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  -- Behavioral Modification

                 Behavioral Modification Therapy: Helping Teens Help Themselves
                 By Judy Shepps Battle

"I never thought I would say this, but applying behavioral modification principles to my teen has helped me grow as a parent and strengthened our family. Yes, Eric is now doing better in school and is less sullen at home but the real miracle has been the return to normalcy of our entire household."    
                                                                -- Mrs. Marion G.

What a difference a year makes!

I remember when I met Mrs. G. She was angry, exhausted, and on the verge of tears. Her first words to the Parent Support Group were that she didn't see why she had to waste her time in therapy when it was Eric, her 15-year-old son, that was the problem.

Group members nodded empathetically when she recounted the number of school conferences, counselor referrals, and school suspensions issued since Eric's began high school. We all knew the shame of having a "problem" child, the feeling of helplessness at not being able to change that situation, and the disruptive effect one child can have on family life.

Mrs. G's voice broke when she talked about starting to both fear and hate her son. He was her first born and they had a wonderful closeness until the beginning of adolescence. As he grew more and more out of control, she dreaded each corrective encounter.

"The school counselor would tell me I had to make Eric go to school but not how to make that happen. I would go home, tell him he had to be in school "or else" and he would laugh. I remember the day he told me he was now taller than me and no longer had to do anything I said."

A Familiar Story
It was a familiar story and each group member shared the "moment of defiance" that highlighted the transformation of their obedient, loving child into an out-of-control teen.

For one father it was when he asked his daughter to take out the garbage and she spat out her refusal with an assortment of four-letter words. For another mother it was when her son came home drunk from a party after curfew. When confronted he simply said he hated her, would do what he wanted, and walked out the door.

Common to each story was parental denial that preceded the defiant encounter and how "little" incidents had gone unaddressed because they seemed out of character.

Mrs. G. began to remember how she believed Eric had done his homework or even gone to school simply because he said so. It was only when parent-teacher conferences were held or the Truant Officer called that she learned otherwise.

"He always had a great story. Like his teacher forgot to take attendance or that the Truant Officer must be thinking of a different Eric because he would never cut school. I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe he was going to be an 'A' student and attend his father's alma mater."

Remembering the Positive
Under the guidance of a skilled therapist, and with the encouragement of the Parent Support Group, Mrs. G. and her husband began to apply behavioral modification principles to their interactions with Eric. Their goals were to increase the frequency of his "desirable" behaviors -- attending school, doing homework, obeying house rules -- and decrease the frequency of his "undesirable" behaviors with regard to school and home.

The couple began to learn about the "child" that was still within their turbulent teenager. They realized that Eric still wanted very much to please them, make them proud of him, and feel good about himself.

Mr. and Mrs. G. were encouraged to remember the uncertainty, bravado, and anguish of their own teen years. They recalled rebellion, obnoxious behavior and how powerless they felt with regard to their parents.

"I wanted to be a kid and I wanted to be an adult. And I knew I was neither" said Mr. G.

As both parents began to see Eric in a different light, they were better able to make and enforce rules regarding home and school. 

Begin With a Single Behavior
Their therapist encouraged Mr. and Mrs. G. to identify a single behavior they wanted Eric to change. They immediately said "school attendance" and that they were tired of constantly fighting with Eric about this issue.

"How do you respond to his cutting school?"

"We have tried a lot of punishments," said Mr. G. "We have grounded him, taken away telephone privileges, and withheld his allowance. I have even driven him to school, watched him walk in the front door, and find out later he walks out a side door ten minutes later."

"What rewards have you used?"

"You mean bribe him to do what he should be doing anyway? We don't want to do that with Eric."

Rewards Build Self Esteem
"I prefer to look at rewards as helping a youth build success experiences. It is normal for teens to get locked into power struggles with their parents. Sometimes both parties get so stubborn that there is no way for the youth to change behavior without losing face. Just punishing inappropriate behavior often results in a teen becoming stuck in a cycle of saying no.' When that happens, our job as adults is to help our kids have positive experiences. To do that, we often have to give up our power struggles with them."

"How do we do that?"

"Let Eric decide what reward he wants for going to school. It may be an extended curfew on certain nights. Or driving lessons when he turns 16. Perhaps he has to put together an entire week of perfect school attendance to stay out an extra two hours on Saturday night. Or a perfect month of attendance for a single driving lesson."

"Your job as Eric's parents is to ask him in a calm way what he wants in order to attend school. Draw up a concrete agreement so everyone knows the consequences of his success. And be consistent. If he behaves appropriately he gets the reward. If he fails even five minutes of the agreement, then he gets nothing."

"But what does he get if he continues to ditch school?"

"Natural consequences. Let the school give him detentions and/or suspend him. In that way Eric will have a "punishment" and you will have your sanity."

Progress Not Perfection
The war zone in the "G" household has been defused but all is not perfect.

Eric continues to periodically test whether his parents are serious about applying neutral and consistent rewards. He has an endless supply of different reasons why his school attendance didn't meet the agreement and is very angry when his parents won't give him his reward anyway. But his protests are getting increasingly halfhearted and his face usually breaks into a big grin before he finishes.

And Mr. and Mrs. G sometimes lose their temper when their son ditches school. But they continue to attend the Parent Support Group and to honor Eric's choices.


Copyright 2006 Judy Shepps Battle

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