I don’t know very many 4 or 9 year old kids that have terrible drinking problems. To be completely honest, I don’t know any, so you might be asking, “how in the world is alcoholism research going to help me parent smarter?” Well, I’ll tell you.
In the 1970’s and 80’s there was a research duo with the names Dr. Carlo C. DiClemente and Dr. J.O. Prochaska. These alcoholism researchers observed and studied how alcoholics, smokers and other addicts were able to change their habits or addictions. They found some important things about human motivation and how people, and even kids, make and maintain positive changes.
So your child isn’t an alcoholic? That’s okay. This should be helpful anyway because, after all, you and your child have things you would like to change and this research is really less about alcohol and more about how humans change and improve. Chances are that your child has some behavioral habit or pattern that needs to change. Sometimes it can seem almost impossible to break through and help them achieve those positive changes. We often try and try to teach our child what to do to change but the teaching seems to fall flat. They either disregard it altogether or can’t seem to apply it. Why is that, and more importantly, how do we help them move towards the positive changes we know they are capable of?
Dr. DiClemente and Prochaska presented an insightful model of the stages of change. Below I will share each of the Stages of change, what they mean, how that stage looks in our kids, and finally, what you can do to help your child move through that stage and onto the next to promote positive, healthy change.
1. Pre-contemplation: They are unaware of a problem or intend not to change.
I’m Not ready Stage: This is your child’s, “Huh? What? I’m not listening! I’m not listening!” stage. During this stage kids either don’t know that what they are doing is a problem or they are in complete denial that it is a problem. They are not interested in your supposed “solutions” in any way. This can be the most frustrating stage for parents and it’s here that we often act most forcefully and emotionally. Our first inclination is to punish, induce fear or force. These tactics are the opposite of what is helpful most in this stage. Demands, threats and punishments at this point (or at any point) often cause a child to dig in his/her heels and resist.
How to help them move through: The secret at this stage is to build trust, empathy, connection, understanding, and to utilize more indirect kinds of teaching and questions. I often refer to this as the back door approach. I’m not implying that we are being sneaky or manipulative. We are coming in the door of their minds and hearts. We’re just refraining from coming through the front door with guns blazing and making demands. Rather, we come through the back door, bringing cookies. It can be helpful to spend time and ask questions like, “What’s going well for us? What could use some work? What would you like to see change or go better? Could I share some things that I think would help you and me? That doesn’t mean that if my child is in the “I’m not ready stage” of changing her lovely wall art practices that we don’t follow through with the natural consequence of clean up. It does mean, however, that the secret to her moving on to ultimately changing that behavior in this stage is more likely achieved by teaching during play time, kind dinner conversations, reading books, asking questions and discussing differences in your perception and her perception of the situation. People (kids being people too) move through the pre-contemplative stage of change when they, first, are gently made aware and second, when they feel understood, connected to, and safe with someone they feel can help them learn, grow and change.
2. Contemplation: They are aware of the problem, but have no commitment to change.
Getting ready Stage: This is the “wheels are turning in my head but I’m not making any promises” stage. Have you ever watched those wheels turn in your child’s head before? I’ve seen each of my sons stop before hitting a sibling and look around. In seconds you can see them thinking through what they should do. They know it’s not the right thing to do but they still feel justified in doing it. This is often where parents pile on the shame. We say, “You know better than that. I can’t believe you would even think about acting that way.” We all know this is not effective.
How to help them move through: Empathy is always a good answer, but is especially important in this stage. The trick at this point is to help the child recognize that we understand their ambivalence and want to help them move forward in a way that is most beneficial for them. No progress is made if they see us as the punitive overlord. We do this by recognizing where they are emotionally and validating it without condoning the negative behavior. We say something like, “Wow, you are really angry right now! You look like you really want to hit your brother but aren’t sure that’s the right thing to do. Sometimes I get mad too.” You may have to gently move them away from the brother they are attempting to pummel before having this conversation. We can then proceed to help them calm themselves and brainstorm alternative solutions. We don’t have to solve the problem, but we do need to guide them into learning to identify what the problem was and thinking about alternative solutions.
3. Preparation: They show intent and willingness to plan and change. They want to change but may not know how.
Ready Stage: This is your child’s “what do I do now” stage. They may show signs of confusion at this point because they want to change things, but are not sure how. On the other hand they may also just be eager to learn something new at this point which can make this stage fun and exciting. The great part about this stage is that they are willing to talk, listen and learn. It’s important to create moments of proactive teaching and learning with our children during the good times, when we are not in the middle of a conflict on a regular basis. By doing this, we can often side step the first two stages of change in the natural flow of life and learning. To do this we have to be sensitive to our children’s curiosities and foster our relationship with them so that values and skills can be taught throughout our every day, positive interactions with them.
How to help them move through: It’s time to model, plan and coach your child. This is most effective when your child is calm and not defensive about an immediate conflict. It can be helpful to utilize play to teach them the skills they need. We can use a family night or other regular moments to problem solve and engage them in the process of coming up with a game plan for change. Make sure to include how you will change or what you can do to help them in the plan. This helps them see the problem solving/planning process as proactive and positive rather than being a “lecture” that they simply tune out.
4. Action: They implement a plan and make specific behavioral changes.
Doing Stage: This is your child’s, “Look at me, I’m doing it” Stage. At this stage, plans have been created and they are being carried out by you and your child. You can see them practicing the skills they have learned. They may still make mistakes or forget or even be overwhelmed by emotions that defeat their efforts at times, but they are trying, practicing and growing.
How to help them move through: It can be helpful to post the plans somewhere where you and your child can see them. Refer back to them and review the things they have learned. Help them set personal goals if they are old enough to understand goals. Encourage and compliment their efforts. Practice with them and continue to model the change they are working towards. If they are trying to stop a negative behavior, help them find positive alternatives that will help them meet their needs and/or wants more appropriately. They will want to be more independent at this stage. It’s important to give grant them space but continue to encourage and support.
5. Maintenance/ Relapse/ Recycling: They continue implementing positive changes but may be susceptible to backsliding, at which point, recommitment to positive actions and changes are required to continue to grow.
Doing Consistently Stage/ Interspersed with Mistakes: This is your child’s “Yeah! I got this. Oops, no I don’t. Wait, Don’t worry, I got it!” Stage. This is simply a trial and error, practice stage. It’s important for parents to realize that change doesn’t usually happen all at once. It may take weeks, months or years to make the positive change permanent and even then, there will be mistakes from time to time. I’m still working on cleaning up after myself 30 years after my mother first started teaching me how to do so.
How to help them move through: Just encourage them. Be in their corner and build a relationship that allows them to be honest about mistakes or slip ups. Set a precedent that you are there to help them. Allow them to experience the natural consequences of their choices ,but be there to help them find solutions to move forward when they do. Help them build habits. Exemplify the attitude that if I make a mistake, now is the time to restart and recommit. Be optimistic and positive.
6. Termination or transcendence: They are 100% independent and have no trouble maintaining changes without outside help.
Independent Stage: This is your child’s “I’m married and have a family of my own now” stage. I’m kidding… kind of. Seriously, some changes will never be fully baked, but honestly, they don’t need to be. I mean, think about some of the things that you have been trying to work on changing since you were very young and still haven’t completely mastered. We all have things we are still working on and may continue to need kind and gentle help to improve for a long time. That’s okay. Its just part of living and growing.
How to help them move through: Learn to let go. It can be hard to take a completely dependent newborn baby and teach and raise them and then one day to realize that they don’t NEED you anymore, at least not in the same way they used to. It can be difficult to recognize their competence and let them spread their wings and explore more of the world without us hovering. Trust that they will make mistakes, like we did, but they will be able to manage and learn from them. They will be resilient and make changes on their own if they need to.
There is no timeline for these stages. They may all happen within the context of a single incident or on bigger scale. Specific and concrete skills may happen more quickly while values based learning and changes may happen slowly over years.
Your child may not be an alcoholic or smoker but they probably have something they would like to change. I’ve yet to see a person in my counseling practice, or any of my children in my home, that these stages of change do not apply to. When we understand what stage of change they are in, it can help prompt us in what would be the most helpful and influential course of action at the time.
Think for a moment about something that you have been trying to change with your children, maybe something that you seem to have used all of the disciplinary tricks and techniques and “nothing seems to be working.” Now take a step back and look at the big picture and ask yourself what stage of change you think your child might be in. What could you do to help them move through their current stage of change?