What to do with (Behavioral) Weeds: The Gardener's Dilemma
Updated: Jun 7, 2020
In my last blog post, I discussed the concept of “enabling” and how it makes more sense to view it from a different angle – as accommodation. As parents, partners, and loved ones, it can be a real challenge to figure out how to bring about change in someone else’s behavior. Part of this challenge is due to the fact that families are dynamic systems, constantly changing and evolving as their many interdependent parts interact with one another. There’s just so much happening! It can be hard to know where one person’s influence (and responsibility) stops and another’s begins. How much control do you really have over another person’s behavior? What is the most effective way of trying to change it? What if you make the wrong choice? The first stage of couples and family therapy is devoted to assessing these interactions in order to understand where things are going wrong. As a couples and family counselor, I’m not trying to figure out who is to blame (as some family members might fear), but instead trying to diagnose the systemic issues that keep people in the couple and/or family from living harmoniously and getting what they want. I want to help my clients be operate more effectively, especially when it involves other people. A big part of this is how people understand behavior.
So what makes influencing someone else’s behavior tricky? To illustrate, let’s look at a metaphor that comes from Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) literature. Imagine you are tending to a lush and colorful garden, where all the various plants, flowers, fruits, vegetables, and weeds represent the behaviors of the people in the family. As any loving and attentive gardener would be, you are concerned about the weeds (i.e. problem behaviors) overtaking the beautiful flowers and crops (i.e. positive and healthy behaviors). You know that you must take action, but wonder where to start and how to go about it. Here are your options:
Water and fertilize everything, always!
One possible strategy is to pump enough nutrients, water, and love into the garden that the plants you actually want grow strong and multiply. In human behavioral terms, think of reinforcement. This can take the form of gifts, money, food, compliments, affection, and
Think of the times that you have bribed, given in, avoided arguments, and cleaned up messes. Did it make problem behaviors go away? Often, parents and partners are pushed to their limit when dealing with behavioral challenges from the people they love. Sometimes, they desperately hope that, if they’re just nice enough and give enough, the person will see the problem and stop on his or her own. Unfortunately, this rarely works for those stubborn weeds.
Starve the weeds out!
Another gardening strategy is to move to the opposite end of the spectrum: stop watering and fertilizing everything. The logic here is that we will deprive the weeds of what they need to grow, thereby killing them off. Of course, you can already see the issue with this strategy – we end up also starving the good plants we actually want. In human behavioral terms, this gardener is like the authoritarian parent who offers little nurturance or love. Correct behavior is expected on principle. They may say things like, “you don’t need a cookie for doing what you should already be doing.” There is no form of reinforcement in this garden, and good, healthy behaviors are at risk of shriveling up on the vine. Moreover, weeds can actually thrive in this harsh environment because they are better adapted to the conditions. So in the end, we can end up with the same kind of problem as the first gardener. In my experience, very few gardeners start out with this strategy unless it was how they were taught to garden from the beginning. More often, this strategy emerges when people have been trying to manage weeds for so long that they are now feeling angry and hopeless. These gardeners are fed up, and it’s hard for them to see the flowers, fruits, and vegetables even when they’re still present in the garden.
Think about the times when you have become so frustrated that it seemed nothing is going right. Have you ever had trouble seeing the good because you were so focused on the bad? Did completely withholding love, attention, and support make problem behaviors go away?
The middle path: Feed the flowers, deprive the weeds
The final strategy is arguably the most strategic approach of all. It takes careful planning,
some knowledge, and lots of attention. Here, the gardener takes his or her time to classify
each plant in the garden to determine whether it should be kept or eliminated. Here, flowers and produce are carefully nurtured, while weeds are strategically uprooted. In order to do this, the gardener needs to have thought clearly about each plant ahead of time to be able to recognize it, as well as what the consequences will be after each different course of action. What might at first look like a flower could actually turn out to be a weed, so patience is needed to see how things develop. This gardener stays calm and confident while visiting the garden daily, ready to respond to whatever is there in the appropriate way. Perhaps most importantly, the strategic gardener realizes that it may be impossible to eliminate all the weeds. He or she chooses to enjoy the garden's beauty even though it might not be "perfect." It doesn't mean that this gardener ignores weeds; they're just dealt with in their own time.
Whenever we engage in all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking, we aren't opening ourselves up to understanding the full picture. This phenomenon also goes both ways: either viewing behavior through rose-colored glasses and ignoring problems, or instead seeing everything as a failure or a catastrophe. Parents, partners, and loved ones must find a middle-ground, a place where they can celebrate and reinforce the healthy while discouraging the destructive. We do this through mindful planning and an attitude of hope, recognizing that no relationship or family is "perfect." This is truly stopping to smell the roses.