Reversing The Ratio



Intense and challenging teens, especially those with mental health issues, elicit negative attention from those around them.  It’s no one’s fault.  It is just the reality.

“Stop that, sit still, stop bothering your sister, watch your mouth, be respectful, be quiet,  stop interrupting…”

Their behavior naturally elicits these responses, in fact, they often marinate in these responses most of the day, every day from parents, family and teachers.  Those seemingly rare times they aren’t being difficult, we enjoy the break, and we rest.  Being that intense kids keep the adults around them in a state of vigilance and exhaustion, when they are doing well we rarely have the energy to make a positive comments to them.

The net result is that the positive to negative ratio of interactions is skewed strongly toward the negative.

This could be one positive interaction to five or ten negative interactions.  Some parents have posed even much higher.  When asked to estimate, some parents have confessed as high as 1:25!  That’s a lot of negative interactions in which to marinate in a very formative time of their life.

This ratio of positive to negative interactions unintentionally fashions beliefs about oneself that make up what we call their “inner portfolio” or self-concept.  Consider what you would feel like if everywhere you went people were correcting you and telling YOU to act differently than your mind and body direct you to act.    Consider just going out to eat for dinner:

“Drive slower”, “Look both ways”, “Hurry up”, “Slow down”, “Watch that car”, “Open the door”, “Hurry up and order”, “Decide what you want”

“Stop talking and focus”, “Don’t just sit there, C’mon!”, “Eat your food”, “Hurry up”, “Clean up your stuff”, “Wipe your mouth”, “You are making a mess”, “Pay the bill”, “Hurry up”, “Don’t forget your stuff”.

It would be exhausting and ultimately you would feel like you couldn’t do anything right and this person you were with was annoyed by you constantly.  If a couple interacted this way, it would most certainly be a recipe for disaster, and most likely divorce.  It would not be a healthy relationship and you certainly would not feel cherished and loved by your spouse.  Quite the contrary.

Now, the problem is NOT that the parent should resist in making appropriate, corrective comments or redirections.  After all, they are most likely accurate and needed instructions and corrections to teach and require appropriate behavior. 

The problem is the RATIO!

At River Stones, one of our missions is to reverse the ratio.   All staff members are steeped in this approach and are very experienced in engaging in a ratio of communication that tilts heavy toward many more positive recognitions for what they are doing well than corrections and redirections.  It is an intentional commitment that takes a lot of practice and conscious intentionality.  When this is done well, simply put, kids begin to feel differently about themselves and begin to act on this new sense of identity.  Suddenly the world sees them as successful beings that are celebrated and enjoyed-an entirely new experience that is transformational.  We call this transformation of the self.  At River Stones, we have a slogan, “Behavior change is good, but transformation is KING!”

When a child resides at River Stones for a time and they are marinating in this ratio of positive to negative, they soon have a look in their eye that says something like, “Who are these people that see me as so successful?  No one has ever seen me so positively.  Don’t they know I am a troubled kid?”  This directly translates to feeling cherished and celebrated, rather than an annoyance and a pain in the tush. 

The experience of love is achieved by being seen and celebrated, something by nature of their personalities, temperament, diagnoses and behavior has been tragically but understandably missing from their lived experience.

I contend the greatest human need is not to be loved it is to be seen.  One cannot feel loved without being seen, and specifically seen in a predominantly positive light. 

I believe this is why many kids who have been in our care at River Stones describe the experience so warmly and positively.  We see them, we celebrate them…they feel truly loved and cherished during their treatment experience.

Our goal at River Stones is to have a minimum of 3:1 and we shoot for 5:1 or higher, positive to negative interaction ratio. (For the rationale of how I came to this ratio, keep an eye out for my next article entitled “5:1  Life’s Winning Ratio”)  In fact, staff wear bracelets that say, “5:1 What’s Going Well?” to remind them of our goal.  Often the response I get from parents when I teach this concept is “That is impossible! My kid doesn’t do that many positive things to recognize!”  Well, empirically that just isn’t accurate. 

At any given time, if one is properly trained, their lenses calibrated and attuned to the truth of the moment, there is far more success going on at any given time than there is failure…even on the worst of days.

At River Stones, we deal with very challenging kids, every day.  We have over two decades of practice in this concept and we have seen the truth to this concept and tested it over and over.  Consider this:  if I were to give you a counter to hold in each hand.  On one counter, you click how many times your child is acting up, acting inappropriately and exhibiting undesired behavior.  On the other counter, you click every time the child is not acting out, being appropriate and being successful.  Remember, not acting out is being successful.  Not cursing, not yelling and not acting out IS being appropriate and successful.  At the end of an hour or a day, you would find that even the most difficult of kids are exponentially more successful than they were unsuccessful.

The key is in your ability to shift your mindset, calibrate your lenses and begin to see the truth of the moment in a way you may not have been able to in the past, largely because you have been bombarded with undesirable and frustrating behavior.  

In my 25+  year career of working with intense youth, this is one of the most powerful concepts I have discovered, and we have seen the transformation it brings to kids and their parents.

The lenses through which you view your child are crucial…and more importantly, the lenses through which you view LIFE are a key factor in your happiness.  If our lenses need calibration, we are simply unable to see the success and beauty around us nearly every moment.  That is why a close examination of our lenses is paramount to reversing this ratio and seeing our kids differently.  This process is transformative, not just for our kids…but for ourselves.  I could tell you that you need to notice, comment on and energize your child for being appropriate and successful, but if your lenses are not calibrated correctly, you simply won’t see what you need to see for this process to work and ultimately be happy (more on that in the next article).

I challenge you to begin noticing the ratio of positive to negative interactions you have with your child and even your spouse and friends.  Your observations might surprise you.  Start practicing on ways to see and energize their positive behavior when they show a positive character trait or when they are simply being calm and appropriate.

If you REALLY want to see this work, try seeing and energizing your special someone, or your relatives.  Drill deep and compliment a character trait that you see and appreciate… and watch them light up!  Remember: SEEING someone in a positive light is LOVING them…and love isn’t love until it is shared!

Russell Rice is a licensed therapist and Founder and CEO of River Stones Residential Teen Treatment in Redlands, CA that specializes in the treatment of boys ages 11-18. 

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