Mindset: The Swiss Army Knife of Strategies
This blogpost was originally published in my weekly newsletter. To have more musings like this delivered straight to your inbox, click this link to sign up!
Recently, I had the pleasure of mingling with and learning from some of the brightest minds in the field of psychology at the annual convention for the American Psychological Association. During a presentation that was not only validating, but super exciting for me, I heard an important critique of the branch of ADHD treatments known as "behavior modifications." These are the most common first lines of treatment for ADHD. This is the umbrella term for rewards and punishments, positive reinforcement, etc. In short, anything that you're doing or using to change a child's behavior.
Here's my interpretation of what was said:
The problem with behavior modification strategies is that we often rely on them to get the results forever. And then once we stop using the strategy (or are imperfect in implementing it), we often find the "bad" behavior returns.
Say it again for the people sitting in the back!!!!!
In theory, sticker charts and rewards for "good" (read: desirable) behavior can be phased out over time after a new skill is learned. Potty training is an excellent example of this (which is why I tried it that one time on a kindergartener…oh…wait…that backfired spectacularly…remember that?).
If you've worked with me or otherwise gotten to know me as a psychologist, you might have noticed that I'm often hard-pressed to incorporate tools, tips, tricks, hacks, etc. For the sake of simplicity, I'll give them the umbrella term "strategies." Why is that? At best, strategies fix one specific problem. At worst, they can be damaging. Kinda like a hammer. You need a hammer to drive a nail into the wall. However, that same hammer can cause serious damage to the wall if not used with exact precision.
This is why, when families come to me for help with their angry kids' behavior, my go-to is a shift in mindset — if we're sticking with the tool metaphor, I'd call it the swiss army knife of therapeutic interventions. A shift in mindset is like the portable tool that is forever attached to you, and can be used to address a variety of problems. Strategies are what we do or what we use, but mindset is how we think, regardless of what you have or what script you remember.
I know, I know — this is where I might lose a lot of parents. You might be thinking, "Stephanie, I need my kid's behavior to change, not to pretend it's all okay!" To you, stressed and rightfully-concerned parent, I say that changing your mindset is often the first step in seeing change.
It’s extremely understandable that so many parents, overwhelmed by their kid's problematic behavior (and underwhelmed by existing social supports), can start to feel resentful or feel a need to quickly control their kid. But if you come to an angry kid carrying that resentment and desire to control, you’re not going to see much progress. If you come at them thinking they're antagonizing you, they're going to mirror that.
So that is where mindset shifts come in. Here are some shifts I invite you to try on:
1. No matter how obnoxiously or defiantly they behave, my child is not my adversary.
2. My child is a human being in development.
3. I am a human being in development.
4. Curiosity is more powerful than control.
Dear reader, some of these suggestions might elicit a visceral or icky reaction. I get it. It's not easy breaking generational patterns that value obedience, conformity, shame, and toxic perfection. These traits are often masquerading as excellence, strength, accountability, and success.
I'd be so grateful if you shared any reactions you have to these mindset shifts, even if it's just to say "STFU, Dr. Stephanie! You don't know me!"