“Catch ‘Em Being Good”: The Magic of Positive Reinforcement

January 7, 2013

We are all very aware of how emotionally draining it can be dealing with a child involved in abusing substances. We’re all also aware of how much conflict this leads to in families. Today’s focus? Positive reinforcement as an antidote. As our colleague (and father of CRAFT, or Community Reinforcement and Family Training) Bob Meyers likes to say, “catch ‘em being good”.

It’s so important, and it encapsulates so well the spirit and strategy of CRAFT, with people of all ages, but particularly with adolescents. Why? Because in dealing with our substance using adolescent, it helps remind us to pull in the opposite direction of what we often feel. We feel angry, disappointed, hurt etc, and we carry that around, letting it spill over from situation to situation, so that we are often not really “starting fresh” each time we see our child, but bringing the garbage back in from the garbage can to start the discussion. And that history then dictates the next interaction, through our facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and most importantly our expectation of what we are going to hear. This is the epitome of “catching ‘em being bad” thinking!

What CRAFT is asking us to do is to reverse this and start a pattern of expectation and interaction that is the opposite: let’s work hard at CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT YOUR CHILD CAN SUCCEED IN, (e.g. getting home from school on time, cleaning (somewhat) their room one day on the weekend), and then let’s NOTICE WHEN THEY GET IT RIGHT. It’s the closest thing to magic we can present you with in helping effect behavior change, because the impact can be pretty dramatic. In effect, you are going against well-worn expectations and patterns of interaction, and the difference jumps off the page to those around you. People (including your adolescent!) respond well to being noticed, being told they have done well, being validated. This IS positive reinforcement: giving them positive strokes when they have performed well.

One of the tricky parts about this is that emotional hangover problem again: as parents, you can feel so beaten up by the situation (his third suspension from school, his second DUI, the 100th yelling fight late at night) that you not only don’t notice the positive actions they may take, you don’t feel they have done enough to deserve praise. It’s sort of like an emotional math equation: “they are so far in the red, one little positive act doesn’t get them back in the black, and it certainly doesn’t get them praise”. While that makes emotional math sense, it doesn’t help so much in inching toward change. We are not by any means suggesting that “all is forgotten” for any small act of change, but each small act in and of itself does merit attention; each small change actually is a step in the right direction, and the extent to which you can promote those steps (not overdoing it) will be helpful. And we are particularly fond of the catch’ em being good concept because it not only conveys a different way of looking at things, it reminds us to do something that we may have largely forgotten: notice the positive, before it slips back underwater.

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