The first question to ask if you want something to change.

I recently read this book on raising boys. Like any book, it had some stuff I agreed with and some stuff I didn’t (It’s as if the author and I were too different people! -a quote stolen from a blog commenter). But one concept stuck with me: “If you want someone to behave differently, first make sure they have the tools to do so.”

Seems obvious.

Punishment, lecturing, or stating “shoulds” does not elicit positive behavioral change in the absence of assessing-for and applying necessary “tools.”

Just ask the local library.

My own library, like all libraries, simply applies a punishment in the form of a late fee when books are overdue. When I drop off my books late, there is no radical appeal to my personal organizational and environmental challenges, and there shouldn’t be if they want to keep making money. In the absence of applying “tools” such as alarms, forced prioritization, and a system that minimizes kids stashing books in the back of the pantry, I, of course, continue to donate large amounts of cash to the local library fund. Duh.

Therefore, if you want a behavior to change, the first thing to ask is, “What are the BARRIERS to change, and what are the TOOLS necessary to surmount them?”


The really GOOD books get hidden in the back of the closet, either so Mom doesn’t return them or because they inspire strange brother-shenanigans that are best attempted in privacy.


Radically accepting the existence of “barriers to change,” or acknowledging even crappy limitations and inclinations as they are, is even a central tenant of therapy.

If I want a teenage client to become motivated to actually do his homework, I need to know all of his barriers to success: I need to acknowledge factors such as paralyzing perfectionism, legitimate fears for safety which derail learning, powerful environmental distractions, attentional difficulties, cognitive limitations, and expectations of failures (among other things). I then need to offer the “tools” to triumph these barriers in the form a tutor, CBT, removal from environmental abuse/violence, making video games/internet inaccessible during homework hours, a teacher applying verbal cues, and/or a stimulant.


You can take away that bridge to the lower island and apply punishments/rewards all you want, but as long as those sharks are in the water, the stick figure dude is staying on the left side of the page.

If I want to help a parent with her goal to stop yelling at her already anxious kid, I need to understand and address the barriers to change: The parent’s own fears of inadequacy and fears for her child, her own unmet needs for control within her family of origin and current employment, her familial/cultural learning, the real underlying stress of her recent job loss in the current economy, her own neurological sensitivities to stress, and the way her husband will yell at her if he comes home without the toys being cleaned-up….. And on and on and on and on with all the messy variables.

If I don’t accept, understand, and address each and of the realities within this client’s functioning and environment, I will fail to address all of the barriers and the yelling will remain. In fact, my failure to recognize some of these realities without judgement or condemnation, would likely only ADD-TO her barriers to change. (Often times it is the case that failing to understand and validate exacerbates reasons behind the problematic behavior.)

Through these examples, I have tried to illustrate how undesirable behaviors don’t change unless they are first known in the actual context of the person’s current environment, historical experiences, culture, psychological/cognitive functioning, unmet needs, desires, and automatic coping mechanisms.  Basically, a person’s unique experiences and realities must be deeply understood before anyone can even pinpoint the barriers to change and know which “tools” are required for surmounting them.

And so it is with trying to raise caring and successful kids, with criminal rehabilitation, with gaining employment, with addiction recovery, with increasing educational outcomes, and with any other aspect of life that urges positive and healthy human behavior.


Lots of research shows that there are real environmental and environmentally-driven emotional barriers to avoiding delinquency. Without the tools to change and overcome these barriers, good luck with eliciting positive outcomes.

You want change in your kid, your spouse, your client, or society? I say “Figure out the barriers to change, and then GIVE ’em the TOOLS!” or just sit there picking your nose. (Just seeing if you’re still reading.)

Just something to think about, says the therapist who sometimes writes blog posts after noticing herself having a way-too-enthusiastic conversation about well-managed half-way houses for addicts and who also thinks that one of the “tools” for employment is the actual availability of an actual job that pays at least as well as not having a job….

PS, Here’s another nice diagram to point out the ridiculousnes of talking about simply reforming entitlements instead of also offering “tools” to squash those blobs…err “sharks”:




7 thoughts on “The first question to ask if you want something to change.

  1. Thank you for posting this! It’s very relevant to a conversation we are having in our house right now. I would love to hear your advice on what we are facing.

    Short story…husband is adopted. He cheated. I had an affair years later. Both supposedly trying to rebuild our marriage (me more than him). Finally confronted about his head-in-the-sand behaviors and lack of being “with it”. He was checked out of our marriage big time and I suspected another affair, which he emphatically denied.

    We both made a pact that the only way our new marriage would thrive was if we both committed to 100% honesty, living authentically, full transparency and a heck of a lot of work. I can say for a while, he behaved like that but then he just turned into this lazy husband. Never tried in pretty much all areas of his life. And he admitted it, so at least I’m not dealing with someone who isn’t aware that they behave like this.

    So I told him this was it….I’m done. I’m not going to be his mother. I already have two kids, I’m not adding a third to the list here. He needs to stop saying things will change as he never sets himself up for success. He is full of years of empty promises, but then never tries to live up to them.

    He knew I was done. I blogged about it (and he was very ashamed when he read my blog post and my readers comments…he doesn’t want to be that kind of person. And in a weird way, it kinda gave him a kick up the ass). That said, he made an appointment to see a therapist. He saw her, gave her the full history. I was happy to see him “doing something different” vs saying “hey keep sticking with me, I promise I will try harder”.

    Here’s where I would love your feedback. The therapist stated she wasn’t the type of therapist that goes back and focuses on what’s already happened. You don’t lay on her sofa crying about hour childhood or things that happened a long, long, long time ago. She said everything he described were behaviors, and like all behaviors they can be unlearned. Her approach was to focus on the here and now, and try to establish new behaviors making him accountable etc. She said she has found this approach to be more successful and that the clients and their families have seen more immediate “wins” for lack of a better phrase.

    Now considering the affairs and most importantly, the lens he sees the world through by being adopted (and rejected by his birth mother), I question her approach. Yes I believe we could see changes, but the underlying reasons (I feel) stem from the above. To ignore that seems counter intuitive to me.

    But hey, I’m no expert. I’ve just lived with this man for 16 years now 🙂

    Anyways I would love to hear your advice!!

    • Here’s an SAT-style analogy for you:
      “Sympathetic hugs and explaining that he fell because there was a crack in the sidewalk” is to “telling your kid to get back on his bike” as “taking some time to understand and validate the ‘why'” is to “telling the person what behaviors in the here-and-now to change.” The first is not NECESSARY for the second, but it sure contributes to a sense of trust, security, self-assuredness, support, and eradication of shame, all of which boost chances of success with the second. Too much of the first and not enough of the second becomes justification and coddling and restricts change, however. To be super super honest, this therapist might not be comfortable dissecting all the details of the background (which is why I think I benefit from also being trained to work with kids) OR she may have given that response if she got the impression that he was using any of the past as justification to stay stuck?? OR, she is strictly a behavior therapist, and no, she is not wrong that working in the here-and-now is effective too (like strictly telling the kid to get back on the bike.) I hope that made sense. Just my two cents.

  2. And PS, she’d have to be pretty savvy to not talk about the past and know right away WHaT he needs (practice with distress tolerance when it comes to feeling at-risk for abandonment instead of just checking-out? An ability to tolerate direct requests without translating them into criticism and rejection? An ability to notice and not react to resentments? Appropriately assertive communication skills instead of passive or passive aggressive communication? ?)

  3. Thank you. This has given me a little more perspective. I double checked her credentials and she’s definitely a MFT (20 yrs experience), as well as a hypnotherapist. I think I will sit tight and see where this goes. I don’t want to undermine his steps in seeking help/awareness which I recognize is a big step for him. He offered to let me take his appointment next week, to explain my side of things should I want to. I think this would be beneficial in the short term but since I won’t be at his continued therapy sessions, I’m unable to compare if they are spending too much time on the present without recognizing the past.

    Your questions hit a nerve for me. I need time to digest each one and really reflect upon his behaviors. But for sure, I see passive-aggressive behaviors from him. Thank you again!

  4. Why can’t I package you up and bring you home with me? You don’t even have me as a client yet you get what I need you hear when I need to hear, and, most importantly, how I need to hear it so I can actually understand and learn from it. Thanks for being you!

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