Stages of Change

Posted by Lauren Roberts, MS, LPC, Therapist at Cascades on November 21, 2018

Lauren“The Road to Self Belief is potholed.” Nyasha Madavo

I would venture to say that most humans like to have a plan and typically the plan we create in our head is straight, smooth, and linear. Not only do we make these pretty looking plans for ourselves, but also for those around us. I believe this is especially true as a parent when it comes to our children. In reality, life is messy and truly never linear. Below is one of my favorite depictions of this very concept.

blog image

It can be particularly painful to watch our children struggle through these ups and downs. Often as parents when our children flounder, we take on the role of enabler, rescuer, fixer. It is extremely challenging and often painful to step out of those roles and allow our children to struggle. However, that struggle is what all humans need to grow, learn, and build resilience. When we face challenges and come out the other side, we feel empowered and our sense of self-worth increases. Unfortunately, that cannot happen if someone else fixes the problem for us. In fact, the message that is unintentionally sent is that “I don’t think you are capable of figuring this out on your own.”

Brene Brown says it well in her TED Talk on Vulnerability,

And we perfect, most dangerously, our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They're hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not so say, "Look at her, she's perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect -- make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade." That's not our job. Our job is to look and say, "You know what? You're imperfect, and you're wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging." That's our job.

That is not an easy job. In fact, I believe it is one of the hardest jobs of being a parent. It is a job that creates anxiety, depression, and grief. It is incredibly important as parents to allow ourselves space to feel the emotions that arise when our children really struggle and to grieve all the dreams we’ve created compared to the reality we are living.

The Stages of Change Model can be a helpful tool in analyzing our own and our children’s steps towards change and growth. Again, this tool focuses on the circular versus linear model of change.

Lauren Blog Image2

The first stage of Precontemplation typically looks like denial that there is a problem, a lack of accountability, blaming outside factors, and an unwillingness to seek or receive help. Typically, we move into the second stage of Contemplation because we are starting to feel the consequences of our actions. We become less comfortable and therefore more willing to explore the possibility of change. This is a great example of a time we want to avoid rescuing or fixing as it robs the person from feeling this discomfort and postpones the process of moving towards change. Preparation comes when the discomfort starts to become more unbearable. We start to see our role in the situation and take more accountability and ownership. We begin to weight the pros and cons of changing versus continuing down the same path. We start to concoct a plan for change. The more others around us hold boundaries, the more likely we are to move into action.

Action is a huge leap of faith in which we actually put all of our thoughts and planning into tangible steps. At this point, we are not just talking, but we are doing. During Action, the hope is that we start to feel different and receive positive reinforcement, both internal and external to help us continue down the action path. When that happens, we are able to move into a place of Maintenance. Maintenance happens once we’ve started to re-wire our brain and create new and hopefully lasting habits. Maintenance is by no means a guarantee that our old patterns have permanently changed. At any point in this cycle, we may regress or relapse into our old patterns. Again, this cycle is also not linear, and we may bounce between the different stages before reaching long-term maintenance.

To move through this cycle, we must have a combination of desire to change, internal motivation to do so, the skills to make the necessary steps, and the confidence in ourselves that we are capable of change. Often as parents, it can be easy to assume that a child has a lack of motivation. Often, people want to change but either don’t have the skills or self-confidence. This is where therapy can be tremendously beneficial in addressing self-esteem and negative self- talk along with teaching new coping skills and strategies to succeed.

Even if all those factors are in place (motivation, confidence, and skills) our child may still experience relapse or regression while moving through the cycle. Knowing how to respond in the face of regression and relapse is extremely challenging and also very important as a parent. Here are four key bullet points to consider:

• Avoid – Lecturing – Catastrophizing/Jumping on the rollercoaster – Adding on guilt and shame – Rescuing, Enabling, Fixing

• Ask – How are they feeling? – What is their plan (not your plan)?

• Share – Empathize – Be honest and share an “I feel” statement

• Remember – Nothing can take away the learning that happened going through the cycle - If your child has been in treatment and made progress, they now have the knowledge, experience, and tools and can choose to apply them.

Of course, these four bullet points are often easy to put into practice in the moment. This is where it can be key to reach out to our own support systems including our partner, family, friends, Alanon or other support groups, individual therapy, webinars, books, etc. As the parent, watching our child struggle, we must allow space for our own support, our own grief, and our own self-care to be strong and courageous enough to face this head on. In watching our loved one go through the stages of change cycle, we are often going through a parallel process of change in how we approach the situation.

I will leave you with this story that sums up this concept:

A Story in Five Short Chapters


I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost… I am helpless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I am in the same place.

But, it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in.

It’s a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

From: "There's a hole in my sidewalk" by Portia Nelson












Just what I needed to read as my boy is in therapeutic boarding school half way around the world; pushing against the newness, the ups and downs and, yet, even still, achieving growth. Slow and steady -- inches forward, sometimes followed by a few feet back but always again inches forward . Thank you so much for posting this today. I understand my work is in my own journey and staying in my lane as he struggles forward and backward in his. It's so nice to stumble upon reminders such as this.

Posted by A.M.

Post your comment