Talking About Change

M_BarnettMichelle Barnett, LPC

“You’re worrying me to death”, “You’re going to ruin your life”, “You’re going to wind up dead or in jail”!  Do any of these statements sound familiar?  As a concerned parent, you may find it difficult to get through to a teen who is participating in challenging, perhaps dangerous and/or addictive behaviors.  The question is, does this type of communication result in the change you are looking for?  Does your teen give in, say “yes, you are so right!” and change their behavior for the better?  Or, are you met with denials, arguments, promises to do better and then right back to the status quo?

The fact is that behavior change tends to result from one person deciding to change and that is the person themselves.  The goal is to motivate someone to make a change for their own good reasons.  So, how do we communicate with a teen in a way that encourages them to identify their own reasons to change?  Motivational Interview (MI) is a powerful technique that allows you as a parent to meet your teen where they are and get them talking rather than defending his/herself.   MI elicits change talk wherein the teen identifies reasons to modify their behavior for their own good.  By asking questions that are free from judgment, the teen has the ability to talk about the good and bad elements of their behavior and consider alternatives.

When using Motivational Interview the two most important things to do are:

  1. STOP trying to motivate your teen by telling her about your feelings, thoughts or reasons for change.  Expressions of anger, blame and identifying all of the reasons why the behavior is dangerous simply shut down communication and put your teen on the defensive.  It’s exhausting for both of you and doesn’t encourage change talk from your teen.
  2. START asking your teen questions that are designed to elicit change talk.  For example, if your teen is using marijuana you might have a conversation like this:
  • Start by saying, “While I’m very concerned about your marijuana use, I know it’s ultimately your decision whether you choose to stop or accept help.”
  • Ask, “What would have to happen for you to stop or get help to stop?”
  • Ask, “Have you ever done something you regretted while using marijuana? What was it?”
  • Ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is not ready at all to 10 being completely ready, how ready are you to make a change in your use? Why did you pick that number?  What would it take for you to go one or two higher?
  • Ask him/her why they didn’t pick a lower number.
  • Reiterate the good answers AND ignore the bad.  Remember, this is about getting your teen to talk about the possibility of behavior change.

This approach is a vast improvement over heated arguments, shaming and conversations that end with slamming doors, hurt feelings and ultimately no behavior change.  It steps out of the argument and gets your teen talking rather than defending.  Of course, this is a difficult process as you are the parent and are emotionally involved with your teen.  A calm, detached approach can be challenging and you may find it difficult to ignore some of the negatives you are hearing.  Additionally, the next question may be “So, what’s next”?  Perhaps your teen is ready to make some change to their behavior but doesn’t feel confident that they can do it on their own.  Perhaps you as the parent believe they need the help of a therapist.  Motivational Interview is a complex technique that a trained therapist can utilize to help your teen increase motivation to change, increase awareness of both the pros and cons of their behavior, strategize change, follow up to maintain behavior change and manage set backs.  While the topic has focused on change to marijuana use, this technique can be utilized for any behavior that results in negative consequences for your teen.  If you are struggling with your teen about drug use or any other risky behavior, it is important to obtain an evaluation to identify obstacles to change before the behavior escalates and causes long term negative consequences.

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