THE BLOG
02/11/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

The Importance of Modeling the Behavior You Want to See

I work in the field of addictions. Most of the addicts I treat report having discovered alcohol or drugs at a very young age, 11 or 12. Teenage years aren't easy, but when a teenager discovers that alcohol or drugs take the edge off their anxiety, gives them that little shot of courage that they feel they need or provides them with a sense of belonging, it can begin a life long habit of reaching for a synthetic solution to solve and emotional problem. One in four children live with an alcoholic parent. Many of those adults discovered drugs and alcohol when they were young.

Over 26% of 12-20-year-olds report drinking in the past month, and up to 90% of those drinking report doing so in a binge-drinking episode.

When I talked to authors of Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change Dr Jeff Foote, Dr Carrie Wilkens and Dr Nicole Kosanke, they each had some things to say that struck a chord with me. Dr. Kosanke said:

Many parents turn to professionals thinking that when their teen hears about the dangers of drug use from someone else, they will be swayed, but the truth is that usually, it's the parents' behavior that have much more impact on a teen's behavior. Will he stop showing up late to school because a therapist convinced him it was the right thing to do or because his parent stopped writing excuses for him and the detention assignments started piling up?

We're living in an age where parents all too often feel that they have no impact or control when it comes to their teenage kids. Not so, say the authors of Beyond Addiction; parents have much more influence than they think. These authors feel that while "therapists can help in a lot of ways, the parents have considerably more leverage in the day-to-day life of their child. Motivation for any behavior increases when the benefits begin to outweigh the costs," says Wilkens.

And parents have a lot more access to the daily benefits a child feels from engaging in one behavior as opposed to another. Will she start practicing gymnastics after school instead of smoking pot with friends because her therapist convinced her to or because her parent agreed to send her to an out-of-state competition if she performed well enough by the end of semester?

The authors feel that contingencies (rewards, consequences, positive reinforcement in general) have a lot more power than parents may realize as kids get older. It's understandable that parents increasingly treat teens like adults, thinking they should be able to reason with them more and more like adults -- but actually, "those more simple actions of paying attention and rewarding good behaviors while setting limits around negative behaviors can have greater impact than a 'reasonable' conversation," according to Kosanke. The value of that daily contact, interaction and attunement means much in a kids life than we may realize when they're pushing us away and telling how much they don't need us.

And modeling plays a huge role. What kids see us doing is a much stronger message than what we tell them to do. "Do you say, 'I'm so stressed out today, I'm going to take a run before starting dinner,' or 'I'm so stressed out today, I really need a drink'?" asks Foote. Or what about positive reinforcement, Foote asks. "Do you notice the majority of days he gets home early and starts in on the homework or only comment on when he comes home late? Parents' daily interest and attention can, he says, "have a much greater impact on a teenager than a "heart-to-heart" discussion about the dangers of marijuana".

Kosane says:

If only it were true that a really convincing phrase or argument could convince a teen they shouldn't smoke pot... in their worry, and at times desperation, parents seek out this perfect way of "getting through" to their kids, but in the process might miss the most powerful factor to influence kids right in their own backyard: their relationship!

"Parents tend to swoop in," according to Jeff Foote:

Getting involved when they get really anxious about something, but then when the crisis seems to die down, they disengage again, making a pendulum swing from one extreme of involvement to the other, which creates some havoc in the motivation of the teen -- getting inconsistent messages about what consequences and benefits are for certain behaviors (both good and bad). This kind of "drive-by" parenting does not offer the consistent modeling and attunement that all children need in order to internalize good habits. So don't underestimate how much you can impact your kids, even if they are taking daily pains to make you feel unimportant. It's really just that you're so important that they have to give a mighty shove in order to gain courage to some day take on the daunting task of becoming a separate person.

The authors have written about a resource that they hope will help parents to make good choices vis a vis their kids called CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), initially developed by Dr Robert Meyers. CRAFT is an affirming, pulling together approach for families with substance-abusing loved ones. It's especially helpful when that loved one is not so interested in changing themselves! It includes new ways to think about the problem and new ways to act -- communication strategies, positive reinforcement, allowing negative consequences and good self-care on the part of the family member. The bottom line is that family members are empowered to leverage things in their control to influence their loved one while they also learn to take better care of themselves -- which is also a great form of role-modeling.

Another resource is the Parent Support Network, which is a free hotline funded by the Partnership at http://Drugfree.org...
The hot line is staffed by parents who have been trained to coach CRAFT skills and have had real life experiences with their kids. So if you're worried about your kid, don't worry alone, pick up the phone or click on a resource and see if there are some steps you can take today, that will strengthen your kid's chances for a better tomorrow.