Utilizing Natural Consequences in a Treatment Setting

January 24, 2022

By Executive Director, Chris Garrett LMSW 

It is no secret that humans learn from experience.  Our beautiful brains start processing stimuli from womb to death, which when you think about it brings a whole new meaning to lifelong learning.  As a counselor, Director and father I find myself relying on this concept a lot when working with youth and young adults.  Oftentimes we are tempted to manufacture consequences for actions in hope to elicit change from the people we work with.  I’ve found that in all of the roles I have filled to this point in my life, manufactured consequences have not produced the desired results.

So why doesn’t this work, and why have I returned to this concept so many times in hopes to obtain different results?  The answer is pretty obvious if I’m being honest.  It’s easier, or at least appears to be easier on the surface.  That’s the honest answer.  The other aspect of this that is always appealing is that I feel like I can manufacture consequences that will be more impactful than the natural consequences of another person's actions in hopes to stave off more harmful consequences in the future. This brings me to my next point, control.

In the current treatment setting that I oversee, the topic of utilizing natural consequences is often scary and daunting. Once your student reaches the ripe old age of 18 they begin a journey of being in charge of, and accountable for, their own actions.  This loss of control for parents can be very difficult to say the least.  Parents fear loss of control not because they are power hungry monsters that want to ruin the lives of their children, but because of an intense fear that their now adult children will face serious consequences related to their actions that range from petty charges to death.  I don’t blame anyone for having this fear, having experienced it for myself. Often I have to take off the dad hat and step back and look at these situations from a clinical/educational perspective and think “what is going to be best for this individual as they move toward independence?”  and “Will there always be someone around to rescue them from themselves?”.  Most often the answer is allowing natural consequences to run their course, and no, there may not always be someone around to pick up the pieces.

Integrated Interventions is one of the few programs for young adults that truely relies on natural consequences in teaching our students independent living skills.  It starts from day 1 at Integrated.  Every experience is viewed as a learning experience.  Consequences generally garners negative emotions, but in reality there are both positive, negative and neutral consequences to our actions.  Having a positive conversation about life goals with a Mentor generally aids in the positive consequence of building a healthy relationship with another individual.  Throwing a rock through the office window will generally elicit a more negative consequence of being charged with a crime.  In both cases I have seen positive, lasting results.

I believe as humans we can all look back on different instances in our lives in which we were impacted greatly by the natural consequences of our actions.  In many cases I can reflect on something that was negative at the time taking me down a path that led to something positive.  I can also relate to some very negative instances that taught me what not to do in the future due to how uncomfortable I was with the consequences at the time.  These examples are all personal, and impacted me.  It is beneficial to understand that in seeking real change for our children and loved ones, finding opportunities to wade through natural consequences will be our best intervention, even if it is highly uncomfortable.

Integrated Interventions relies heavily on this model, in fact while building a custom program around an individual's needs we consider all of the possible negative and positive consequences that we may see.  This takes a great deal of time considering individual students' diagnosis, history(including success and failure in other programs), capacity to build lasting relationships, work ethic and family dynamics.  Oftentimes we find ourselves urging families and loved ones to change entrenched dynamics that no longer fit the goals/needs of the student.  This often leads to families seeking outside support for the emotional toll this can take.

For more information on our program model and how we integrate natural consequences into the treatment realm please visit our youtube page and check out our recent posts outlining spiral dynamics and other aspects of the program.