At different points in their lives, many people will attempt to make behavioral changes. Whether the changes are temporary or lasting will depend greatly upon several factors. For example: Does the person want to change? Does the individual have the resources and knowledge to successfully make a lasting change? Is there anything preventing the person from changing? Then there is always the expected relapse. What factors will trigger a person’s return to a former behavior?
Whether people are contemplating clearing their basement or office of clutter, fighting an uphill battle to take off weight, trying to stop smoking, or attempting to improve their parent-child relationship, making any change in their behavior, especially a lasting one, is rarely a simple process. It usually involves a substantial commitment of time, effort, energy and emotion.
As far as solutions are concerned, there is no single answer that will work for everyone. Some people may have to try several different techniques in order to achieve their goals, often through a process of trial-and-error. And even if they do find a successful approach, it does not necessarily follow that they will experience immediate positive results. Along with feelings of disappointment, it is common for them to feel frustrated. And it is during this irritating period they may become discouraged, give up on their goals and revert to old ways.
In view of the frustration, there are (at least) two factors that can potentially enable individuals to reach and maintain their goals: finding ways to stay motivated ,and having a support system in place. Whether the support is professional in nature and/or is derived from peers, acquiring inspiration, encouragement and strength from sensitive and understanding outsiders can sometimes make the difference between forward momentum and giving up.
And now for the crucial piece – the building blocks of the process – how does change occur?
There are theories to help explain how change occurs. The ‘Stages of Change Model’ (SCM), which was introduced in the late 1970s by researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente*, has been used to help us understand the mind/body stages we go through when we do change. And while this particular model does offer possible strategies to help us work through each stage, the model serves a greater purpose. It provides us with a sense of the complexity and chaos (i.e., the ups and downs and rollercoaster ride) involved in the process. That awareness lends itself to help generate more patience, understanding and compassion – with ourselves or toward others – in navigating the struggles within the various stages.
One key thought behind the Stages of Change Model is that behavior change does not happen in one step. Rather, there is a gradual progression of small steps toward a larger goal. And people tend to progress through different stages on their way to successful change with one caveat in mind – that it will be at their own rate.
In this two-part article, the contextual framework upon which we will be focusing is parenting behavior changes. We will identify the stages, discuss certain aspects and offer several possible strategies or perspectives associated with the stages.
Note: For the purpose of the illustrations below, names were chosen randomly.
Stage 1 – Pre-contemplation
During this earliest stage of change, also referred to as “denial,” people are not considering a change. Everything in their world seems just fine the way it is. They claim their behavior is not a problem and/or they believe they have no control over their behavior. They may become defensive in the face of pressure to change, often manifesting in blame. In many instances, they are either unaware or under-aware of the consequences of their actions to family members. In addition, they may not realize that a different approach exists, or that other choices are available. With this lack of information, they may be uninformed that ‘they can choose to choose’ or ‘they can choose to make a different choice.’
When Ariella and I first spoke, she described the state in which her family was living – a state of upheaval, turmoil and suffering. She was well aware of the need for her to change her parenting approach toward her children, two of whom were struggling with adolescent and profound learning issues. She was ready to begin learning. However, her husband, Yosef, refused to join her. “My husband has no intention in changing. Why should he? He doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with how he relates to the kids. In his map of the world, everything is fine, well, at least based on his perception. His claim is that the kids are the ‘real’ problems because they’re uncooperative and chutzpadik. And then he yells, criticizes and puts them down. So I feel a need to come to their rescue. But then, typically, he blames me for their behaviors. He’ll usually say: ‘You don’t know how to handle the kids. You’re too soft. You just have to put them in their place!'”
And on a different note Eight-year-old Shlomie’s hearing loss had not been detected until it was too late. In the interim, this sweet little boy began exhibiting behavior problems in school. The administration was unable to provide him with tutoring and so his father took on the role. Yehuda spent hours tutoring his son, a task he started with the best of intentions. However, Shlomie was unable to grasp the learning. It was a hard pill for his father, a man who spends about 19 hours a day learning Torah, to swallow.
Frustrated with his son’s inability to keep pace with the class, the interchange between father and son gradually deteriorated. At this tender early stage, they were at each other’s throats. And the signs were beginning to show up in school. Imagine how Yehuda felt when the principal indicated he would not allow the child to remain in school. Imagine how Shlomie’s mother felt when she heard that her 8-year-old son had been “kicked out.” Imagine how horrified his loving grandmother felt when she tried convincing her son, Yehuda, that unless they do something immediately to help build up Shlomie’s self-esteem, the child’s future emotional development would, no doubt, suffer.
This grandmother was educated. She understood the domino effect associated with profound learning problems, low self-esteem, a child’s disinterest to learn and future at-risk behavior. And yet she felt helpless, unable to get her son to think differently, to entertain other options, and to shift from his attitude of “everything will work itself out.”
And so the big question is, can you get someone in denial to change? Or should we say how do you get someone in denial to change?
Ironically, most parents with whom I have worked have posed to me an almost identical question: “How can I get my child to change?” And my answer to them, in the form of a question, is applicable, here as well: “What exactly do you believe you can do to get your child to change that will not compromise your ultimate goal or hinder your relationship? And equally as important, if you do get your child to change (through manipulation or control), do you believe the change will be a lasting one?
While one’s intentions to influence someone’s behaviors may be selfless and noble, it is vital to keep in mind that a decision to change is internal; it must come from within. Stable, long-term change cannot be externally imposed. As a matter of fact, when outside (negative) pressure is involved (i.e., anger, criticism), the opposite result often takes place. Therefore, one of the best strategies one can use in a relationship is to learn how to communicate in the most flexible and compassionate way. And part of utilizing effective communication is to think prudently: When is it best to say something and when is it more beneficial to rely on Chazal’s adage: “Shev v’al ta’aseh (do not do – or say – anything)?”
In Part Two, we will continue identifying and discussing the other stages.