Contingency is a foundational word in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Every parent should understand this critical term. Contingencies are one of our greatest allies in shaping your relationship with your daughter. Dialectical Behavior Therapy-trained therapists refer to the punishments and rewards used to shape behavior as contingency procedures. You are using contingency procedures with your daughter when you establish boundaries and provide consequences and rewards for your daughter’s behavior (e.g. taking away a cell phone or giving a hug). However, you first need to have a deeper understanding of what is a contingency.
A contingency is a possible future event or behavior but is not yet decided. Contingencies are not decided because they depend on some form of input before they become a reality. In fact, contingency is often used as an adjective by saying “contingent on”, meaning to depend on. Every interaction with your daughter is an opportunity for contingency procedures, every interaction! This is good news, every opportunity is a new chance to shape your daughter’s behavior to something very different than the ones that left you awake and scared about what new tragedy was going to land in your lap.
Remember I said that contingencies are “a possible future event” that require a specific input. This means that there are no guarantees in contingency procedures, however, they offer the best opportunity to shape behavior. Now the question is, how do you begin to use contingency procedures to give you this great “possibility” for a brighter future.

Establishing Rapport

Therapists lovingly call this ‘the join’. Nothing will allow effective contingency work without first building a relationship. There are endless ways to accomplish this. However, you might begin this process by being honest, vulnerable, or by attending to their emotions and rewarding them for positive behavior.

Positive Consequences

The strongest and perhaps most influential tool of contingency procedures is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement increases the desired behavior by rewarding the person for doing the behavior you want to see more. Here is an example: Your daughter is honest in therapy and discloses something she has not shared before. Honesty is a behavior we want to see more, even if it is uncomfortable. At this junction, you probably have a few options (e.g. Blame her because this makes you feel responsible, talk about something else because this makes you uncomfortable, demand that she be more honest because you want to see more honesty). The option that is most likely to increase this desired behavior is to reward her for her brave disclosure. We want the reward to be immediate and strong enough to work. What strategies could you use to reward her honesty? Discuss this with your therapist.

Aversive Consequences

Another contingency procedure is to use negative or aversive consequences. Aversive consequences are always less powerful than positive consequences, however, they sometimes are necessary. When necessary, consequences should follow some guidelines: the punishment must fit the crime, should be just strong enough to work, and should be used sparingly and briefly. Aversive consequences can be used to unbalance someone who is stuck in therapy when all else has failed (i.e. building rapport, positive consequences). Talk with your therapist about rapport with your daughter and if a consequence is needed to help your daughter get unstuck.