Help for Families
Step 5: How to Cope: Reinforce the Right Behavior
Step 5 (or Powertool 5) in the Beyond Blame System has to do with how you act, not what you say. Now that you've set your limits and communicated them to your family member, the next step (step 5) is learning how to maintain them. The key is to remember that the real message is not what you say, but what you do.
Here are some typical comments from Welcome to Oz members:
- “When I set my boundaries, I had all kinds of newfound resolve. But when he tried to dismantle them, I went soft. Just when I thought I’d reached the end of my rope, the rope got longer.”
- “When I set limits, he always has some sneaky way of getting around them—even if the purpose of the limits was to help him.”
- “After I set a boundary, he would improve his behavior for a while—even long periods. But then all hell would break loose. Boundaries set, boundaries broken. The cycle just keeps going.”
Your family member will test your limits many times to see how seriously you are taking them. This is human nature: We learn as young children that even if Dad wants to spend the day in a hammock, we can get him to take us to Mount Splashmore if we ask a enough times in a high, whining tone and refuse to give up.
Reinforcers are behaviors that, occurring in conjunction with some kind of action, either increase the probability that a person will act that way again or decrease the same.
Positive and Negative Reinforcers
Behaviors that increase the likelihood of a repeat performance are called positive reinforcers. Those that decrease the chances are termed negative reinforcers.
Here are some examples:
A one-year-old baby cries.
Positive reinforcers: Getting picked up and hugged, being given a bottle, or having her diaper changed. These actions make it more likely that when the baby is lonely, hungry, or wet, she will cry again.
Negative reinforcers: Being ignored. A television news program once showed children in an orphanage in a foreign country who received little adult supervision. When one of the toddlers accidentally banged her head on something, she didn’t cry because she knew from experience it would not bring help.
Jane is upset and calls her friend Amy.
Positive reinforcers: Amy's friend listens, makes her laugh, and offers to buy her a cup of coffee the next day. Jane is likely to call her again.
Negative reinforcers: Amy points out that Jane's problems aren't so bad compared to hers, then goes on to tell Jane all her problems. Jane is less likely to call again.
Actions speak louder than words
When your family member starts testing your limits, all the communication steps you’ve learned take a big back step to your actions. What counts now is what you do, not what you say. To make the limit work, reinforce the behavior you want—observance of your limits. Do not inadvertently reinforce breaches of your limits. Most non-BPs do just that, which compromises the limits they’ve tried so hard to set.
If you respect your limits in an inconsistent way, you are giving what is called “intermittent reinforcement.” Intermittent reinforcement makes behavior nearly impossible to extinguish (or, put the opposite way, motivates a subject to keep repeating a behavior even if it is only rewarded every so often). The best example is playing slots: it pays out sometimes, but you can’t predict when that would be. Other examples:
- Your TV doesn’t work right. When you hit it in just the right place, though, sometimes you can get it working again. You will hit the TV for a long time before you finally concede it’s time to buy a new one.
- You and your girlfriend fight all the time. But every once in a while, you have a great time together. That keeps you hanging on.
If you let things go even once out of twenty-two times, your family member will learn he can get what he wants if he repeats his actions twenty-one times. Being mindful of this takes a lot of energy, which is another reason why you start small.
Try The "Least Reinforcing Scenario"
Animal trainers use the least reinforcing scenario (LRS) when an animal has done something wrong-for example, if a trainer is teaching a dolphin to wave a pectoral fin and the dolphin squirts water, the trainer stands still and remains expressionless because any response might provoke a behavior. The same kind of things works with humans, too.
LRS is not pointedly ignoring behavior you don't want; rather, it's overlooking it, as if it's too much to even bother with. You can use this technique if you're being provoked by an unpleasant comment that is supposed to grab your attention but not really communicate. During the pause, collect yourself and take a deep breath. Ask yourself what might be going on in your loved one's life or mind that sparked the comment. However, don't use it with behavior that is abusive or otherwise unsafe. Set limits around those actions.
Here are some examples of LRS:
- Your family member says something designed to rile you up and start an argument. You just walk away instead of engaging without showing how you feel.
- During a conversation, your family member slips in something designed to anger you. You respond in a calm way and ignore the jibe and refuse to play the blame game.