When Behavior Modification becomes the treatment of choice

I noticed yesterday that during debate in the British Parliament, our new President of the United States (POTUS) was described at one point as being “a petulant child.”

Figured I may as well weigh in on this a bit using my prior years of service as a family therapist, sometimes in response to “a petulant child” presented by forlorn parents. True, no one has asked me to come out of retirement and play therapist for any good purpose. But there are different ways to assume one’s patriotic duties, and at least offering a few words of suggestion to my fellow Americans seems not so far out of bounds at this point in time. By now you may be desperate enough to even consider a new suggestion or two.  .

For one thing, I’m a bit tired of hearing the diagnosis of our new President, no matter how well formulated or agreed upon that may be. I say, let’s get on with a treatment plan. At least let’s discuss such a possibility, before it’s too late to intervene at all. Why wait for the house to burn down before addressing Junior’s anger issues? With this many matches laying around and no way to remove them all, maybe now is the time to attempt some treatment.  ASAP.  How about today?

Even “a petulant child,” if one is presented to us, can be helped. Behavioral healthcare does not always require an adult to child consensual contract. I’ve written many treatment plans for which the child’s signature was irrelevant. The adults simply had to get together and themselves act appropriate to the needs of that child.

Such a child may be helped by a behavioral modification plan. Which would look something like this in relation, say, to our new POTUS. This President obviously craves praise and behaves in the way that reinforces his craving. Praise is his primary motivator. It is his drug of choice. Hint: flattery will get you everywhere. And attention for the child’s bad behavior will quite equally get you nowhere. So our treatment of choice has to center around our own praise. Call it the “art of the deal” if you’d like, but the fact is we people of the world have much leverage and power when it comes to “dealing with” this President who craves attention but above all flattery and praise. For example, try this experiment using the comment section below. Finish this statement: Donald Trump will be the greatest President in the history of the United States and receive my greatest praise ever for any world leader in power today when he __________________________.

Go ahead and make a list. If you’re willing to do so, you may share it below in the comment section. Such an experiment may net a few such statements as building a border wall with Mexico, lowering taxes for wealthy Americans, reducing regulations for small businesses (even though it is large businesses through their paid lobbyists who typically write these regulations to benefit themselves), or to rid the world of radical Islamic terrorism. But there may be other statements such as stopping Russia from advancing further into Ukraine or any other Baltic state of sovereign independence. My personal list would include his finding a way to legally and successfully end Citizens United and district gerrymandering.  And to automatically register all U.S. citizens 18 years of age to vote, just like they used to register 18 year old boys for the military draft when I was that age.  As all praise reinforcement statements are tallied up, they then become leverage in modifying behavior. Obviously, the more participants in the process, including people in other nations willing to join the praise for the “greatest world leader of the 21st Century” plan, the more likely some behaviors, like building a wall, will lose loud appeal. A world “rally tour,” or even a state by state USA “rally tour” for praise upon accomplishment of the top 3 behaviors of a “greatest ever” President, might make the current red-state supporter rallies look like Arnold’s Apprentice ratings. Way down by comparison.

Show me 3 million people who would promise to attend this President’s 2020 inauguration in Washington if he successfully organizes, attends, and actively listens for a full 60 minutes at any Congressional Black Caucus meeting, and I’ll show you at least one small behavioral improvement by that POTUS. Consequences do influence choices, and not just the other way around.

Behavior modification plans work. Except for one thing.

As with petulant children at home or in school, they are easily sabotaged not by the child but by, you guessed it, the adults who refuse to cooperate. Let’s say you have a teacher who goes along but a principal who continues to reinforce the disruptive behavior, or a Mom who goes along but a Dad who continues to praise bullying behavior, etc. Whoever offers, in such a case as our new POTUS, the loudest level of reinforcing praise will determine the success or failure of such behavior mod treatment. For some kids, it comes down to which adult blows up the most and biggest balloons.

There is something every family therapist faces whenever a petulant child comes into focus. The treatment is never up to the child. The child can always be helped. The question is whether the adults in the room are willing to help, or if they in their own pain will choose to be like hurt people who only hurt people. The latter is what I see going on now in our United States.

I’ve had my share of cases over the years where the teachers, aides, cafeteria workers, principal, etc. at school did their part in helping. But if the louder parent in the home refused to make the right noise at the right time, the child made little improvement. What such a micro problem means on a macro scale is this: the other nations of today’s world may, like the British Parliament, all figure out how to use flattery and praise of the POTUS to win their own desired trade deal with the USA, etc. They may all agree to shun or ignore “petulant” behaviors (no State Dinner for the Donald). But if we Americans at home don’t get our own act together and find our own way to flatter and praise good behavior more than bad, then the problem child will not get the help we all need to see happen. As always, the first behavior to be modified must begin at home with the adults, not the child. Especially not “a petulant child.”

Okay, your turn. Any reactions, comments, questions?

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