Teen or Young Adult Drug Use: Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Change Behavior

Positive reinforcement means providing some kind of reward or benefit to increase the chances that a behavior will be repeated. And it is central to changing the way your son or daughter acts.

Positive Reinforcement: A Powerful Tool to Change Your Child’s Behavior

Positive reinforcement is a motivating factor in all our lives, from a toddler who feels encouraged by her parents’ cheering to take her first steps, to an adult who collects a bonus or a tip for a job well done. We are more likely to repeat a behavior when it makes us feel good.

Substance use can also be reinforcing. For example, drugs or alcohol may help a person feel less anxious, alleviate boredom, encourage social interactions, help with insomnia, provide energy or help with weight management. In other words, because they “solve a problem” – although in an unhealthy way – the person is more likely to repeat the behavior of using drugs and alcohol.

As a parent or caregiver, you can use the same strategy to reinforce healthy, pro-social behaviors you want to see more of in your child. The following are some examples of positive behaviors you can reinforce or praise in your child:

  • looking for a job
  • being home on time
  • helping with household chores
  • speaking in a respectful way
  • doing homework
  • going to therapy appointments
  • attending a support group meeting
  • assisting another family member or friend with a problem
  • returning phone calls/text messages promptly

You may be thinking, “Wait — these are things my child should do anyway, without any kind of reward.” But by rewarding your child’s good behavior, you are helping to link a behavior you want to encourage with a positive outcome. Doing this repeatedly will help your child recognize that there is value in acting this way. Over time, he or she will learn that there are other ways to “feel good” besides using substances, which can lead to less substance use or even abstinence.

Your kindness and compassion will inspire a positive and warm feeling within your child and reinforce their belief that they are capable of feeling good from means other than using substances.

Examples of rewards or reinforcers that are free:

  • a hug
  • a smile
  • a shoulder rub
  • a thoughtful text message
  • a kind word/compliment or praise.
  • time spent together in a favorite activity like watching a movie, going fishing or playing chess.
  • assisting with your child’s laundry or another chore
  • teaching a skill like how to drive
  • making a favorite breakfast, snack, dinner or dessert

Examples of rewards or reinforcers that cost money:

  • gift cards for a coffee shop, clothing store or restaurant
  • small items like nail polish, makeup, hair product, socks or protein bars
  • helping with healthcare costs (like the dentist and vision care/glasses), paying for a college class or
  • textbooks or helping with credit standing
  • concert or sports tickets

Watch our skills video on Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement is wonderful skill to use to help your family heal. Click the button below to watch a video about it, created for our CRAFT skill video series.

positive reinforcement - CRAFT

Four tips for using positive reinforcement:

1. Think about your child and what motivates him or her.

Often parents will come up with a reward that they personally find reinforcing, but their child could care less. It helps to take the time to develop a list of reinforcers that you think would be appealing, and if you are unsure, ask your child.

2. Consider what a replacement behavior might be.

For example, you may want your child to complete homework or look for a job instead of playing video games and getting high. What would be an incentive for them to do so, even if it was just for one day? Alternatively, you may tell your child that if he completes a certain number of assignments or applies for X number of jobs, he or she will get a tangible reward (e.g. a giftcard to Starbucks, two movie tickets, a small clothing item, etc.).

3. Reward the small steps along the way.

Eventually they will add up to positive behavior change. So, if your child hasn’t done homework for weeks, but completes one assignment, reinforce it with a tangible reward or a kind comment. If your child hasn’t looked for a job in the past month, but looks on Craigslist and applies to two jobs, notice and praise the action.

4. Try a reinforcing a comment.

Instead of saying, “It’s about time!”, try saying:
“I know how hard it’s been for you to complete your homework and it’s really great that you were able to complete the assignment.”
or “I’m really glad to see that you applied for a job.”

Bottom Line:

Your child has probably heard a lot of complaints and negative feedback about his or her substance use. But the truth is, you don’t get someone to change by nagging. When people feel unacceptable as they are, they are often stuck and unable to change.

Think about your own self. You are probably more encouraged by praise, not criticism. Kind words, compassion and rewards can go a long way in inspiring your child to work toward healthy behaviors – and away from negative ones.

Give it a try – it may be a game changer for both of you.