Drug use is hard work. Aside from obtaining something illegal, navigating life while feeding an addiction involves a lot of time, money, consequences and lies. One might think consequences alone should be enough to encourage recovery. For an addict, it’s usually just a minor setback. Overall, if drugs require so much, and are so bad, why would one work so hard to continue use?
Anything that increases the likelihood of repeated action is called a reinforcer. Whatever the user obtains mentally, physically, or emotionally after drug use, is the positive reinforcer that drives the hard work. Ultimately, we must find a way to compete with it.
Punishment is typically the first go to, but consequences may drive further use. The guilt, shame, or anger that follows the punishment gives the addict another reason to use with the result of feeling good again. This is not to say that we are to blame, but we may have to adjust our thinking.
Using positive reinforcement to drive change involves ignoring the bad and rewarding the good. This concept may seem ridiculous as good behavior is expected of your loved one. But if hard work goes unnoticed and unrewarded, what’s the point? Afterall, what may seem easy to one may be hard work to another and hard work should pay off.
Ignoring the bad is best executed by removing yourself or something from the situation. This is as simple as no longer pointing out the bad behavior and walking away. If you’re reading this, your loved one probably already knows you’re not happy with the drug use. The daily reminder is not going to encourage change.
Rewarding the good behavior is self-explanatory. The reinforcer does not have to be costly, or time consuming, sometimes it’s as small as extra TV time before bed or choice of restaurant for next night out. Find what makes your loved one tick and prepare for such instances.
Keep in mind that however you use positive reinforcement you are competing with the feelings that result from drugs. If your loved one does not like cookies as a reward, there will be no interest in the positive behavior required to obtain one. There is something out there for everyone that can replace drug’s “positive” effects.
If you would like to learn more about this topic, check out Winning The Fight’s list of recommending reading. A donation is made to WTF from each purchase made from our website. Beyond Addiction, a guide for families, teaches reinforcement as the driver of change and other ways science and kindness help people change.
Lori Youngblood is a recovering drug addict. Her mission is to help others gain knowledge about the disease of addiction.