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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2 thoughts on “When Behavior Modification becomes the treatment of choice

  1. As a “retired” dog trainer/behavior consultant, I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt when I apply behavior modification/dog training techniques to people. (one of my teachers was a student of Skinner.) However, it works, so I keep doing it. Now to explain to a few million people how what they do, and when they do it, changes what others do. I have always thought Jesus would have made a brilliant animal trainer. Actually, he had a far harder job. He had to change the behavior of people. It is much easier to change the behavior of animals than of people, simply because people don’t listen as well as animals do and always have their own agenda.

    You have set out very worthwhile and achievable goals. I pray that others will take your message and spread it.

  2. I don’t think this would work. The issue with Trump is more complex than wanting praise. I don’t even think that’s his motivator. He reminds me quite a bit of my late father, whom I think suffered from (actually, made everyone else suffer from) some social or psychological disconnect from other people. He could carry on small conversations to get what he wanted (“you are beautiful, honey” or “I’d like more potatoes”), but he often couldn’t process what other people said, and in an advanced conversation he had only one approach – which was to give a speech. My father chose some topic that he read about and lectured on it (to everyone – family members and complete strangers in line at the grocery store). He would stick to the same lecture for years. At one time it was the value of taking vitamin C. Later it was to complain about black people taking over the world, and he would give this speech TO black strangers, with no understanding of it being inappropriate. My point is that he wasn’t looking for praise or even feedback. He just needed to say, again and again, the same random thing that obsessed him. Usually, it was some sort of complaint, and anyone who didn’t want to listen (even if for to 50th time) “had their head in the sand.” Trump is a little different because he rotates complaints more frequently and can handle a few at a time (he was only obsessed with the inauguration size for a few weeks). But so many things are similar – his not realizing what is inappropriate, his obsession with the news, but inability to choose what news is real or important, his inability to filter himself, his inability to hear and respond to questions he’s asked…etc. There’s so much more. But it also explains his odd desire to keep campaigning… what he wants is to keep repeating his complaints.

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