We all get stuck in behavioral ruts. Imagine being able to say, “I no longer shout at my spouse; that’s behind me now,” or “I no longer procrastinate on unpleasant tasks — I put an end to that.” Imagine yourself being able to change any behavioral pattern you want.
The Technology of Change
When it comes to parenting, an excellent strategy for helping kids wire in new behaviors is the CLeaR Method. Essentially, the parent gives three forms of positive attention (comments, labels, and rewards) to a new, appropriate behavior.
For example, if a child has a habit of leaving her coat on a chair, the parent attends to the desirable behavior (i.e., “You hung up your coat! That was so organized of you! Since you did it without me even having to ask, I’ll play a game of Boggle with you”). In combination with the child’s own behavior (she hung up her coat), the parent’s comment (“I noticed…”), label (“that was so organized...”), and reward (“game of Boggle…”) will quickly and painlessly wire a new circuit in the youngster’s brain called hang up coat.
The CLear Method for Grownups
Adults, too, can use the CLeaR Method to change their behavior. This is how Tammy described her own negative behavior pattern:
“If I’ve asked my kids to do something a few times and they don’t listen, I start yelling and making ridiculous threats. Yesterday I told my nine-year-old to get ready for bed and he ignored me. I snapped! I told him he was a brat and I was going to tell his principal how disobedient he is. Of course I would never do that, but when I’m angry, my mouth works faster than my brain.”
Tammy hates herself for losing control with her kids, but her remorse and guilt hasn’t translated into behavioral change. She needs to build a new circuit for a more appropriate behavior pattern. Here are the steps that will help her do that:
1. Name the problem behavior. In this case, there are three problem behaviors: raising her voice, name-calling, and making empty threats.
2. Identify the trigger — when does the problem behavior occur? Tammy loses it when she feels helpless — when the kids don’t listen, when they fight with each other, and when they talk back.
3. Identify the target behavior. When the trigger (feeling helpless) occurs, what do you want to do instead of yelling and making inappropriate threats? The rules for choosing a target behavior are as follows: The target must refer to something that a person does or says (i.e., “I want to do such and such”). The target does not contain the words don’t (i.e., “I don’t want to scream”) or stop (i.e., “I want to stop making silly threats”). It also can’t be a feeling (i.e., “I want to remain calm”) or a character trait (i.e., “I want to respond maturely”).
Respecting these conditions, Tammy selects her target behavior: “When I feel helpless, I want to leave the room for a few minutes so I can settle down and think how to handle the situation.”
4. Do the target behavior and comment on it. Tammy waits until she feels that exasperated, helpless feeling again, and when she does, she leaves the room to settle her emotions and think of a parenting plan. As soon as she leaves, she says to herself: “Good for you! You left the room when you started to feel helpless!” (Addressing oneself as “you” is a therapeutic technique that improves and hastens the wiring process.)
5. Give yourself a positive label. Using a label (like “mature”) or an adjective (i.e., “maturely”) helps the new behavior pattern to rapidly generalize across many situations. Tammy tells herself: “You showed a lot of self-control.”
6. On a few occasions, give yourself a reward. Rewards speed wiring, allowing for rapid learning and behavioral change. Tammy tells herself: “I’m so impressed with how quickly you got yourself out of that room that I’m buying you that magazine you wanted.”
Although rewards can be retired, the continuous use of comment and label will help secure the new behavioral pattern in the brain. Try this system on your own behavioral challenges — the tendency to think negatively, the tendency to gossip, the tendency to procrastinate, or whatever other pattern you’d like to change.