Navigating Relationships and Behaviors: Strategies for Holiday Harmony

by LukeAdmin

By Alexandra Wilson (AMHSW; CSW; MAASW; BSW Usyd)

People and relationships are a source of joy, but can also trigger of range of difficult emotions. The holidays can be a time of joy and connection, but also possibly a time of stress as we socialise and are surrounded by family and others.

When people we interact with display behaviours we find it difficult, there are strategies we can use to respond effectively and reduce our own distress. Likewise, these strategies also work if we are trying to change our own behaviours.

Maybe we’d like to change a habit or behaviour, and these same approaches will increase our likelihood of success!

Reinforcement is any consequence that increases the frequency of a behaviour. It doesn’t matter if that’s the intention – reinforcement is simply anything that increases frequency.

Reinforcement if the most effective way to increase the frequency of a behaviour. It tells people (or ourselves) a reward will occur.

People commonly reinforce the behaviours of others without realising it. For example, if ‘Uncle Jack’ gets a rise out of everyone at the Xmas table when he makes homophobic remarks, it might be that the outrage from others is actually reinforcing his behaviour!

Be careful though, people don’t always know, or are not entirely aware, of what is reinforcing their behaviour. It’s not necessarily done intentionally. We don’t want to use labels like ‘attention seeking’ or ‘manipulative’ which implies people are knowingly seeking reinforcement. Many times this is subconscious and there is not a malicious motive.

Types of Reinforcement
Reinforcement as Reward

Often called ‘positive reinforcement’, reinforcement as reward increases the frequency of behaviours by adding a positive consequence. These reinforcements need to be relevant to the behaviour. For example, praise for doing chores on time, or a smile for a nice compliment.

Reinforcement as Relief
Often called ‘negative reinforcement’, this type of reinforcement increases the frequency of behaviours by removing unpleasant conditions. For example, mum stops nagging if you clean your room, or the annoying beeping in the car stops when you put on your seatbelt.

Shaping involves reinforcement in small steps that lead to a bigger goal. This increases the chances of continuing to work towards the goal.

Shaping is helpful because some behaviours are difficult to learn in one step. For example, finding a job requires a number of steps. Each step achieved could be reinforced, such as spending time looking at job sites (reinforce by following with a pleasant activity); writing resume (reinforce by having a snack you love) etc.

Reinforcement Schedules
Timing matters! Reinforcement needs to occur immediately after the desired behaviour. If you wait too long, the reinforcement won’t be connected to the behaviour. Continuous reinforcement is good when you are trying to initially establish a new behaviour, which means every incident of the desired behaviour gets reinforced.

However, there are ways to reinforce desired behaviour without having to reinforce every time it occurs.

Intermittent reinforcement provides reinforcement only some of the time. This can be effective when you make the length of time between reinforcements variable, and therefore unpredictable. For example, gambling addition occurring due to intermittent reinforcement.

Decreasing or Stopping
Undesirable Behaviours

Extinction is the reduction of a behaviour by removing ongoing reinforcement. Extinction works best when an alternative behaviour replaces the unwanted one. You can use extinction and also be kind (to yourself or the other person).

Be aware that a ‘behavioural burst’ can occur when a previous reinforcement is stopped. What will likely happen is the other person will escalate the behaviour that used to get reinforcement, to try and get the reinforcement again.

For example, if everyone ignores Uncle Jack when he makes his homophobic remarks at Christmas lunch, he may get louder and make more efforts to have his remarks acknowledged (initially at least)! But if the extinction is consistent, eventually Uncle Jack is likely to reduce this behaviour.

It’s important to understand that behavioural bursts are normal and temporary. If you are trying to stop reinforcing a behaviour, it is important not to give in to behavioural bursts! You can (and should) still be kind and loving without providing the old reinforcement.

Punishment is adding a consequence that decreases a behaviour. The consequence can be adding something negative, such as a ‘time out’ for a child; verbal criticism; traffic ticket for
speeding etc.

Studies on punishment show it’s not very effective in creating long term behavioural change. Punishment may make a person stay away from the punisher, hide the behaviour or suppress the behaviour when the punisher is around. But punishment itself does not teach new, more positive behaviours.

Punishment may at times be necessary, but it must be specific, time limited, appropriate to the ‘crime’ and reinforce an alternative behaviour.

Acceptance VS Change

Whilst many of us would like other to change some of their behaviours, we want to ask ourselves does this actually need to change?

  • If this something I could try to accept? If so, that might be the easier way to approach it!
  • Is it likely to change? If not, perhaps working to radically accept it reduces our own stress.
  • Do I need to challenge Uncle Jack at Christmas, or could I radically accept those are his views even though I entirely disagree?

Intentionally bringing acceptance to behaviours doesn’t stop change – it can actually make change more likely!

What we often call ‘radical acceptance’ is not saying we’re happy about something. It is simply saying we don’t want to fight and struggle with it anymore. We are making a choice to accept reality as it is, even if we’d like it to change one day.

Accepting others, and ourselves, with all our human flaws is a tricky skill to learn. But like all skills, it gets easier with practice.

For more info on radical acceptance, check out our vblog:
Mental Health Access Line (Central Coast): 1800 011 511 Lifeline: 13 11 14 Mindful Recovery Services: or (02) 4660 0100

Alexandra (Alex) Wilson holds a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Sydney (2003) and is the owner of Mindful Recovery Services. Mindful Recovery Services is a private practice providing psychological treatment and support for adolescents and adults. Alex is passionate about dispelling myths about mental illness,and is highly skilled in dialectical behavioural therapy. She is an experienced public speaker and provides consultation to other professionals on managing difficult behaviours in teens. Alex lives on the NSW Central Coast with her partner, 2 young boys, and a cheeky puppy named Axel.

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