The Three-Step Emotional Change Trick


In theories class this past Monday Adler kicked Freud’s ass. This was, of course, metaphorical because Adler was radically anti-violent. Nevertheless, my Freud action figure ended up on the floor by the door where he had to lay there and listen to Adler’s repugnant (to Freud) ideas about how clients are affected by real (not fantasized) social dynamics or forces.

At the end of class we engaged in the “Three-Step Emotional Change Technique.” For anyone who hasn’t heard of this, Rita and I published a description in our Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book. You can check it out at: http://www.amazon.com/Tough-Kids-Cool-Counseling-User-Friendly/dp/1556202741/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1348446338&sr=1-1&keywords=tough+kids+cool+counseling

Below you can read a version of the Emotional Change Technique adapted from Tough Kids, Cool Counseling:

The Three-Step, Push-Button Emotional Change Technique

            An early and prominent Adlerian therapist, Harold Mosak, originally developed and tested the push-button technique as a method for demonstrating to clients that thinking different thoughts can effectively change mood states (Mosak, 1985). The purpose of Mosak’s technique was to help clients experience an increased sense of control over their emotions, thereby facilitating a sense of encouragement or empowerment (Mosak, 2000, personal communication).

            Mosak’s push-button technique can be easily adapted to work with young clients. When we implement this technique with younger clients, we are playful and call it an emotional change trick. When using this technique with teenagers, we describe it as a strategy for gaining more personal control over less desirable emotions. In essence, the three-step, push-button, emotional change technique is an emotional education technique; the primary goal is to teach clients that, rather than being at the mercy of their feelings, they may learn some strategies and techniques that provide them with increased personal control over their feelings.

The following example illustrates Adlerian emotional education principles and Mosak’s push-button technique expanded to three distinct steps.

Case example.  Sam, a 13-year-old European American boy, was referred because of his tendency to become suddenly stubborn, rigid, and disagreeable when interacting with authority figures. Sam arrived for his appointment accompanied by his mother. It quickly became obvious that Sam and his mother were in conflict. Sam was sullen, antagonistic, and difficult to talk with for several minutes at the outset of the session. Consequently, the Three-Step, Push-Button Emotional Change Technique (TSPB) was initiated:

Preparation/Explanation.

JSF:     I see you’re in a bad mood today. I have this . . . well, it’s kind of a magic trick and I             thought maybe you’d be interested. Want to hear about it?

S:         (Shrugs).

JSF:     It’s a trick that helps people get themselves out of a bad mood if they want to. First, I           need to tell you what I know about bad moods. Bad moods are weird because even             though they don’t really feel good, lots of times people don’t want to get out of their bad      mood and into a better mood. Do you know what I mean? It’s like you kind of want to         stay in a bad mood; you don’t want anybody forcing you to change out of a bad mood.

S:         (Nods in agreement.)

JSF:     And you know what, I’ve noticed when I’m in a bad mood, I really hate it when someone          comes up to me and says: “Cheer up!” or “Smile!”

S:         Yeah, I hate that too.

JSF:     And so you can be sure I’m not going to say that to you. In fact, sometimes the best thing    to do is just really be in that bad mood—be those bad feelings. Sometimes it feels great to            get right into the middle of those feelings and be them.

S:         Uh, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

JSF:     Well, to get in control of your own feelings, it’s important to admit they’re there, to get to   know them better. So, the first step of this emotional change trick is to express your bad      feelings. See, by getting them out and expressing them, you’re in control. If you don’t   express your feelings, especially icky ones, you could get stuck in a bad mood even             longer than you want.

As you can see, preparation for the TSPB technique involves emotional validation of how it feels to be in a bad mood, information about bad moods and how people can resist changing their moods or even get stuck in them, hopeful information about how people can learn to change their moods, and more emotional validation about how it feels when people prematurely try to cheer someone up.

Step 1: Feel the feeling. Before moving clients away from their negative feelings, it’s appropriate—out of respect for the presence and meaning of emotions—to help them feel their feelings. This can be challenging because most young people have only very simplistic ideas about how to express negative feelings. Consequently, Step 1 of the TSPB technique involves helping youth identify various emotional expression techniques and then helping them to try these out. We recommend brainstorming with young clients about specific methods for expressing feelings. The client and counselor should work together (perhaps with a chalk/grease board or large drawing pad), generating a list of expressive strategies that might include:

  • scribbling on a note pad with a black marker
  • drawing an angry, ugly picture
  • punching or kicking a large pillow
  • jumping up and down really hard
  • writing a nasty note to someone (but not delivering it)
  • grimacing and making various angry faces into a mirror
  • using words, perhaps even yelling if appropriate, to express specific feelings.

The expressive procedures listed above are easier for young clients to learn and understand when counselors actively model affective expression or assist clients in their affective expression. It’s especially important to model emotional expression when clients are inhibited or unsure about how to express themselves. Again, we recommend engaging in affective expression jointly with clients. We’ve had particular success making facial grimaces into a mirror. (Young clients often become entertained when engaging in this task with their counselor.) The optimal time for shifting to Step 2 in the TSPB technique is when clients have just begun to show a slight change in affect. (Often this occurs as a result of the counselor joining the client in expressing anger or sadness or general nastiness.)

Note: If a young client is unresponsive to Step 1 of the TSPB technique, don’t move to Step 2. Instead, an alternative mood-changing strategy should be considered (e.g., perhaps food and mood or the personal note). Be careful to simply reflect what you see. “Seems like you aren’t feeling like expressing those yucky feelings right now. Hey, that’s okay. I can show you this trick some other day. Want some gum?”

Step 2: Think a new thought (or engage in a new behavior). This step focuses on Mosak’s pushbutton approach (Mosak, 1985). It’s designed to demonstrate to the client that emotions are linked to thoughts. Step 2 is illustrated in the following dialogue (an extension of the previous case example with John and Sam):

JSF:     Did you know you can change your mood just by thinking different thoughts? When you think certain things it’s like pushing a button in your brain and the     things you think start making you feel certain ways. Let’s try it. Tell me the funniest thing that happened to you this week.

S:         Yesterday in math, my friend Todd farted (client smiles and laughs).

JSF:     (Smiles and laughs back) Really! I bet people really laughed. In fact, I can see it makes you laugh just thinking about it. Way back when I was in school I had a friend who did       that all the time.

The content of what young people consider funny may not seem particularly funny to adults. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to be interested and entertained—welcoming the challenge to empathically see the situation from the 13-year-old perspective. It’s also important to stay with and build on the mood shift, asking for additional humorous thoughts, favorite jokes, or recent events. With clients who respond well, counselors can pursue further experimentation with various affective states (e.g., “Tell me about a sad [or scary, or surprising] experience”).

In some cases, young clients may be unable to generate a funny story or a funny memory. This may be an indicator of depression, as depressed clients often report greater difficulty recalling positive or happy events (Weerasekera, Linder, Greenberg, & Watson, 2001). Consequently, it may be necessary for the counselor to generate a funny statement.

S:         I can’t think of anything funny.

JSF:     Really? Well, keep trying . . . I’ll try too (therapist and client sit together in silence for       about 20 seconds, trying to come up with a positive thought or memory).

JSF:     Got anything yet?

S:         Nope.

JSF:     Okay, I think I’ve got one. Actually, this is a joke.  What do you call it when 100 rabbits             standing in a row all take one step backwards?

S:         Huh?

JSF:     (repeats the question)

S:         I don’t know.  I hate rabbits.

JSF:     Yeah.  Well, you call it a receding hare line.  Get it?

S:         Like rabbits are called hares?

JSF:     Yup.  It’s mostly funny to old guys like me.  (JSF holds up his own “hare line”)

S:         That’s totally stupid, man (smiling despite himself). I’m gonna get a buzz cut pretty             soon.

When you tell a joke or a funny story, it can help clients reciprocate with their own stories.  You can also use teasing riddles, puns, and word games if you’re comfortable with them.

We have two additional comments for counselors who might choose to use a teasing riddle which the client may get wrong. First, you should use teasing riddles only when a strong therapeutic relationship is established; otherwise, your client may interpret teasing negatively. Second, because preteen and teen clients often love to tease, you must be prepared to be teased back (i.e., young clients may generate a teasing riddle in response to a your teasing riddle).

Finally, counselors need to be sensitive to young clients who are unable to generate a positive thought or story, even after having heard an example or two. If a young client is unable to generate a funny thought, it’s important for you to remain positive and encouraging. For example:

JSF:     You know what. There are some days when I can’t think of any funny stories either. I’m      sure you’ll be able to tell me something funny next time. Today I was able to think of         some funny stuff . . . next time we can both give it a try again if you want.

Occasionally, young clients won’t be able to generate alternative thoughts or they won’t understand how the pushbutton technique works. In such cases, the counselor can focus more explicitly on changing mood through changing behaviors. This involves getting out a sheet of paper and mutually generating a list of actions that the client can take—when he or she feels like it—to improve mood.

Sometimes depressed young clients will need to borrow from your positive thoughts, affect, and ideas because they aren’t able to generate their own positive thoughts and feelings. If so, the TSPB technique should be discontinued for that particular session. The process of TSPB requires completion of each step before continuing on to the next step.

Step 3: Spread the good mood. Step 3 of this procedure involves teaching about the contagion quality of mood states. Teaching clients about contagious moods accomplishes two goals. First, it provides them with further general education about their emotional life. Second, if they complete the assignment associated with this activity, they may be able to have a positive effect on another person’s mood:

JSF:     I want to tell you another interesting thing about moods. They’re contagious. Do you             know what contagious means? It means that you can catch them from being around other    people who are in bad moods or good moods. Like when you got here. I noticed your             mom was in a pretty bad mood too. It made me wonder, did you catch the bad mood from    her or did she catch it from you? Anyway, now you seem to be in a much better mood. And so I was wondering, do you think you can make your mom “catch” your good             mood?

S:         Oh yeah. I know my mom pretty well. All I have to do is tell her I love her and she’ll get       all mushy and stuff.

JSF:     So, do you love her?

S:         Yeah, I guess so. She really bugs me sometimes though, you know what I mean?

JSF:     I think so. Sometimes it’s especially easy for people who love each other to bug each     other. And parents can be especially good at bugging their kids. Not on purpose, but they     bug you anyway.

S:         You can say that again. She’s a total bugging expert.

JSF:     But you did say you love her, right?

S:         Yeah.

JSF:     So if you told her “I love you, Mom,” it would be the truth, right?

S:         Yeah.

JSF:     And you think that would put her in a better mood too, right?

S:         No duh, man. She’d love it.

JSF:     So, now that you’re in a better mood, maybe you should just tell her you love her and      spread the good mood. You could even tell her something like: “Dude, Mom, you really   bug me sometimes, but I love you.”

S:         Okay. I could do that.

It’s obvious that Sam knows at least one way to have a positive influence on his mother’s mood, but he’s reluctant to use the “I love you” approach. In this situation it would be useful for Sam to explore alternative methods for having a positive effect on his mother’s mood.

Although some observers of this therapy interaction may think the counselor is just teaching Sam emotional manipulation techniques, we believe that viewpoint makes a strong negative assumption about Sam and his family. Our position is that successful families (and successful marriages) include liberal doses of positive interaction (Gottman et al., 1995). Consequently, unless we believe Sam is an exceptionally manipulative boy (i.e., he has a conduct disorder diagnosis), we feel fine about reminding him of ways to share positive (and truthful) feelings with his mother.

To spread a good mood requires a certain amount of empathic perspective taking. Often, youth are more able to generate empathic responses and to initiate positive interactions with their parents (or siblings, teachers, etc.) after they’ve achieved an improved mood state and a concomitant increased sense of self-control. This is consistent with social–psychological literature suggesting that positive moods increase the likelihood of prosocial or altruistic behavior (Isen, 1987). Because of developmental issues associated with being young, it’s sometimes helpful to introduce the idea of changing other people’s moods as a challenge (Church, 1994).  “I wonder if you have the idea down well enough to actually try and change your mom’s mood.”

Once in a while, when using this technique, we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing some very surprised parents. One 12-year-old girl asked to go out in the waiting room to tell her grandmother that she was going to rake the lawn when they got home (something Grandma very much wanted and needed). Grandma looked positively stunned for minute, but then a huge smile spread across her face. The girl skipped around the office saying, “See.  I can do it.  I can change her mood.”

One 14-year-old boy thought a few minutes, then brought his mom into the office and said “Now Mom, I want you to think of how you would feel if I agree to clear the table and wash the dishes without you reminding me for a week.” Mom looked a bit surprised, but admitted she felt good at the thought, whereupon I (John) gave the boy a thumbs up signal and said, “Well done.”

Step 4.

At this point, readers should beware that although we’re describing a Three-Step technique, we’ve now moved to Step 4. We do this intentionally with young clients to make the point that whenever we’re working with or talking about emotions, surprising things can happen.

In keeping with the learn-do-teach model, we ask our young clients to teach the TSPB procedure to another person after they learn it in therapy. One girl successfully taught her younger brother the method when he was in a negative mood during a family hike. By teaching the technique to her brother, she achieved an especially empowering experience; she began to view herself as having increased control over her and her family’s emotional states.

John and Davis Improve Their Moods
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5 thoughts on “The Three-Step Emotional Change Trick”

    1. Hi Tammie.

      I’m glad you liked the 3 step emotional change trick and thanks for commenting. Have a great day!

      John SF

  1. I’m a second year psychology student from Philippines and tomorrow we will be having an activity in our techniques of counseling subject which your information/example would help me a lot. I would like to say thank you for sharing this to everybody it would be actually a great help to all of us.
    God Bless. 🙂

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