A note on “enabling” vs. positive reinforcement
~Jeffrey Foote, PsyD, Center for Motivation and Change

“Caring about and staying connected in a helping way with someone dealing
with substances is not only helpful, it’s one of the most powerful motivators for change.”

Positive ReinforcementIf you are a partner, parent, or child of someone struggling with substance problems, and you live in America, you’ve probably heard this word “enabling” (possibly many, many times). And you’ve probably heard this described as central to your interactions in helping your loved one. Mostly, you have heard “DON’T DO IT”!, and if you are like most concerned family members, you feel vaguely guilty for doing something you’re not even sure you are doing (but you must be, right?). By way of quick review, “enabling” actually means doing positive things that will end up supporting continued negative behavior, such as providing your child with money so they won’t “go hungry” during the day, knowing they use it to buy pot, or going to talk to the teacher to make sure they don’t get a bad grade, even though their bad test score was due to drinking, or calling your husband’s work to explain he’s sick today, when he’s actually hung over. These are examples of doing something “nice” for your loved one that actually (from a behavioral reinforcement standpoint) might increase the frequency of the negative behavior, not decrease it. The logic: if they act badly, and nothing happens, or something good happens, this behavior is encouraged, even if what you are doing is “nice”. This IS enabling, and this is not helpful in changing behavior in a positive direction.

But everything nice is not enabling! And that’s the quicksand we have developed in our culture. Staying connected, rewarding positive behaviors with positivity, being caring and loving; these things are critical to positive change. So what’s the difference? Positive reinforcement is doing “nice” things in response to positive behavior. Simple as that. When they get up on time in the morning, when they take their sister to school, when they text to tell you they will be late, when they don’t smoke pot on Friday night, when they help you make dinner instead of going for a quick drink with the boys on the way home…these are positive actions, and acknowledging them, rewarding them, being happy about them, is a GOOD thing, not enabling.

Enabling is a meaningful concept…it’s just overused to the point that families often feel their loving and caring is the problem. IT’S NOT! Caring about and staying connected in a helping way with someone dealing with substances is not only helpful, it’s one of the most powerful motivators for change. To restate the slogan: Attach with love…just love the positive actions and step away from the negative.

Source: Center for Motivation and Change, used with permission.


Beyond AddictionJeffrey Foote, Ph.D.: Dr. Foote is a Clinical Psychologist and Co-Founder of The Center For Motivation and Change in Manhattan, as well as CMC:Berkshires, an inpatient substance abuse treatment center in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. He has been a federally-funded researcher on substance abuse treatment and a lifelong clinician in the addiction field, focusing on implementation of evidence-based treatments. Dr. Foote was also Psychologist for the NY Mets the last 11 years, as well as an independent performance consultant to athletes. He is co-author of Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change, a Scribner books publication.

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