If you are someone who would like to help a loved one change their relationship with substances, there are 4 essential tools you can learn. First, Helping through Understanding or thinking about issues of addiction differently using the science we now have available. Second, Helping with Self Care as you need to be able to survive and thrive while trying to help. Third, Helping with Words or learning positive communication strategies that shift the conversation from negative to positive. And Fourth, Helping with Actions which are usually using positive reinforcement strategies.
Another Helping with Actions tool however, is to let your loved one learn from their mistakes…or what Bob Meyers (the creator of Community Reinforcement and Family Training – CRAFT) calls letting some “natural occurring consequences” happen. In other words, don’t soften all the negative outcomes of your loved one’s choices to use substances…instead, let the world be their teacher.
While finding ways to acknowledge and reinforce POSITIVE behaviors is a key element of almost all of the most effective behavioral change strategies, anyone involved in trying to help someone change, needs to effectively respond to NEGATIVE behaviors. In other words, when your loved one is doing something negative (like sleeping late and missing things, not helping around the house, being rude or aggressive, using drugs or alcohol etc), let them experience the negative consequences that are a direct result of their actions or choices.
What are some “naturally occurring consequences?” Here are a few examples:
- When you don’t show up for work, your manager and colleagues are mad.
- When you get overly drunk at a party, your friends may express concern.
- When you miss you son’s hockey practice because you overslept, you can feel embarrassed and have to make it up to him.
This is the real world voting on your loved one’s actions and choices. Do their choices get them what they want or not?
There is lots of research that shows people really DO start to change when the outcome of their actions is not pleasant or enjoyable for them. Allowing for naturally occurring negative consequences to happen is one way to allow that process to happen.
While it can be painful to let your loved one feel the rough edges, these consequences are the actual outcomes of their behavior, not a filtered version of it. Unfortunately, many significant others (that’s you!) end up making themselves the “negative consequence”. As they buffer or protect their loved one from the outcome of their choices (e.g., getting them cleaned up and into bed instead of leaving them passed out in their clothes on the floor), their loved one never experiences any of the natural outcomes of their behavior (like a lecture from their boss or an upset son – two things that might be really meaningful for them). Instead, they have a partner or parent who is expressing lots of upset and anger, in addition to lecturing and trying to control the situation. The outcome unfortunately is that your loved one doesn’t really learn how the larger world feels or reacts to their decisions. In their mind, YOU are the problem (“my wife is a nag and a drama queen” or “my dad is such a control freak”). They don’t really ever make the link between THEIR actions and real world outcomes . . . those instructive naturally occurring consequences. Unfortunately, they may also turn to substance to help tune you out or block any feelings they have about your reactions. We are not noting this to blame you, but simply to describe a common response that leads to the exact behavior you are hoping to reduce.
When you step back and think about it, it makes sense: if a person never experiences what we would call “natural consequences” for their negative behaviors (i.e. what the world dishes back when you act badly), there’s NO REASON for them to stop the behavior. There is no need to change.
An important note . . . there are some consequences you really can’t allow, like letting your partner or child drive drunk instead of figuring out other transportation for instance. Take some time to examine the potential consequences for yourself and decide what you can allow.
It is CRUCIAL, however, to figure it out so that you aren’t just reflexively “protecting” your loved one from the reality of how their choices play out in the real world, which interferes with learning and growing. Your job is to figure out which negative consequences will “speak for themselves”, and then get out of the way.
One last note:
Softening the rough edges of naturally occurring consequences, of what would happen if you didn’t step in the way, IS enabling. It takes away some of the teaching power of life experiences and the world outside of your home. It doesn’t however make you a horrible person if you do it…even though we know if feels that way when someone tells you that you are enabling.
In our view, the bigger problem is that many people have gotten the message that being loving and supportive is enabling. It’s not! Withdrawing your positive attention…even when your loved one is sober, or engaged in the family in a good way, creates a negative environment for everyone.
You just have to be thoughtful in how you respond to different aspects of your loved one’s behavior. Rewarding POSITIVE behaviors is GREAT, and will move your them in the direction of continuing those positive behaviors. Letting some of the naturally occurring consequences unfold will give them a sense of how their choices play out in the real world, not just with you.