Tommy, Can You Hear Me? Insights and Answers

"I've changed, Mom. I'm not going to smoke pot any more or play video games either. I just need some money until I can get a job." Tommy pauses as if for dramatic effect then plays the card that has always worked in the past: "I can't believe you don't trust me."

How should Tommy's Mom respond?

Should she explain that trust is a bucket that gets emptied all at once, but is filled up one drop at a time?

Should she articulate that Tommy has failed to achieve his purpose repeatedly and that unless he gets treatment no further communication will be forthcoming except of course that she will stay on the phone just this one last time to say the same things that she's said six bazillion times before and that maybe just maybe this time will be the time that her cogent pleas connect and Tommy agrees to treatment?

(Nah, that can't be the right answer. The correct choice is never a run-on sentence.)

It's time for Tommy's Mom to COMMUNICATE that there is no more discussion. Either Tommy accepts the gift of treatment or he doesn't. There is nothing else to discuss.

Tommy's Mom doesn't have to say, "No, we're not going to send you any money;" she doesn't have to say, "You can't live at home again;" she doesn't have to say, "Marijuana and video game addiction are destroying you." She doesn't have to say anything.

The time for talk is past. Now is time for action. And actions, as has often been remarked, speak louder than words.

As long as Tommy's Mom is still TALKING, Tommy has every reason to believe that the old dance will continue: Tommy will be abusive. Mom will be patient. Tommy will argue irrationally about the past. Mom will be conciliatory. Tommy will turn up the heat on guilt. Mom will fold.

And as Skinner taught us, a differential reinforcement schedule takes the longest to extinguish.*

There comes a point, after you've validated the feeling that your child truly wants a pony; there comes a point after you've mentioned that in your apartment building residents are not allowed to have a pony; there comes a point where subsequent discussion on the subject of pony acquisition becomes superfluous.

Marshall McLuhan said that "the medium is the message." For Tommy, the message needs to be a dial tone. Tommy's Mom has to hang up the phone and not take any more calls, texts, emails, or smoke signals from her son. Either he agrees to treatment or there is nothing else to talk about.

Tommy doesn't have to agree with mom's cogent point that he does indeed need treatment. Tommy doesn't have to look forward to treatment. Tommy doesn't have to agree to the goal of treatment.

He just has to go.

"But he'll starve; he'll be homeless; he'll come to harm," every loving parent cries. Maybe so. But if he comes home or mom sends money, Tommy's Mom might as well just buy him the pot that he's going to continue smoking every day.

"But shouldn't we address his learning differences, his self-esteem issues, the reasons he's self-medicating?" No. All these issues have been addressed repeatedly and to no avail.

"But shouldn't we send him to a therapist?" No. You and I both know that Tommy has seen every competent therapist in town since the time he turned nine years of age.

Families Anonymous** has signs: "You didn't cause it' you can't control it; you can't cure it." It's time for Tommy's Mom to hold the line: Get treatment.

Or you're on your own.

* A pigeon is taught that she receive a food pellet when she pushes a bar. Subsequently, if the food stops, the pigeon will soon stops pushing the bar. But if the pellets arrive sporadically--every seventh push or every ninth push--the pigeon will keep pushing the bar almost indefinitely.

** Typically a great group and there's a meeting near you!

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