What does it take for kids who struggle with destructive behaviors to change their lives? This is a question every parent of a struggling teen asks. Depression, anxiety, active drug use, and violent outbursts seem like impossible challenges to overcome. A recent National Public Radio (NPR) segment by Alix Spiegel, “What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits” got us thinking.
The report describes how a group of heroin addicted servicemen about to return home from Vietnam were kept there until they dried out. After returning to the U.S., about 95% of them stayed drug-free for the 1st year. This is in striking contrast to present day statistics where only about 10% of people stay ‘clean’ after completing rehab programs. So, how was this possible? What helped these soldiers to overcome their addictions?
Upon returning to the U.S., the soldiers were no longer living in an environment in which the habit of drug use was a part of their daily routine. With a disruption to the environment, behavior change followed. When addicted individuals complete rehab and return to the same environment, the likelihood of a return to past drug using behavior is high. Social scientists have long argued that providing treatment in a vacuum, without also “treating” the environment to which the person is returning is a recipe for certain relapse. The addicted individual, the family and the community must all be engaged in order to affect lasting change.
According to Wendy Wood, a behavioral psychologist cited in the NPR piece, “in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s scientists thought that if you wanted to change behavior, the key was to change people’s goals and intentions.” New research invalidates the idea that goals and intentions alone are enough to affect lasting behavioral change, especially when the unhealthy behavior has been repeated a lot. Another behavioral psychologist, David Neal, further explains that behavior doesn’t necessarily follow intention, which is why even when struggling kids want to change, they often have such a hard time doing so. Disrupting the environment, and practicing the new, healthy behavior in a different setting is a more likely catalyst for lasting change.
But changing the setting doesn’t necessarily mean the teen has to leave his or her home or current school. Even small shifts in the environment can lead to healthy changes in behavior. This is good news for kids who seek change but lack the skills to make it happen. By engaging with motivated kids to understand the factors that impede change, parents can help adjust the environment to promote success. For instance, is social media getting in the way of homework completion? Is lack of sleep affecting school performance? Is peer pressure causing anxiety? Setting limits on phone access, renegotiating bedtime routines and providing education about positive peer relationships may do the trick.
But what does this mean for kids who lack intention or motivation to change their lives? What can parents do to promote behavior change?
Here are some thoughts:
- If we want to change, but our environment remains the same, the old destructive patterns will keep undermining our efforts.
- We have to consciously build and maintain new behaviors. When bad habits have been repeated a lot, new healthy behaviors need to be practiced a lot.
- Change is not linear. There will be setbacks. Plan fresh strategies for how you will react to the failures as well as the successes.
- Engagement in the process of change is critical; threatening your kid is not likely to yield satisfying results. Fear is rarely a good motivator!
- Parents (and siblings) are also part of the environment. Helping kids to overcome unhealthy behavior means dealing with our own (and our other children’s) issues head-on.
- If you are planning to move to another house, town, or even another country, establish new healthy patterns right away. Don’t wait to start your new life until you are settled or your old behavior will travel with you.
- Short-term environmental changes like sending kids to summer camp or an Outward Bound program may be useful in teaching new skills and altering perspective. When kids come home, it is important not to fall into old patterns.
- Sometimes, when the environment is too damaging (bad friends, poor family relations, traumatic memories, all resources exhausted) a new physical environment may be necessary. A therapeutic school, wilderness program, treatment facility or another setting may be the environmental shift your family needs in order to realize lasting change.
Comments and opinions are welcome.