Our Future: The Strong-Willed Kid

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“I like my pants dirty.”
“I don’t care what you like, you aren’t going to wear grass-stained pants to dinner!”
“It isn’t grass, it’s marker!”
“I don’t care what it is! Change your pants!”
“No. I’m not hungry anyways.”

Ah, strong-willed kids.

If you have, or have been around, a strong-willed kid then you know exactly what I am talking about. The next few posts will be geared towards parenting these talented children. These kids are our most promising leaders. They are my absolute favorite group to work with.

For those of you who have never heard this term – a strong-willed kid is a child that refuses to be told what to do, demands to be heard and embraces debating. They can be exhausting to parent, because they can, and will, argue every step of the way. I mean

every

step

of

the

way.

I don’t think I can empathize enough their uncanny ability to debate. They know exactly how to pull adults in to their devious arguments, and oh that laugh they do when you show them your frustration. That laugh is priceless. Or maybe it’s just a smile, a glint in their eyes they get when they know they got to you.

 

You know that look I’m talking about. The one that makes you feel like an utter failure at adulting.

 

These kids are also highly dedicated to what they are passionate about though. When they have a brilliant idea there is absolutely no stopping them. The amount of energy they are willing to put into getting what they want is awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, their defiant streak can quickly lead them down a destructive path.

Fear-based tactics tend to escalate these kids. They will gladly suffer the consequences to prove a point. Often times, their point is that you can’t control them.

 

 

These kids existed 50 years ago as well so please don’t tell me how it’s because modern parents are soft. These kids were the rebels; the high school drop-outs; the runaways and the juvenile delinquents. I guarantee Fonzie from Happy Days was a strong-willed kiddo. But, if you remember, Fonzie had a good heart and was loyal to his friends. So are these kids. These kids will go to bat for what they believe is right.

 

Parenting them is about shaping and molding these strengths into behaviors that are more productive than arguing over what the stain on their pants is from. Sometimes parents describe these strategies as “manipulation”. I prefer the terms: shape, or mold – words that thesauras.com describes as synonyms to “manipulate”. But yes, ultimately, the strategies are to manipulate kids into doing what you want them to do. This is no different than using coercive, punitive tactics that are fear-based forms of manipulating; either way, your goal is to get your child to do something.

The difference is in the end result. Subtle, positive reinforcement based strategies tend to result in win-wins, while punitive measures always result in someone experiencing a negative emotion. Often times, both walk away upset. Think about the last time you got into a power struggle with your child – afterwards, did you really feel accomplished? Or were you still ruminating about the argument, even if you had “won”?
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Literally, differences exist between handstands and standing on your hands

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Would you rather is another question game, similar to The Question Game I previously wrote about. While I’ve never played it according to the rules and regulations, it’s another fun way I garner crumbs of information and laughs with kids.

 

Quite simply, you ask a question and supply two options (forced choices).

 

Would you rather be a superhero or a villain?

 

Would you rather eat chocolate covered grasshoppers or ants?

 

Would you rather be able to fly or breathe underwater?

 

…..and why? Again, that judgmental little why question – and yes, it means they have to defend their answer.

 

I was playing this game yesterday and asked “Would you rather stand on your head or your hands?”

 

The response was – “My hands, of course.”

 

The of course intrigued me – see, for me, either one would be an impossibility at this point in my life – if I flipped on accident I might break my back so really, I wouldn’t want to do either one but if I had to choose (as is the purpose of the game), I would have to say headstand…my head seems sturdier than my hands. Maybe all my curls are tricking me into believing that.

 

His matter-of-fact response of his hands of course made me curious.

 

So – why?

 

“Because my hands would be easier to cut off.” He said this smugly; like I should inherently have known.

 

I had to pause, giving my classic blank face.

 

Oh, that’s right… kids are literal thinkers. Which means, when I used the phrase “stand on” instead of “headstand” they literally interpreted it as stand on your head…like the way you might stand on a basketball.

 

Like this:

 

 

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But what was most hilarious was 1) how quickly he responded, and 2) that the first thing he thought was that I would be suggesting he chop either limb off…in order to stand on it. When I demonstrated what I was talking about (through pictures, not by doing a hand or headstand, again, I might break my back!) we got quite a chuckle from it and I gained a very nice reminder on how messages can be misinterpreted.

 

The purpose of these kinds of activities are about bonding and relationship building – it encourages critical thinking, decision making, creativity and communication. They create a safe, judgment free zone – kids can say outrageous things without us responding critically – the purpose of the game is to come up with the most outrageous question! It’s about thinking outside of the box.

 

I’m a huge advocate for role-modeling – everyone wants their children to self-regulate their emotions, but often we don’t allow them to see us regulating our own. Ask your son/daughter how they know when you are frustrated. Go ahead, ask them…I’ll wait…

 

Did they say something along the lines of, “You don’t get frustrated” or “You yell”. It’s usually not until we have blown our tops that kids pick up on our frustration – but typically, they see it as we are “angry” or “mad” (higher forms of frustration). They miss the minor nuances and subtle cues.

 

Not everything we do has to be about a life lesson or teaching skills – sometimes the best gift we can give is allowing people to simply be themselves. The kooky, funny, outrageous self that we learn to lock away in order to fit in. Engaging in these moments with your child role-models for them that it’s okay to be silly – they probably don’t see us in that role too often. When was the last time you were just downright kooky? Sometimes, kids can role-model for us how to really and truly just relax and have fun.

 

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via Daily Prompt: Crumb

Radical Acceptance: Embracing reality

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Every day, there are a million things that could potentially stress us out. Right now, write out a list of your top 5.

Now, take a look at your own list. How many of them do you have control over in this moment?

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In a previous post, radical acceptance was mentioned; or “it is what it is”, in passing.

Radical acceptance is about accepting reality – not necessarily agreeing with reality, or being thrilled about reality but simply accepting that whatever has happened has happened (or is happening).  Why? Because when we fight reality we always lose. Remember that Frozen song? The one that repeats “let it gooooo” a zillion times? While annoying, it’s a genius song and a great message for children to learn early on. When we accept things in our reality that we cannot change – we then have to practice LETTING IT GO.

Radical acceptance is a skill often taught during DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), which is a specific form of cognitive behavioral therapy developed by Marsha Linehan; DBT is a very in-depth treatment that focuses on skill building, tolerating distress and interpersonal relationships. For an overview of DBT, check out this post on Psych Central.

Radical acceptance is one of those coping skills, however, that can be beneficial to nearly all of us. We often try to push against and fight uncomfortable feelings, which usually increases our frustration and negative emotions in the long term. Negative thoughts fuel negative thoughts.

Traffic jams are a great example of people not accepting their reality. Horns are honked, profanity is shouted; it’s not fair to be stuck in traffic because of someone else’s accident. Honking the horn doesn’t get anyone closer to the front of the line. What it does successfully do is show annoy everyone nearby and demonstrate frustration. Congrats! The person behind us, in front of us, and beside us is also unhappy and frustrated as well. And look, now that guy next to us is lifting his middle finger to show us how frustrating our behavior is for him.

After stubbing a toe, the first reaction for many is to hit something: our toe hurts, dammit, and we are going to show that corner who is boss! It’s not fair! It sucks! I just can’t stand it! Reality – the pain will pass, eventually, and hitting the wall is not going to resolve it any quicker.

Wanting to lash back when hurting may be a normal human reaction, however, it’s not our rational brain working; it’s our biological processes of chemicals and nerve endings. Our rational brain recognizes that indeed, there is nothing that can be done.

Reality is a beautiful kaleidoscope of perceptions – our own perceptions and others – mixed together to create a “truth”. Radical acceptance involves accepting life on life’s terms, without judgement; it’s recognizing the things that we have control over (and ultimately doing something to fix those) and recognizing those aspects of life controlled by external forces.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that we believe the things that we fight against are “good” or “fair”. There are many things that have happened to us that were unfair, not just and overall awful. We have all been victims at one point or another but continuing to replay them in our minds, continuing to elicit those painful and uncomfortable emotions as we go over and over in our heads what we wish had gone differently – does nothing. We cannot change the past, we cannot control factors beyond our control and our penchant for trying to control every aspect of life is futile.

Radical acceptance takes a lot of practice – what seems like an easy concept goes against our biological response to pain. But by starting with more minor annoyances (like drizzle compared to a hurricane) it does become easier. You forgot your umbrella? That’s awful! Your hair will get wet, your make up may run – but you will live and there is nothing you can do unless you are a magician who can make an umbrella appear.

If you didn’t really write out a list of your stressors, I encourage you to do it now. Which ones do you have control over and which ones can you practice acceptance with?

For some further reading, check out these links:

What it really means to practice radical acceptance – Psych Central

Radical Acceptance – Psychology Today

Marsha Linehan video on Radical Acceptance

What are some acceptance statements that you use for your daily annoyances?

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via Daily Prompt: Penchant

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Vitamin Deficiencies

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Last week, I wrote about a recent study conducted by Florida University on the effects of early medication use on young children for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If you missed it, you can check it out here.

The topic of vitamin deficiencies arose in the comments and it made me start thinking about the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard of restrictive diets having some benefits in ADHD treatment. I wasn’t able to find much research to back up restrictive diets, however there has been quite a bit of research done on vitamins’ roles in ADHD!

 With just a quick search of the literature, I’ve found:

It is pretty undeniable at this point that ADHD is a neurobiological condition (meaning, the brain develops differently). That said, the specific mechanisms of this are unclear indicating there are genetic and environmental factors at play as well; the specific cause and development for ADHD has not been found, nor has there been a specific genetic component identified despite the consistency of research showing a hereditary link. (Cortese 2012).

Vitamin deficiencies are common in people diagnosed with ADHD; both children and adults. So far, I’ve found research linking Vitamins B2, B6, B9 and Omega-3 fatty acids. What is unclear is whether those vitamin deficiencies effect brain development or if abnormal brain development results in vitamin deficiencies (Landaas et al 2016; Boggis et al 2014; Sonuga-Barke et al 2013; Hawkey & Nigg 2014).

Some research has shown promising results that taking vitamins improves functioning in adults with ADHD symptoms (Boggis et al 2014; Sonuga-Barke et al 2013; Hawkey & Nigg 2014).

 

Taking a daily vitamin is a small lifestyle change that could benefit all of us regardless of symptoms. I used to have an amazing holistic doctor who kept telling me to take vitamins, and while I tried to heed his advice, I had a hard time memorizing a new step in my daily routine until I started feeling sick (more on that in my next post) and found it absolutely necessary.

 

Considering how poor our nutrition is in general these days, it makes logical sense to me that all children should be taking multivitamins daily; yet, I know this often isn’t the case. Vitamins are fairly expensive and then we hear on the news how the cheaper ones aren’t all that helpful. But, there is a reason that Medicaid (in the United States) covers prenatal vitamins for pregnant women – it is recognized that we do not get adequate amounts through our food and, from a healthcare perspective, treating birth defects is much more expensive than providing women with prenatal vitamins.

 

I think this holds true for any illness – treating an illness that may be preventable through increasing our vitamin intake is more expensive than buying those daily vitamins. The expenses of illness go far beyond financial.

 

I plan on starting a series on various vitamins effects on our mental health. I really want for this to become an interactive blog, so I’m asking for reader assistance on identifying topics here. So please take a minute and give me your suggestions on the topic!

 

Works Cited:

Boggis, A., Frampton, C., Gorman, B., & Rucklidge, J. (2014). Vitamin-mineral treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in adults: double-blind randomised placebo-controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 204(4). 306-315. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.113.132126

Cortese, S. (2012). The Neurobiology and Genetics of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: What every clinician should know. European Journal of Paediatric Neurology. 16(5). 422-433.

Landaas, E. T., Aarsland, T. I. M., Ulvik, A., Halmøy, A., Ueland, P. M., & Haavik, J. (2016). Vitamin levels in adults with ADHD. British Journal of Psychiatry Open2(6), 377-384.

Hawkey, E., & Nigg, J. T. (2014). Omega− 3 fatty acid and ADHD: Blood level analysis and meta-analytic extension of supplementation trials. Clinical psychology review34(6), 496-505.

Sonuga-Barke, E. J., Brandeis, D., Cortese, S., Daley, D., Ferrin, M., Holtmann, M., … & Dittmann, R. W. (2013). Nonpharmacological interventions for ADHD: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials of dietary and psychological treatments. American Journal of Psychiatry170(3), 275-289.

via Daily Prompt: Memorize

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Nature and our well-being

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I’ve learned that if I spend a day outside; whether that’s at the beach or walking around town, I tend to feel more relaxed and upbeat by the end of the day. We spend so much of our day within closed walls, which from an evolutionary and biological standpoint goes against nature. We are meant to be outside – in wide open areas with fresh air.

I just found an interesting article on National Geographic that goes into more detail about the research that’s been done and what strategies cities and countries are coming up with to improve citizens well being.

I’ve read previous research that looks at the impact of the environment we inhabit and our mental health; and a link has been found between nature and positive feelings. I’ve tried to incorporate this into my home environment in several ways – potted plants, nature images on the walls (mainly of animals and Savannah landscapes because I find them relaxing), cut flowers on my table and natural scents such as jasmine. I’m interested if anyone else has noticed this? Do you incorporate nature in your work or home environment, and how so? Share some of your ideas!

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via Daily Prompt: Inhabit

Artificial Intelligence and Mental Health

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Do you remember AOL chat rooms? Remember chat bots?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come a long way in recent years and seems to be the talk of the technology world. Frankly, it’s a bit disconcerting to me but it’s out of my control so I shall try to come to grips with it. I think there are pros and cons to any new advances we make, so as long as the robots don’t start overthrowing humans I’m good.

Has anyone else heard of Woebot? According to their website, Woebot is an “artificial conversational agent that helps you monitor mood and learn about yourself” that runs through Facebook messenger. The website touts scientific evidence, citing this study, but I’m a bit hesitant on the strength of the research considering it was only a sample size of 70 people with only 34 people assigned to using Woebot.

 

Woebot, again according to their website, was designed to help college students experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms; it works by providing information, cognitive-behavioral techniques and data collection on your mood and thoughts. It also appears to be financially feasible for many who would not be able to afford psychotherapy or medication management services.

I have not used Woebot so I’m not going to provide a review or endorsement of it in any way; I caution anyone who does use it to be aware. I have no idea what the privacy is on using Woebot or whether your information would remain confidential. That said, I have seen a surge in online based programs being advertised and people appear to be utilizing them so I think it’s an important topic to discuss.

Here are some benefits I see to technology being incorporated into mental health services:

  • Affordability – many people don’t seek counseling services because they are unable to afford such services.

 

  • Data collection – Tracking your mood and activities is a huge proponent of behavioral treatments and can provide significant insight into patterns. I’ve often had clients set daily alarms on their cellphones (the one thing we always seem to have with us) to remind them to record their mood and activity ratings throughout the day. I strongly advocate for data collection in the moment because we tend to forget the nuances of the day. Apps and programs that would remind and check in with us could potentially increase adherence and follow through. I think that web based or downloadable apps have the potential to help synchronize counseling homework assignments and follow through between sessions.

 

  • 24/7 availability – Counselors are not available 24/7, in most cases. Crisis lines exist and can be lifesaving; but, as we become more and more focused on texting and online communication, utilizing these measures to increase availability for more people is important (in my opinion). People may be afraid to call a crisis line but more apt to use an online chat program.

 

  • Educational Resources – If these bots really are providing tailored evidence-based educational tools (videos, pamphlets, handouts) based off of mood ratings then this may help reduce feelings of being overwhelmed from the vast amount of information that would be turned up through a search engine.

Potential pitfalls that I foresee would be:

  • Privacy and confidentiality

 

  • Understanding of educational material – Having a human counselor could assist with gaining understanding of the concepts being taught. I’m not sure how a robot would ensure understanding of the materials.

 

  • Mismatched problem and treatment – Different treatments are recommended for different problems. Programs such as Woebot would only provide certain services which may not be best suited to the individual. Without human involvement, I’m not sure how that would be determined.

 

  • No interpersonal practice – Therapeutic alliance is a large part of why therapy works. Having someone that you trust, can confide in, and who is supportive of your efforts can be a completely novel experience for people. While robots may be able to mimic this through text conversations, it does not help people practice new relationship building skills with an actual person.

With regards to Woebot, I strongly believe that more scientific backing needs to be assured before I would advocate for its use. But I’m very interested in others thoughts on this.

What are your thoughts on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the delivery of mental health services? Have you had any experience with these services or know someone who has?

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via the Daily Prompt: Synchronize

Pay attention to me! Attention seeking behaviors and maladaptive patterns

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Remember, there are 5 functions of behavior:

  1. Escape or avoidance
  2. To gain something
  3. Attention Seeking – Today’s topic
  4. Signs of Damage
  5. Self-stimulation

 

“I’ve been so tired lately from working overtime. It’s ridiculous that they haven’t hired anyone yet.”

“Oh, you think a week of overtime is bad? You have no idea! I’ve had insomnia for the past year; I never get any sleep!”

 

Or

 

“I was running last week and I pulled a muscle. Nothing has been helping with the pain.”

“Oh pain is horrible. My lower back has been throbbing every day for the past month. I’ve tried everything; creams, painkillers, physical therapy. Nothing helps. I don’t know what to do anymore.”

 

This is excessive attention seeking behavior; and it tends to turn people away. Often this type of attention seeking stems from low self-esteem and low self-confidence. While these individuals are hurting deeply and in need of sympathy and understanding; this pattern of “one-upping” serves, in the long-term, to further isolate, increase loneliness and reduce support from others.

 

Attention seeking is another function of behavior that is fairly easy for us to understand. In our daily conversations, we tend to promote a negative connotation to attention seeking behaviors; however, attention seeking is not inherently negative. In fact, humans are social creatures and hardwired to seek attention.

 

Every Facebook post, Instagram post, blog, text message, phone call, wave, greeting; all of these are attention-seeking behavior.

 

Maladaptive attention seeking however, can have an extremely negative impact on our lives. This can occur in several ways; for example excessive sympathy seeking, sexual provocativeness, and aggressiveness. When attention seeking becomes maladaptive, people tend to avoid interacting with you.

 

We often consider attention being negative or positive; but attention is attention. We consider negative attention the “wrong kind of attention”. “Negative attention” is often more easily attained. Think about it: how many times a day do you do positive things that go unrecognized?

 

It’s 10:00 a.m. and already I have:

Woken up on time,

Eaten breakfast,

Taken a shower

Gotten some paperwork done, and

Am getting my car worked on at the moment.

 

Not once today has anyone recognized that I accomplished these things on a Monday morning. However, on my way to the mechanic while driving on a donut tire; two people honked at me for driving below the speed limit. We can do everything right, and still get more negative than positive attention. People don’t tend to recognize things that are already expected of us.

 

This plays a huge role in our relationships. As relationships progress, we stop acknowledging the thoughtful/loving gestures our partners do because we begin to simply expect them… until they don’t do it. Then, we pointedly tell them how they never do anything nice for us anymore. Or, vice versa: we start to believe that we are putting more into the relationship than our partners because they aren’t acknowledging our gestures the way they did 2 years ago.

 

Various research has proposed that we need more positive attention to negative in order to feel good about ourselves. The ratios have varied from 20:1, 10:1, 3:1. Regardless of the exact ratio; we need more positive than negative in our lives in order to be healthy.

 

While we cannot control what anyone else in our lives is doing, we can control how we respond to it and how we interact in the world. If you find yourself noticing that you are getting more negative feedback than positive; take a real look at your own patterns. Is your way of gaining attention turning people away? How often in your conversations are you focusing on the negatives?

 

Again, each and every one of us seeks attention in our own way; there is nothing wrong with attention-seeking itself. It’s when our ways of obtaining attention become maladaptive that we can experience negative consequences in our lives.

 

Please take the time to share your thoughts. Have you ever met someone with a maladaptive attention seeking style?

 

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Functions of behavior: To Gain

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“To gain something” is probably the easiest function of behavior for us to understand: We do things in order to get what we want.

 

Remember, there are 5 functions of behavior:

 

  1. Escape or avoidance
  2. To gain something – Today’s Topic
  3. Attention Seeking
  4. Signs of Damage
  5. Self-stimulation

 

“To gain something” is the child throwing the tantrum when mom says no; the man at the service desk verbally abusing you because you refused to refund his money; and you nagging your husband/wife to help out more.

 

The “something” can be either tangible or intangible; meaning, it isn’t always something that we can hold – we can want permission, to do an activity, an agreement, ect. One way to think about it is you are engaging in a behavior in order to get something positive; something that will make you feel good.  

 

As adults, we engage in a litany of behaviors in order to gain something.

 

Examples of this are:

 

Opening a cabinet door (behavior) in order to get to the coffee cups (tangible),

Calling someone (behavior) to invite them to dinner (activity),

Saving money (behavior) in order to go on vacation (activity).

Yelling at a service representative (behavior) in order to get a refund (tangible),

Registering (behavior) on a gift registry in order to get wanted gifts (tangible),

Working (behavior) in order to get a paycheck (tangible).

 

And the list goes on.

 

The inherent belief behind any behavior management or reward system parents implement is that people are willing to do things in order to get what they want. We often assume that tangible items work best, but this isn’t always the case. And unfortunately, if the behavior is occurring because of escape/avoidance or attention or signs of damage functions, then, “getting something” may not change the behavior as expected.

 

When parents say that their children don’t respond to “bribery” (aaaaahhhh!, *cringe*), they are typically offering tangible items such as candy, stickers, television, electronics, dessert, or toys. Reality is, the child may want someone to play a game with them (attention and activity) rather than that ice cream cone. Your spouse may want you to watch a movie with them (again, attention and activity) rather than flowers.

  

Assessing functions – Multiple Factors

 

For every action, there is a reaction. Assessing behavior gets complicated when we take into account that we are not the only people in our world! We are constantly interacting with others, and their actions are also being reinforced.

 

Every night, when mom tells Suzie that it is time to go to bed; Suzie starts whining. In the past, this has escalated to Suzie even throwing stuffed animals at her mother, refusing to go to sleep. Suzie’s mother has started giving Suzie a glass of chocolate milk when Suzie starts whining, which (to her mother’s relief) has de-escalated the conflict and resulted in Suzie going to bed quicker.

 

Sounds like Suzie’s mother found a solution, right? But wait a minute…

 

Suzie’s behavior is now being positively reinforced by the addition of the chocolate milk (getting something):

 

Mom says it’s time for bed —- Suzie whines —- Suzie gets chocolate milk

 

At the same time, mom’s behavior is being negatively reinforced by the removal of Suzie’s whining (escape)

 

Suzie starts whining —- Mom gives chocolate milk —– Suzie stops whining

 

While this pattern may have reduced the level of conflict; it is not effectively reducing Suzie’s whining behavior… Suzie is still whining every night. In fact, Suzie is more likely to continue whining when told it is time for bed, and this may become more evident if mom ever forgets to buy chocolate syrup. As this cycle is negatively reinforcing mom’s behavior, mom is now more likely to offer chocolate milk when Suzie begins whining.

  

Bob and Jim often work overnight shifts together. Bob has young children at home, so sleeping during the day is difficult for him. He often complains to Jim about his exhaustion. Jim suggests to Bob that he take an hour nap during their shift, promising him that he will cover for him if anybody asks.

 

Bob’s complaining is being positively reinforced by being able to take a nap:

 

Bob has to work overnight —- Bob complains about being tired — Bob gets a nap

 

Jim’s suggesting that Bob take a nap is reinforced by Bob no longer complaining (escape function)

 

Bob starts complaining —- Jim suggests he take a nap —- Bob stops complaining

 

In both these examples, it may be true that there are other behavior functions at play. Again, the behavior itself does not matter, but the function of why it is happening. What matters is the goal of the behavior. The patterns presented may appear in these individuals’ lives more than just these scenarios – for instance, Jim may routinely offer to take on more responsibility to avoid others’ complaining (or, perhaps, to try to help them).

 

A constantly growing system of reinforcements is created every day within our environments; largely unnoticed by us. If these patterns start to negatively impact our lives, by understanding what is maintaining those behaviors, then we can change them.

  

Bob may consider Jim the nicest coworker he works with; he may not recognize that his complaining is the trigger for Jim’s kindness. But Jim realizes that he is starting to feel overworked on nights he shares a shift with Bob. Jim decides enough is enough. He may attempt to heed off the pattern by jumping ahead of Bob’s complaining with complaining of his own, or start an argument, or ask Bob directly for more help, or…he may tell the supervisor Bob is lazy and sleeping during their shift (which disregards his role in the problem altogether). There are many possible ways that Jim could change the pattern, some healthy and some not so healthy. 

 

Suzie may not be aware that she starts whining in order to get chocolate milk; and I’m willing to bet that Suzie’s mother isn’t entirely aware of the negative reinforcement occurring or that her behavior is actually increasing the problem behavior (of whining). If Suzie’s mother realizes that this pattern is happening, she may offer the chocolate milk from the get-go before Suzie starts whining. We may find that the pattern doesn’t even bother us and see no reason to change it. If by offering chocolate milk to Suzie when she starts whining is only happening during the bedtime routine, and if offering the chocolate milk to Suzie has reduced the conflict overall; then Suzie’s mother may just consider this a win-win and leave it be; working from the premise that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

 

In changing our behavior, we look to change these types of patterns. That’s where the insight comes in. Why has this pattern developed, and how can we meet our needs in a different way?

Avoidance and Escape: Umbrellas don’t shoot beams of sunshine

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“Hey! Paul and I would really like for you to come to dinner with us tonight.”

Oh no! Another night tagging along as the third wheel…can you really handle it? Your palms are already clamming up; they’ll be all snug and cozy next to each other, quietly judging the empty seat next to you. No! You can’t do it. Why did you even answer the phone? You’ll just tell her:

“I have so much work to do tonight, maybe another time?”

Congratulations! You just engaged in lying in order to escape an uncomfortable situation.  

Guilt may set in later tonight, or not, but regardless of what happens next, the behavior (lying) was an avoidance tactic. Immediately, you feel relieved; another crisis averted; the anxiety triggered by the invite is squashed (negative reinforcement) and once again you are free.

Behavior = anything that a dead man cannot do. That is the simplest explanation I have.

Behaviors can be observed either by others (publicly) or by ourselves (privately). A dead man cannot think, feel, yell, scream, cry, walk, run… okay, you get the picture. Thinking and feeling are both privately observed behaviors; no one else can observe our thoughts except us.

There are 5 primary functions of behavior:

1. To Escape or Avoid – today’s topic

2. To Gain Something

3. Attention Seeking

4. Signs of Damage

5. Self-Stimulation

Yep, that’s it. Disappointed?

Raingirl

Escape or Avoidance Behaviors

When you open your umbrella, you aren’t expecting a ray of sunshine to beam out of it. I really hope you aren’t, because it straight up isn’t going to happen. Opening your umbrella does not get you anything; there is no positive reinforcement to it. You do open your umbrella though in order to escape the rain. You find the rain aversive and so you are doing something about it.

I work a lot with children; typically, their behavior is attributed to a) gain something or b) attention seeking. We seem to have this view of children that they are selfish creatures always trying to take something from us. I mean, it’s somewhat logical – why else would she be screaming at the top of her lungs if not to get that candy bar?

Many times, though, we engage in a set of behaviors in order to avoid an aversive situation (remember negative reinforcement). Considering that escape and avoidance behaviors tend to be negatively reinforced and because negative reinforcement isn’t generally talked about or understood, we tend to forget this function of behavior altogether. Even professionals are guilty of this. I’ve often heard professionals confuse negative reinforcement and punishment, or panic when removing attention from a behavior doesn’t work.

This frequently occurs when we are anxious or depressed, and generally this exacerbates our symptoms in the long run. We avoid situations that trigger our anxiety, which only really serves to increase our anxiety the next time. We isolate from others when feeling depressed, and give up productive and pleasurable tasks because they are so aversive when we are fatigued and unmotivated. In these situations, the negative impact of avoidance behaviors is that they reduce our opportunities to experience positive reinforcements. In the moment, they alleviate the negative feeling (or at least reduce it), but the long term result is an increase in our symptoms.

Let’s consider defiant behavior for a moment. We often attribute attention-seeking or gaining control as the purpose for defiant behaviors, but, in some cases defiance may be triggered by a negative feeling (or anxiety) and serves to escape.

Your son outright refuses to complete any written work. If pressured, he responds with verbal aggression. Teachers are responding to his aggressive behavior by giving up or sending him out of the classroom. Most likely, he is being sent out of the classroom because if teachers “give up”, then the kid won, and adults tend to not like that very much. Surprisingly, when asked to leave the classroom he willingly complies. Why?

If a child immediately removes himself from conflict when given the option, I tend to assume that their behaviors are serving an escape function. So, let’s consider that your child possibly has difficulty writing his thoughts on paper, perhaps other kids (or adults) have poked fun at his writing skills, and perhaps writing itself is a more difficult task for him and makes him feel stupid. If by blowing up, he gets to escape that task (or negative feeling), then ta da! It was negatively reinforced and he will most likely do it again.

Let’s consider the same situation (being asked to write) but a different behavior.

Every time your son is asked to write, he responds by crying. Teachers are responding by offering 1:1 help, giving him a break, or allowing him to leave the room. Most likely, he is also being offered reassurances of how smart and capable he is. In this scenario, it would be necessary to also rule-out attention seeking behavior. However, if his crying (behavior) is working to escape negative feeling then, ta da! Again, it is being negatively reinforced.

I also want to note that in each of the above examples, the teacher is also responding to her ways that may possibly be functioning as escape avoidance behaviors. If she is sending your son out of the room in order to escape the disrespectful behavior, it is avoidance. It is not the behavior that matters, it is the purpose of the behavior. Any behavior can be an avoidance or escape behavior if the purpose of the behavior is to avoid or escape.

This includes: aggression, running away, defiance, impulsive behaviors, self-injury, crying, lying, hiding, flipping over desks, property aggression, verbal aggression, ruminative thinking, rituals, compulsive behaviors, and obsessive thoughts. Again, any behavior can function as an escape.

This is why I am so passionate about behavior therapy – once the purpose of a behavior is identified, a tailor-made plan for change can be developed. It is very individualized. Strategies that are implemented may be similar from person to person but the intervention is not based on the behavior. It is based on the function.

In other words, we are looking at the individual’s goal. The goal or the way of achieving the goal may be adaptive or maladaptive but we are recognizing that people are goal-oriented. There is a purpose to what they are doing! We normalize the behavior by looking at the context it is occurring in.

goal

People Are Goal-Oriented

This can be very empowering!

Really, think about it! We are telling people that their unhealthy behavior is completely understandable given the circumstances and the context. They are not weird! They are not sick! In fact, we are telling them that their behavior is serving a purpose! It’s effective! It just may not be the most long-term effective plan available. They need help developing a more effective action plan.

Sometimes, there are multiple functions that are maintaining a behavior. Behavior really can be complicated, it’s not as simple as I may be trying to make it seem. Functions of behaviors can change and evolve through months and years of doing the same patterns. The same person’s behavior may have an altogether different purpose depending on the situation.

Do you remember my compulsive tendencies?

Sometimes these serve as avoidance and escape behaviors in my life; sometimes they serve to get something; sometimes they may even be attention-seeking (ah!). It really depends on what is happening at that moment in my life.

But the more that we touch base with what is our goal, the more we can start to recognize whether we are really meeting our needs.

When identifying the function of a behavior, we need to look at what is happening right before and right after the behavior occurs. In escape and avoidance behaviors, something is being alleviated; whether that is having to complete a task, or experiencing a feeling or a thought.

Consider your own life right now… what avoidance behaviors are you engaging in? As you ponder this question, make sure you follow my blog as we continue the journey through functions of behavior and ways to promote change.

 

It started with oranges: The Role of Insight in Changing Behavior

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It started with oranges.

Oranges

*Sigh*

See, I liked oranges, a lot; Oranges had become very reinforcing to me. So I started eating 3 oranges a day for probably 6 months…until, I could not eat another orange. I ate oranges until suddenly, oranges were disgusting. 

It probably didn’t start with oranges, but this was the first time I really recognized my compulsive tendencies. Many people enter therapy with their goal being to gain insight. I think that insight is great! Insight can help us accept quirky characteristics, or push us to change maladaptive behaviors. 

My definition of insight is having an understanding of why we do the things we do. I’m going to focus this article on how I gained personal insight into my compulsive and impulsive tendencies and learned to embrace these characteristics for the purpose I found they serve in my life.

I just googled compulsive behavior and got a litany of results about obsessive-compulsive disorder and behavior addictions. Psychology really does focus on the worst case scenarios, doesn’t it? I’m not downplaying these very real conditions, but what about those of us who have been able to turn compulsive behavior, or any other “negative” tendency, into a productive facet of our life?

I overindulge in things that make me happy; in ways that may sometimes be considered compulsive. Oranges are the only food I can remember compulsively eating (I do drink a lot of coffee though); but I also enjoy hobbies. I enjoy hobbies so much that I do them until I no longer enjoy them.

I know how to re-purpose furniture, make clay beads, make clay figurines, paint little memory boxes, sew clothes, sew tote bags, write, garden and probably a bunch more skills that I no longer remember having ever caught my attention. When I find a new hobby, I want to do it all the time. My excitement is always the same:

“This is it! I love doing this! I’m good at this! This is what I was meant to do!”

This frustrates others; after all, they know that I’ll be dropping said hobby in a few months, possibly even a few days. If you try to interfere with my hobby time, I get upset. It’s hard for them to be supportive of every endeavor my mind latches on to. I’ve also come to accept that most of my hobbies will be dropped. We all have learnt not to spend a lot of money on my hobbies.

Compulsive behaviors have also manifested themselves through what topics I read about. As a kid, I really wanted a miniature horse and so I spent weeks researching the benefits of having them in order to prepare a speech for the city council, as they would need to approve my miniature horse ownership in our small suburban town. Luckily for my parents, one day I woke up and no longer wanted a miniature horse. Suddenly though, I wanted a Great Dane…and then that became a rescue Greyhound… until one day, I woke up and didn’t want either of them. But I still know a lot about miniature horses, Great Danes and Greyhounds, just as I still know how to re-purpose furniture, make beads, sew a beautiful outfit or tote bag and create a garden.

Psychology has been the only endeavor I have stuck with consistently for nearly 15 years, which I attribute to there being so many different facets of the field. I have been blessed with finding ways to avoid doing the same thing every day because, I also hate routines. Working a 9-5 job was absolute torture to me; I constantly had to find ways of overcoming my boredom, every day. Others I have met embrace routines and structure; you guys amaze me, and sometimes I am envious.

It was after trying to return to the 9-5 world, after 2 years of making my own schedule and being fairly independent, that I realized my compulsive and impulsive tendencies serve a very real purpose in my life; to avoid a perpetual feeling of boredom that sets in so easily.

A vicious cycle for me has been boredom and motivation. Once I become bored, it becomes very difficult for me to find motivation to continue whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing.

You may have noticed a common theme among my hobbies. I like creating things; this can be a simple widget out of Popsicle sticks or something more meaningful… like a tote bag.

The act of creating something is my hobby. Changing the means of creating, functions to escape and avoid boredom. I believe a lot of creative minds function the same way. That’s not to imply that I can’t cope with routine and mundane living needs; I can, as long as I have something novel on the side; at times, I have to create this novelty by developing new ways of doing things.

For example, I develop a new way of writing my letters to entertain myself if I have a lot of handwritten work to do; or I change my pattern of getting ready in the morning, brushing my teeth first instead of washing my face. These small things help me when I’m feeling life is becoming monotonous. If I wasn’t able to find ways of coping with routine activity, then this would have a serious impact on my daily functioning and would become a real problem for me.

I am happiest though when I am learning a new skill, or exploring a new hobby.

Many of us, dare I say all of us, have some aspect of ourselves that make us uncomfortable; we may not share these thoughts/feelings with others out of a fear they won’t understand, which can leave us feeling alone in our experiences. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen other people doing the same things I do to entertain themselves while completing boring tasks, so I know I’m not alone. I find these tendencies humorous at times.
I’m well aware that had I been introduced to other choices in my life, such as cocaine instead of coffee, these compulsive tendencies may have led to a whole different lifestyle for me, and if I think too much about that, it truly does scare me. At the same time, it has really helped me understand how addiction happens. If I have to be honest, I must admit that at times my compulsive tendencies have impacted my choices negatively; like the time I quit a job that I truly enjoyed because I forgot that people take vacations. Or when I’ve experienced panic attacks because I have been drinking 12 cups of coffee a day.

But at this point in my life, I have embraced my compulsiveness and learned ways of effectively monitoring it without suppressing my desire to create things.

What parts of yourself make you uncomfortable? Can these tendencies be transformed into positive ways of living? Are you already using these tendencies for positive ways of living?

When behaviors create negativity, we need to change the role they play. Through insight, we can decide whether an action is maladaptive or if it serves a purpose; and if we find it has become maladaptive, then we can change our actions.

From a behavioral point of view, insight is developed by understanding the patterns of behavior and the functions of those behaviors. Everything we do serves some kind of purpose. The more you are able to recognize what that purpose is, the easier it becomes to adapt and change.

Check out Understanding behavior is the key to change for a brief overview of behavioral therapy.