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A Note On “Enabling” vs. Positive Reinforcement

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By Jeffrey Foote, PhD, Co-founder and Clinical Director at Center for Motivation & Change

If you are a partner, parent or child of someone struggling with substance problems, and you live in America, you’ve probably heard this word “enabling” (possibly many, many times). And you’ve probably heard this described as central to your interactions in helping your loved one. Mostly, you have heard “DON’T DO IT”!, and if you are like most concerned family members, you feel vaguely guilty for doing something you’re not even sure you are doing (but you must be, right?).

By way of quick review, “enabling” actually means doing positive things that will end up supporting continued negative behavior, such as providing your child with money so they won’t “go hungry” during the day, knowing they use it to buy pot. Another example is going to talk to your child’s teacher to make sure she doesn’t get a bad grade, even though her bad test score was due to drinking. Or calling your husband’s work to explain he’s sick today, when he’s actually hung over.

These are examples of doing something “nice” for your loved one that actually (from a behavioral reinforcement standpoint) might increase the frequency of the negative behavior, not decrease it. The logic: if they act badly and nothing happens, or something good happens, this behavior is encouraged, even if what you are doing is “nice”. This IS enabling, and this is not helpful in changing behavior in a positive direction.

But everything nice is not enabling! And that’s the quicksand we have developed in our culture. Staying connected, rewarding positive behaviors with positivity, being caring and loving; these things are critical to positive change.

So what’s the difference? Positive reinforcement is doing “nice” things in response to positive behavior. Simple as that. When your loved one wakes up on time in the morning, when he takes his sister to school, when she texts you tell you she’ll be late, when he doesn’t smoke pot on Friday night, when he helps you make dinner instead of going for a quick drink with the boys on the way home. These are positive actions, and acknowledging them, rewarding them, being happy about them, is a GOOD thing, not enabling.

Enabling is a meaningful concept. It’s just overused to the point that families often feel their loving and caring is the problem. IT’S NOT! Caring about and staying connected in a helping way with someone dealing with substances is not only helpful, it’s one of the most powerful motivators for change.

To restate the slogan: Attach with love — just love the positive actions and step away from the negative.

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The Center for Motivation & Change (CMC) is a unique, NYC-based private group practice of dedicated clinicians and researchers providing non-ideological, evidence-based, effective treatment of addictive disorders and other compulsive behaviors. CMC’s treatment approach is informed by a strong commitment to both the humanity and the science of change, providing a unique, compelling, and inspiring environment in which to begin the process of change. Staffed by a group of experienced psychologists, CMC takes pride in their collective record of clinical research and administrative experience but most of all are driven by an optimism about people’s capacity to change and a commitment to the science of change.

Learn more about Center for Motivation & Change and read about our unique and effective approach to treating addictive disorders, and meet CMC’s directorial staff and clinical staff. To find more resources for families, please see our Parent’s 20 Minute Guide, and our Family Blog.  And to learn more about CRAFT, see our CRAFT Family Services page. Find us on Facebook and Twitter for additional content and the latest updates.

Previous CMC Collaboration Posts:

Caring for Yourself in Order to Care for Someone Else

The CRAFT Approach: Encouraging Healthy, Constructive, Positive Changes for Your Family

Announcing a New Collaboration: Exploring Alternative Approaches to Dealing with a Loved One’s Addiction

2 Responses to this article

  1. Patti Herndon / August 19, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Foote, for the much needed spot light on how positive reinforcement has a preferred impact on recovery/healthy change process. I hope you will write more on how we parents can learn about the differences between positive and negative reinforcement as it relates to behavioral change in the recovery journey.

    Despite what we hear from some folks that clearly reflects a negative, inaccurate viewpoint about the term ‘enabling’ and about how people are influenced to make healthy change; We are beginning to learn that positive reinforcement has an advantage over negative reinforcement when it comes to supporting and responding to our son/daughter with a substance use disorder.

    I so appreciate your frame: “love the positive actions and step away from the negative”. I’m going to repeat that often. It’s exactly what we need to hear.
    That is not to say that negative reinforcement has no place in recovery/behavioral change. But, when it comes to addiction, we have been socially cued to focus on negative reinforcement as a means of response to the challenges associated with behavioral change much more than we have focused on the benefit of positive reinforcement…and that’s not good. It’s not balanced. We need balance.

    I think a common problem in our culture, as it relates to perspectives about addiction, is that we parents mistake ‘punitive’ and ‘negative’ reinforcement. In addition, there is certainly no shortage of well intended, very specific advisements being offered to parents about what we should and should not do in response to the challenges associated with addiction, and the behaviors that our son/daughter is exhibiting. We are quick to offer advisements to fellow parents in the absence of information regarding the specific family need/the individual family dynamic, as well as in the absence of having a bearing on the physical and mental health status of the son/daughter with the substance use disorder. And advisements taken and implemented that don’t consider the specific, individual circumstances may not be appropriate or even safe in every situation.

    Often times these specific advisements are coming from other parents who are, themselves, stressed and who are under the influence of their own unmanaged anger/anxiety related to their circumstances … and, so, consequently, the advisement(s) to a fellow parent don’t necessarily serve that parent’s discernment about what might be helpful in ‘their’ specific circumstances. I have a personal rule: I don’t advise other parents, specifically, beyond: Don’t give cash or credit card. Don’t make addictive substances available in your home…including otc meds, like cough syrup etc. We parents are best served when we are making determinations that consider our individual circumstances on a day to day, case by case basis. And we can get more and more confident about our decision making in response to the challenges of addiction as we learn more and more about how the change process occurs/how recovery occurs, and how we can apply that learning to our specific son/daughters needs and strengths, as well as the needs/strengths of our individual family system.

    We know that people do not develop an ‘immunity’ to positive reinforcement. Our genuine caring and connectedness, our noticing and acknowledging the choices that our kids make –the ones that demonstrate they are trying to make healthier choices and decisions- will ALWAYS serve their healthier and healthier change process/their recovery. There is no such thing as ‘too late’ where this kind of reinforcement is concerned. Sometimes we don’t notice these subtle strides by our kids to choose better/to choose healthier because we are stuck in a pattern of focus on all the ‘bad’ choices they have made. We have been through a hell of a lot, after all, in witnessing our child choose to harm themselves through their use of substances for coping with their daily life, and in our trying to deal with the collateral damage that impacts our life in the wake of these choices. So, it makes a lot of sense, it’s understandable that we parents are at increased risk of allowing our own angst -fears/stress/anger/worry-to distract us from the so-called ‘little stuff’ our kids are likely doing/choosing, against the backdrop of the ‘bad’ decisions they make associated with drug use, that demonstrate that they are ‘trying’ to make healthier choices. It’s just that these little things are not ‘little’ at all. These little things they are doing reflect big thinking on their part -a desire to be healthier/choose healthier. We need to be aware of these choices on their part…We need to encourage…tell them we notice and support these kinds of choices every time they are exhibited. We need to remind ourselves that that they are having a difficult time, too, in this journey to discovery. It’s a difficult road for both parents and their kids -All the more reason to accentuate the positive.
    ?
    Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

  2. AddictionMyth / July 29, 2013 at 9:19 am

    Enabling is very counter productive. But unfortunately by the time an addiction has developed, the child may be immune to positive reinforcement, or may not display much positive behavior to be reinforced. So then what?

    Often children crave discipline, even if they protest it. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and follow through with consequences. Hopefully it’s not too late.

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