Changing for Good

Part One: The Stages of Change

A couple of months ago I helped my dad rebuild a wooden deck in his backyard. The most frustrating task was getting the old wood out, because over the deck’s twenty-year lifespan, the wood had in many cases expanded over the screws, completely hiding them from view. To remove some of the screws, all I needed was a plain old screwdriver. Others I had to dig at with a chisel to expose the screw. And still others required more creative and powerful tools so I could extract them without damaging the new wood next to them. I needed the right tool at the right time to get the job done.

I find that working with kids is often like that. Some kids are easy to work with, and it seems that they need very little prodding to do the right thing. Others are just the opposite, needing tons of TLC and creative intervention to make even the smallest gain. A significant aspect of our mission as youth workers and parents is to be agents of positive change in our kids’ lives, but what tools can we use to help that happen?

Part One of this series focused on the Stages of Change, a model that helps us understand how people become motivated to turn positive changes into ingrained habits. We saw that change is a five-stage journey with ups and downs all along the way, where success is determined not by a lack of mistakes but by staying on the path no matter what happens. Now that we understand the process of change, we need guidance on how to move change along.

How to Stimulate Change

Every day we see kids engaging in all sorts of negative behaviors, and we fear that these small acts of indiscretion will grow into full-blown addictions. [[


Keep in mind: just because someone engages repeatedly in a negative behavior doesn’t mean they’re an addict. On the flip side, just because a behavior is not yet an addiction doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be changed. At least four of the following symptoms must be present for a habit to be considered an addiction:

  • Giving up or limiting important social, occupational obligations or recreational activities because of the behavior
  • Hiding the behavior from loved ones
  • Experiencing anxiety, insomnia, irritability, mood swings or depression when unable to indulge in the behavior
  • Behavior is done more and more over time
  • Several unsuccessful attempts to stop the behavior
  • Behavior continues despite negative consequences

See “Addiction,” Therapist Finder (web site),, accessed 8/14/2010.]] But the truth is no matter how fervently we desire for a teenager to make positive choices or how vividly we imagine the tragic results if they do not, change cannot be forced. Movement toward the “maintenance” stage of change [[Part One of this series examined the five stages of change, plus one detour:

1. Precontemplation – “I don’t need to change” or “I may change someday, but not anytime soon”

2. Contemplation – “I’m starting to seriously consider changing in the near future”

3. Preparation – “I’m experimenting with change and figuring out how to make it work”

4. Action – “I have successfully quit my old habit and I’m working on making my new behavior into a habit”

5. Maintenance – “I have not gone back to my old habit in at least six months; I am a changed person!”

6. Relapse – the mistake of going back to the old habit creates a “moment of truth” where the changing person either quits change or recommits to it and learns how to make it last the next time around]] requires deep, internal, and individual motivation to pursue change that cannot be imposed by someone on the outside. Our job as youth workers and parents is not to force change, but to create inspirational and supportive environments where teens are most likely to find the motivation and guidance they need to make positive, lasting change.

The “catalysts of change” are interventions that a pastor, teacher, coach, parent, or therapist can use to help a person trying to create new habits move to the next stage of change. Motivational catalysts are designed to engage the thoughts and emotions of the person wishing to change and gradually convince her that the benefits of change outweigh the challenges. Behavioral catalysts are designed to create rules and boundaries which guide a person to consistently choose actions of positive change.

Motivational Catalysts [[Velicer, W.F., et. al., “Detailed Overview of the Transtheoretical Model,” The University of Rhode Island Cancer Prevention Research Center (web site),, accessed 9/12/2010.]]

How can we help our struggling adolescents move from saying “I don’t have a problem” to “I’m ready to change”? We can inspire them to seriously consider the cons of their old, negative behavior and the pros of positive change by choosing from among some of these techniques:

1. Social liberation

Show the person that changing from their habit will be supported by people they love and many times even by society at large. We could point out to a teen who smokes that they can’t practice that habit openly, but a less damaging alternative (like chewing gum) could be done just about anywhere. The healthy behavior you’re encouraging will give them much more freedom than their old habit.

2. Self-reevaluation

When one of my students showed up at Sunday School after a hard night of partying, he was evasive and downcast. Once he told me about his drunken evening, I asked him, “Are you proud of that?”, and he said, “No, I honestly regret it, and I don’t even remember much of what happened!” We can encourage kids to reflect on how their problem behaviors make them feel negatively about themselves and how positive choices would instill a better self-image. A great exercise to help students think through this are the “Personal Values Cards,” found at the bottom of this article.

3. Environmental reevaluation

One of our seniors was caught delivering drugs to a friend at his school. When I went to his house to talk with him, I was greeted by a happy, excited nine-year-old boy…his brother. We spent most of our time talking about how he doesn’t want his little brother to follow in his footsteps. We can help the kids we care about think about not only how their behavior affects them, but also how it hurts those they love.

4. Consciousness raising

Sometimes teenagers are not very savvy about the negative behaviors they engage in. In a certain city known for high pregnancy rates, several teen girls interviewed believed that standing up and hopping forward three times immediately after sex is effective birth control! We should educate our teens about the causes, consequences, and cures related to the negative behaviors they see every day.

5. Emotional arousal

Teens are very influenced by emotional appeals and tend to define reality by what they feel. Students in my own youth group reacted strongly to this commercial for Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign and many reported that they never looked at body image the same way again. Similarly, Truth’s anti-smoking advertisements use vivid images to dramatically stimulate people to feel differently about unhealthy behaviors. If we can stimulate our teens’ emotions against the negative behaviors and toward the positive ones, they are more likely to seriously consider positive change.

Behavioral Catalysts

How can we help struggling kids go from experimenting with positive choices to habitually living a Kingdom lifestyle? Once kids are motivated to change, behavioral catalysts train them and help them train themselves to continuously make better decisions.

1. Self-liberation

It requires explicit commitment to turn a behavior into a habit, and self-liberation encourages a person experimenting with change to make a clear pledge to change their behavior. Altar calls and commitment cards are heavily used in churches with varying results, but studies have shown that students who commit to premarital abstinence are at least slightly more likely to follow through with it. When they are ready, we can give students the chance to commit.

2. Stimulus control

When I became a Christian, my potty-mouth would get me in a lot of trouble. To clean up my language, I threw away all my CDs with any cursing in the lyrics so that I would not be as stimulated to cuss. We can help our kids remove reminders of their old habits and fill their lives with room décor, media, and relationships that encourage a positive lifestyle.

3. Helping relationships

When life turned dark, Katie turned to cutting for relief. She knew that she needed to stop, but she didn’t think that anyone could understand her problem. But once her small group leader revealed that she herself struggled with cutting in high school, that changed. Katie began talking about her problem with her leader as well as other girls struggling with it, and she got the help she needed. Peer and mentoring relationships can help our teenagers know that they do not struggle alone and provide critical guidance and accountability to pursue positive habits.

4. Counter-conditioning

Our harmful behaviors are so addictive because they fill a felt need quickly and effectively. A gossip spreads rumors because she desperately wants attention; if she merely quits rumor-mongering, that need for attention will still be there, begging to be filled. We could help this gossip girl by publicly praising her when she encourages someone else. In that way, the old needs that created the damaging behaviors can be fulfilled by new, more positive ones.

5. Reinforcement management

Alison couldn’t keep her room clean and it was starting to cause problems in her family. When she could no longer stand her parents’ disapproving looks and restrictions on her social life, she decided to change. She was an avid reader, so she struck a deal with her parents that for every week she kept a clean room they would buy a new novel for her. People trying to change need to see tangible benefits from their hard work in order to stay motivated to continue the change journey. We should verbally encourage and physically reward our kids when they make positive changes.

The chart below summarizes the catalysts:


Catalyst Message Example(s)
Social liberation “Look at how much easier it is getting to make this change” Buy an overeater the new healthy options at Wendy’s
Self-reevaluation “How does your old habit make you feel poorly about yourself?” Personal Values Card game [[This is a fun little exercise that you can use to get kids to identify what positive values they hold most dear. You can then use those values in future conversations to demonstrate how behavior changes could help them have a life that reflects the values most important to them.Instructions - Materials -]]
Environmental reevaluation “Think about how your behavior affects the people around you” Performing a group intervention
Consciousness raising “There are some things you probably didn’t know about your habit” Going to seminars, giving out informational media
Emotional arousal “Here’s what might get you emotionally committed to change” Testimonies of people who were hurt by negative behaviors


Catalyst Message Example(s)
Self-liberation “It’s time to step up and commit or step out and quit” New Year’s resolutions, commitment cards
Stimulus control “Get rid of the things that might tempt you back into your old ways” Downloading a restrictive web browser to block explicit web sites
Helping relationships “Get some people to walk with you through this change journey” Parents, mentors, accountability partners
Counter-conditioning “Let’s find something healthy to do that fills the same needs your old habit used to fill” A smoker starts chewing gum instead of stepping out for a cigarette
Reinforcement management “You’ve made some great changes…here’s a reward!” Free gift card to the kid that brings the most friends to a ministry event

Figure 1. Catalysts of Change [[Derived from DiClemente, Carlo C., “Changing Addictive Behaviors: A Process Perspective,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2 (4), Aug 1993, 102.]]

The Right Thing at the Right Time

The catalysts above are a toolbox you can use to help the kids we love consider godly life choices and create long-lasting positive habits. Like on my father’s deck, sometimes just one simple screwdriver will do the trick, and other times we’ll need to break out the power tools! There is no prescribed order to use these catalysts, but it is important to use the right catalyst for the right stage. Each catalyst is tailored to be most effective for moving from one particular stage to another, as the chart above indicates. Motivational catalysts are best for earlier stages (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation), when the changing person is struggling to find the wherewithal to change. They require the most intensive work from the outside; the youth worker or parent must be a persistent and inspirational motivator.

Behavioral catalysts accomplish the most with later stages (preparation, action, maintenance), when the changing person is already committed to change but just lacks the know-how and experience to do it well. These catalysts require less work from the outside; the youth worker or parent acts as a knowledgeable guide who provides the blueprint and lets the student fill in the blanks.

Also keep in mind that the quicker we respond with an appropriate catalyst, the quicker we will see a positive effect. Research has shown that a person’s motivation decreases over time, so people who advance to the next stage within the first month of intervention are twice as likely to change within the next six months. [[Prochaska, James O. and John Norcross, “Stages of Change,” Psychotherapy: theory, Research, and Practice, 38 (4), 2001, 445.]]

Doing the right thing at the right time not only makes change happen faster and last longer, but also improves communication between the changing person and the person guiding them through that change. In contrast, choosing the wrong intervention can actually lead a person toward reluctance, resistance, and relapse. We must continuously assess our kids’ stage of change and determine whether they need more of a pep talk (motivational catalysts) or an instruction manual (behavioral catalysts). It is important to teach the stages to the changing person as well, so they can better understand where they are in the process of change and be able to verbalize what kind of help they need.

But however we choose to intervene, we must smother our actions with a heaping helping of God’s grace. God’s grace is the ultimate catalyst, because when our slates are wiped clean we can spring forward with confidence. As Paul said, “God’s kindness leads you to repentance.” [[Romans 2:4, NIV.]] Grace means the story of change is never over; that no matter how we’ve fallen, we can always begin again. It is easy to forget grace in the business of change, but when we do we leave behind the greatest tool in the box, the one only God could give us: amazing, unchanging grace.

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