Target Behaviors & Behavior Chain Analysis

DBT Self Help - Behavior Chain

Behavior Chain Analysis is a huge part of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Most folks in DBT have at least one “Target Behavior.” It’s a behavior you want to decrease in your life. It could be anything from self-harm to chronic lateness. It’s important to address these behaviors and be honest about them in treatment because they can interfere with your progress in recovery.

Target Behaviors

There are several levels of Target Behaviors. There are life-threatening behaviors like self-harm. Then there are therapy-interfering behaviors like coming late to session. Quality of life interfering behaviors are things that make your life feel worse, like oversleeping. Then it gets more positive. You then want to increase behavioral skills that you learn in DBT, and create your Life Worth Living. As you address your Target Behaviors and move up this pyramid, your adaptive functioning will increase. That means you will get more skillful and your life will improve.

Behavior Chains

DBT programs generally require a behavior chain each time an interfering Target Behavior is used. Whether it’s in group or individual therapy, you’ll find yourself doing quite a few of these. Don’t be late or forget your Diary Card!

The idea behind behavior chains is that your behavior is the culmination of a whole chain of events and feeling. It was started by something that triggered emotions which triggered body sensations and actions and so on and so forth. It’s a bit like dominoes in the way that one tipped domino leads to the tipping of the rest. The goal is to learn how and where to step in to stop the rest of the dominoes from tipping.

The steps of a behavior chain are as follows:

  1. Describe your problem behavior.
    • Be very specific and detailed.
    • Identify exactly what you did, said, thought, or felt.
    • Describe the intensity of the behavior.
  2. Describe the specific precipitating event that triggered the chain of behavior.
    • Start with the environmental event that started the chain, even if it doesn’t seem like the event caused the behavior.
    • Ask yourself these questions:
      1. What exact event precipitated the start of the chain reaction?
      2. When did this sequence of events begin?
      3. What was going on the moment the problem behavior started?
      4. What were you doing, thinking, feeling, or imagining at that time?
      5. Why did the problem behavior happen today instead of yesterday?
  3. Describe the vulnerability factors happening before the precipitating event.
    • What factors made you more vulnerable to the chain?
    • Examine these areas:
      1. Physical illness, unbalanced sleep or eating, injury
      2. Substance use
      3. Stressful events in the environment
      4. Intense emotions
      5. Previous behaviors of your own that you found stressful
  4. Describe in detail the chain of events that led up to the behavior.
    • Imagine each event is a link in a chain. Follow and record all the links. A link can be a thought, emotion, sensation, or behavior. Include everything you can think of as a link.
  5. What are the consequences of this behavior?
    • How did other people react?
    • How did you feel right after the behavior? Later?
    • What effect did the behavior have on you and your environment?
  6. Describe in detail different solutions to the problem.
    • Return to your behavior chain and circle each point where you could intervene to get a different outcome.
    • Brainstorm things you could do differently to prevent the behavior from happening next time. What skill could you use?
  7. Describe in detail the prevention strategy.
    • How could you keep the chain from starting by reducing your vulnerability factors?
  8. Describe what you are going to do to repair important or significant consequences of the behavior.

A Note on “Should”

Behavior Chains can often come with the language of “should.” It can become about what you “should’ve” done to intervene and stop the behavior rather than what you could do next time. DBT is not about “shoulds” in fact it’s actively anti-should. Try to talk about your behavior chain in the language of what you will do next time instead of changing the past.


  • Use these worksheets to work through your behavior chains and identify your target behaviors.

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