The NY Times article “Train a Parent, Spare a Child” (1/11/2013) illustrates some excellent points we want to applaud and help apply these concepts to helping your family change their substance use.
First, let’s detail the main points of the article and use that as a framework for how to think about behavior change. The article points out four main points about how to help people (specifically children) do specific behaviors.
1. Break it Down!
Most behaviors we want to see more of in a loved one are more complicated than they might first appear. It can be useful to break down a desired behavior into component parts which can then be rewarded (or “shaped” as behaviorists would call it) in the progress toward the more complicated desired behavior. In the article, he uses the example of getting his kids to eat vegetables:
“First, take the pressure off by telling them they don’t have to eat vegetables now but just keep them on their plate. “You tell them they’re probably going to want to eat vegetables when they’re older, because there’s a nice little challenge in there,” he said.
Then you offer a point to whomever can put the least amount of vegetables on their fork. The next day you have a competition for who can touch the fork to their tongue and you escalate from there.”
This example illustrates well how one might also tackle more complicated problems. If the goal is for your child to increase their grades, there are numerous smaller parts to achieve that goal: the daily time spent in homework effort, class attendance, time spent reading, weekly quiz performance, etc. Depending on the class topic, it might be helpful to break the task down even further.
2. Intrinsic Motivation
The other piece of that vegetable example that is so critical is about tapping into something of inherent (or natural) interest that can be paired with the desired behavior. In this example, the suggestion is to make a game of eating a new vegetable, making a competition out of it, or adding a dexterity challenge that makes the eating of vegetables more appealing overall. Appealing to someone’s inherent interests is one of the cornerstones of the CRAFT approach that we use with families (see part II of this article) when a parent is dealing with the infinitely more complicated issue of a child abusing substances.
3. Rewards and Consequences Are a Part of Life (and you are your child’s life!)
One thing the article does not say explicitly, but is important to remember (and helps you to not feel guilty for using this approach of rewarding good behavior!) is that getting something positive after doing something difficult, challenging or unpleasant is the structure of many pieces of adult life! Would you work out if there were no benefits? Would you work 50 hours a week without a paycheck? Likewise, do you feel better about eating that ice cream desert when you know you had a healthy meal earlier (or for several days in advance)?
In some ways, teaching children this basic metric is helpful in preparation for how to motivate themselves to do things that are not always easy to get themselves to do. In the future the world will be providing more of the “rewards” for positive behavior to your child, but for now, you are their world.
4. Notice The Good Stuff!
The other important point this article notes is the critical – and frequently under-rated and under-utilized by stressed parents – valuable nature of PRAISE. Who doesn’t appreciate and feel good about being praised for something specific and real they did? Not (as the article also notes as problematic) making general comments about character or about things the child does not actually feel control over. It’s the difference would be between saying something like, “Great grade! You’re so smart!” vs. “Hey all that extra time studying really paid off with that grade! Good job with that effort!” They are both nice, acknowledging comments one would call Praise, but the first is vague and non-descript, while the second is specific to the particular efforts of the child and will have a more positive impact (ie., will help him/her to feel capable of the hard work required to get a good grade in the future).
In part II of this article, we will take these concepts and apply them to substance use and how to help your child change their use patterns.