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

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

We are all very aware of how emotionally draining it can be dealing with a child involved in substance abuse. 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.”

Positive reinforcement is 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, we are often not really “starting fresh” each time we see our child, but rather, we are 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 asks 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 in which your child can succeed — for example: 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.

This is 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 (while 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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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:

A Note On “Enabling” vs. Positive Reinforcement

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

2 Responses to this article

  1. Avatar of Ernie
    Ernie / April 26, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    Hi this is really great material.Thanks for sharing

  2. Patti Herndon / October 19, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Thank you so much, Dr. Foote, for expanding on the critical-to-recovery subject of ‘positive reinforcement’.

    From above. And, adding that this is so very well stated:

    “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 (while not overdoing it) will be helpful.”

    We are socially cued in our culture to zero in on, confront, and to put a spotlight on ‘negative behaviors’ when it comes to reacting to substance use disordered individuals/loved ones challenged by addiction. And, a negative/punitive pattern of reaction to ‘every’ thing, or most everything, every choice they make ‘can’ lead to scapegoating the very people we are supposed to be advocating for/encouraging. Scapegoating will only serve to further undermine an already-struggling sense of self efficacy in the individual trying to figure out ‘how’ to problem solve their way out, how to improve their life/their life management skill set/their choices related to using substances to cope with their negative feelings, emotions, and narratives regarding their life.

    And, let’s face it…WE KNOW NO PERSON ‘truly’ desires/looks forward to living their days chained to coping with alcohol or other drugs -experiencing the emotional, physical, financial, legal, and relational collateral damage that follows tandem.

    We can utilize that knowing about the people we know and love who are challenged by addiction. We can extrude so much recovery-purposed energy for ourselves, and for the purpose of healthy support of our substance used disordered loved one by doing some ‘conscious’ work on our own system of reason, logic, faith and belief -those thought processes, on our part, that would support the idea that ‘they can’t possibly do EVERYTHING wrong’. Because the fact is, that would be highly improbable -mathematically speaking.

    Sometimes we just can’t see the good stuff against the back drop of the negative stuff. And, because of this commonly-occurring ‘blind spot’; We, as parent advocates, really are charged with working to be more consciously aware in looking for, in expanding our scope to include recognition of the positives that our substance-using loved one, or our addicted loved one is, very likely, exhibiting -all along the way. In addition, whatever value we assess to those positives -however big or small or in between ‘we’ perceive the positives to be- and how we choose to acknowledge/respond is on us as parents and other CSOs.

    Thank you again for your family system-building, recovery-serving, insight-providing information.

    In relation to the subject here: Comment from July 25 that regards ‘enabling vs positive reinforcement’:

    “We know that people do not develop ‘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.

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