One of the most challenging aspects of being a parent is figuring out how to set and enforce effective contingencies. This is a challenging task because there is no ‘right’ answer or universal set of contingencies that every parent can establish. Nonetheless, they are important because effective contingencies promote healthy capabilities.
Contingencies are the rewards and consequences that help people shape their behavior toward a certain goal and often communicate “If I do this behavior, then this positive or negative consequence will occur”. In families, parents often need to find rules and establish contingencies that fit within their family values and, at times, can feel like negotiations that should be taking place at the United Nations. Parenting children and adolescents with mental health deficits can add an extra wrinkle, where parents often find themselves reinforcing behaviors that are often ineffective and, sometimes, dangerous.
Here are the principles to establishing effective contingencies. These guidelines can help families establish rules and contingencies that can serve as a building block for communication and effective family systems. The CLICHÉ acronym can help provide a model or ‘test’ to evaluate if a contingency has the opportunity to be successful in terms of implementation and, perhaps more importantly, consistently follow through in practice.
The CLICHÉ Model for Effective Contingency Management
This is the foundation of contingency management! As we have learned from behaviorism, the most powerful type of reinforcement is intermittent. This means that when we are inconsistent with our established contingencies, we are reinforcing the very behaviors that we want to eradicate. It also means that once we are not consistent with our contingencies, it demonstrates that, at some point, we may be inconsistent in the future. It is very difficult to help our kids gain acceptance of the contingencies when they are under the impression that they could change. This can be particularly difficult if we are inconsistent due to fear, anxiety or being worn down.
This is an important quality when establishing effective contingencies because our rewards and consequences should be possible on a day to day basis. If we begin being frustrated with ourselves or resenting our own rules because holding the contingency makes our lives as parents miserable, they are not going to be effective because it will be difficult to remain consistent.
Contingencies should follow something that makes sense, both on the reward and consequence side, including the behavior that we are trying to positively reinforce or extinguish. It also allows us to hold a contingency that has some meaning or connection to the behavior itself. If the link between the behavior and reward/consequence is unclear, it will not serve as a good positive or negative reinforcer for the behavior.
The more buy-in that exists around a contingency, the more likely it will have an effect on behavior. This is where it is important to ensure that everyone who is expected to hold contingencies is in agreement. There is a good chance that every parent has had to hold a limit or manage a contingency where they are not in agreement with their partner. It feels miserable. The collaboration should extend to the children or adolescents who will be most affected by the contingencies and rewards. Inviting children and adolescents to establish fair rewards and consequences is an important step to collaboration and family buy-in.
This relates to both the people involved in the management part of contingency management, as well as ensuring that the expectations all work well together. Do any of the rules, rewards or consequences cross anyone’s values? Are all the stakeholders involved (this can include mentors, therapists or other folks that have a responsibility to the family)? Do the rewards or consequences interfere with other parts of life, making them unenforceable. A holistic approach ensures that contingencies are clear to everyone involved and setting them is hard work, so try and set clear and behaviorally well-defined contingencies that will make the enforcement much easier.
Imagine if societal expectations were supported by ‘in the moment’ rewards and consequences. Life would seem very chaotic. Family systems that do not take the time to establish logical, clear, collaborative contingencies are operating in the same manner. The ongoing ‘prize’ of having well-established contingencies is that very little decision making occurs at the moment of a success, struggle or when emotions are running high. Emotion-minded decisions often result in relieving anxiety or frustration through harsh and restrictive punishment that may not be logical once affect settles. It can also result in ‘eggshell parenting’, where families do not communicate or enforce/reinforce consequences or rewards. By having a clean and established contingency plan, it takes the pressure out of under- or over-reacting because the big decisions have already been made.
There are times that, in spite of good planning and intentions, things come up. If a situation arises where a contingency must be changed at the moment based on unexpected circumstances, make the change in the reward/consequence transparent and explain why the contingency is not being followed in a consistent manner. Finally, behaviors and contingencies change. Sometimes a contingency that made sense at one point might make less sense a few months later. Try and reevaluate your plan every few months (at a predetermined date and not in a moment of frustration or jubilation!) and assess what has been effective and what might need some tweaking. It can help keep contingencies effective.