Story 10

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Stevie knew we were behind him 100% on healthy behaviors.

At a social event, a mother came up to my wife and I and said: “Stevie changed my son’s life …. my son used to drink heavily all the time and now, because of Stevie, he is up early, he is playing sports almost every day and doing other healthy activities that don’t include alcohol. Your son got that whole group of boys to change. Thank you!”.

We were lucky. Stevie decided that he wasn’t going to drop his hard-partying hometown friends, as is often suggested by counselors. Instead, he created fun sober activities and brought his friends along. He got them to play softball, go bowling, play mini- golf, play board games, play basketball, do fantasy football, etc. He got them to raise money for cancer in an annual Swim Across America event. He even went so far as to create newsletters for the sports which allowed the boys to poke fun at each other and connect them even closer together.

As his parents, we supported him on anything and everything that was a positive, sober activity. We made a big deal out of calling out these positive behaviors and his sobriety milestones.

A nationally recognized clinical research scientist and addiction treatment specialist told me in the Parent Peer Coach training that we must help our loved one find a new way of life, a new way of coping. Using substances gave our loved one “something”, we must help them replace that something with something else that is healthy. He said that consistent positive feedback on healthy behaviors is just as important as calling out the negative behaviors.

Stevie knew we were behind him 100% on healthy behaviors.

He also knew that we were 100% against his unhealthy behaviors.

Both are critical for creating the necessary change.

Communicating both positive and negative messages to a person with a substance use disorder can be very complicated. Often, our child is an unwilling participant. Good communication requires clear messaging, an ability to separate positive and negative events and an ability to avoid or de-escalate highly charged conversations. It is easy for parents and caregivers to mix messages, send confusing signals or get caught up in emotion.

Communication skills are so central to parent and caregiver effectiveness that a highly impactful science-based communications approach was developed called CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) to help families get their loved one to accept and thrive during addiction treatment. CRAFT’s focus is on positively reinforcing healthy behaviors and negatively reinforcing addictive behaviors. The Resources section suggests education and support services that teach CRAFT principles.

Parenting a child with an addiction is exhausting. There are so many negative situations and hard things that we are forced to confront. It is so nice to know that a big part of a successful recovery for our child includes supporting them, loving them and consistently calling out positive behaviors.

We need to catch our kids being good!!