired start time.
  2. Identifying what led up to the behavior. 
    a. Emotions: Anxiety
    b. Thoughts: I can’t do this, I can’t get everything done, there’s no way I can finish everything
    c. Physical sensations: Nausea, stomach pain
  3. Noticing how you felt engaging in the behavior.
    a. Relieved and less anxious when I didn’t start my homework after the alarm went off
  4. Consequences of the behavior.
    a. Short-term: In the moment, I felt much better.
    b. Long-term: I was a lot more anxious and overwhelmed when I realized how late it was and how much I still had to do. I had to stay up late to get everything done and I felt worse the next day. I was so tired the next day it was even harder to start my homework on time.
  5. Identifying areas to change.
    a. I could do my homework downstairs instead of in my room, so you can help me get started. 
    b. I could ask a friend to come over after school and we could work on the homework together.
    c. I could leave my phone downstairs until I finish my homework so I’m less likely to get distracted. 

You can use behavior chains to help both you and your adolescent understand and begin to change their behaviors. In addition to school work, other areas behavior chains can be helpful include breaking down tough interpersonal interactions, understanding why your teen is feeling certain emotions, and discovering what led up to them engaging in impulsive behaviors to name a few. If you work to approach behavior chains with curiosity and nonjudgmentalness, this can help lower your teen’s defensiveness and help them to be more open in sharing with you.

What’s the Difference Between a Behavior Chain Analysis and a Task Analysis?

While a behavior chain analysis is often used to determine the steps leading up to a specific behavior, a task analysis is often used to break down complex behavior into smaller, more manageable tasks. For example, say you wanted your teen to help take care of the family pet but this is something they haven’t done before. Breaking down the task into smaller steps can help them understand the process as a whole and make sure they don’t miss anything. 

Example of Task Analysis: Feeding the dog

  1. At 5pm, take the food bowl to the counter
  2. Open the pantry and take out the dog food
  3. Use the scoop inside the bag to scoop out one cup of food
  4. Pour the food into the bowl
  5. Put the scoop back inside the bag and close the bag
  6. Return the bag to the pantry
  7. Set the bowl down by the dog’s water bowl
  8. Pick up the water bowl and take it to the sink
  9. Pour out the old water and fill it with fresh water
  10. Place the water bowl by the food bowl

How detailed you make the steps depends on your adolescent’s age, experience doing the task before or tasks similar to the one you want them to do, and the skills they currently have that are transferable to this task.

Managing Difficult Behaviors

If you or your teen are struggling to manage their moods or behaviors, know that you are not alone and there is help available for you. 

The fastest way to find relief is to connect to a licensed professional who specializes in evidence-based care, like the clinicians at Joon Care. Behavior chain analysis is a treatment tool that’s used often to help teens understand their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

If you’d like to explore therapy options and see how Joon Care can support you and your teen, you can help them get matched with a therapist or email us at hello@joon.com.

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July 24, 2023
Lauren Hammond, PhD | Clinical Psychologist and Senior Clinical Care Manager

Lauren Hammond, PhD | Clinical Psychologist and Senior Clinical Care Manager

Lauren Hammond, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Hammond provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatments from a cognitive-behavioral framework, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Prolonged Exposure. Dr. Hammond has specialized training in treating mood and anxiety disorder, trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, and self-harm and suicidality.

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