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Reinforcements vs. Bribes

Tuscany Crossroads

Family member ponies55 writes in for guidance about offering to reward her son for attending recovery group meetings.

My son is 23 and a cocaine addict. We have had a conversation about recovery groups. I was thinking about offering to sponsor him to attend a few meetings, i.e.: a reward for attending a meeting…. maybe offering to pay for some food that week.
What are your thoughts on this.

Hi ponies55,

It sounds like you are really thinking about ways to reward your son and reinforce positive behavior. Understanding all of the fine details of how and when to reward our Loved Ones can actually be very complicated and daunting. So, I was hoping I could share a few concepts that I learned on my journey that might inspire how to best use this CRAFT approach.

The first thing to take into account is a reward should be something that is pleasurable to our LO’s and NOT something WE want or think our LO needs. So, rewards can be some form of affection like a hand on the shoulder, a smile, a favorite video game, having lunch together, encouraging words, etc… It could also be a book with inspirational ideas or quotes – as long as our LO wants to read that book. If you find the book inspiring and want your LO to read it because you feel it pertains to them, that may not actually be rewarding. In fact, they may see it as a judgement or an attempt to control them.

The second concept that took me a while to grasp is that bribes or incentives are not ways of reinforcing positive behavior. Bribing, in particular, almost always never works. Often times it makes situations worse. Incentives might work once or twice, but can fall apart quickly.

Here is a Bribe scenario: Mom is on the phone and the child is loud and disruptive while mom is talking. Mom then gives the child a lollypop as long as the child stays quiet. The problem then becomes, the child finishes the lollypop and there is no reason to stay quiet anymore. Instead it would benefit the child to act up because mom may produce another lollypop. If mom gives a second lollypop, the child’s bad behavior is now reinforced. The child has learned that acting up produces a reward!


Here’s an Incentive scenario: Dad wants his son to go to Refuge Recovery meetings because he is sure his son will like them. Dad promises his son to buy him cigarettes if he attends a meeting. After the meeting dad gives his son a couple of cigarettes out of the pack and promises more if he will attend more meetings. The son does and after each meeting, dad gives him more cigarettes. After a while, the son starts to complain that his dad is trying to control him. His dad is forcing him into something. Really, Dad is manipulating his son into doing something he thinks is beneficial.


Another issue I have found with bribery and incentives is they both show all of your cards. It is very clear what YOU want out of your LO and if they cannot produce then you might be disappointed. In the second scenario, what if the son does not like Refuge Recovery meetings? Will dad be let down? Does he have to keep going just to get cigarettes? All of this makes the situation a lot more complicated… just one hiccup and it could all backfire.

So what does reinforcing positive behavior look like?

Reinforcing positive behavior is waiting until our LO’s behave in a particular way and then rewarding them for it. So, reworking the two scenarios given above:

1. Mom notices that the child is quietly playing with a toy while mom is on the phone. Mom keeps the conversation short and then says something like, “Thank you so much for giving me the time to take that important phone call. How about you and I sit at the table and have some milk and cookies together?”

2. Dad notices his son has started attending refuge recovery meetings once a week and says something like, “I appreciate how tired and difficult it must be to get to a meeting after a day at work, I am proud of your effort. Let’s grab a bite to eat together.”


With reinforcement, there is no suggestion of behavior on the part of the person giving the reward. When we wait for the behavior to happen and then offer a reward, our LOs have the opportunity to own their behavior. It was their idea; we just support it. We are giving them space to learn about themselves and we are pointing out what is good about them and their ideas. We are stepping back and allowing them to control their own lives.

I hope that some of what I have laid out here will help with your question. I can say that I have yet to see bribes and incentives work well. I have, however, reinforced positive behavior in my own house and have had success with it. None of this is easy and takes practice and patience on our part.

It is great to see and hear from people that are working at CRAFT. I encourage you to stick with it. You and your LO are worth all of the effort. Remember, you are not alone!!!


Laurie is a former math teacher, residing​ in Dartmouth, MA, and extremely active in the recovery community. She currently devotes most of her energy to REST, a non-traditional support group that offers land and online video meetings, access to training in the CRAFT method, and a crisis toolkit helping families create their own individualized crisis plan. ​Her work is guided by a desire to improve the community’s response and end the​ stigma associated with Substance Use Disorder. Laurie loves skiing and ice hockey, and is at her happiest when spending time with her husband and three children. Read her articles on our blog or tune in to the podcast she co-hosts for Allies in Recovery: Coming Up for Air.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. I love reading your posts on AIR and they help guide me a great deal.

    So right now I am weighing incentives and when to give them.
    Our daughter is in a 14 day dual diagnosis program and she seems to be working hard. We are quite proud of her. I am reminded to tell her just that.

    I visited her earlier last week and she was allowed to leave with me for a couple of hours. She had expressed a wish for a manicure which she has used for years because she is a big time nail biter. Long story short, she couldn’t get an appointment and the region is pretty remote. Instead we went to Walmart and I bought her a few cheap outfits. She has eaten herself into larger sizes and her clothes were tearing.

    This week she is moving to a 30 day program that is a full day of group work and nights in a sober living house. My husband will give her the ride to the new program. I offered that manicure again as she’s drives there and she will make an appointment for just before going in. She is looking forward to it.
    Am I over-rewarding? I see these as gifts, not brides or incentives.

    She has fallen down in so many areas and is now looking ahead. I want to reward her work so far but I also want to bring back some of things she has been missing since she lost her last job and fell deeper into debt.

    I will add that the best real incentive we gave her was our offer to cover her share of the household expenses that she owes her boyfriend for their home. It was totally linked to entering a real recovery program and working hard. That has helped them tremendously and the offer remains until she finishes the program and starts a new job. She remains highly motivated to do the work.
    My husband and I are not wealthy but we live comfortably in our retirement and we see these expenses as investments in our child’s future.

    So am I thinking realistically or am I spoiling her? Should I dial back?
    I already have another gift in mind for next week. Since she is working hard at eating better and becoming a bit more active, I bought a sports tracker on sale and would offer it to her. I can keep it for myself instead if I am doing too much. Thanks for your advice on this.

    1. Hi gptraveler,

      It is so great to hear that your daughter is having some success while working on her recovery. And Kudos to you and Dad on creating a supportive environment where she is more likely to have continued success. A few baby steps forward, maybe a step back, but with consistency and understanding, a few more baby steps forward.

      I have a couple of thoughts I would like to share with you on moving forward with rewards, rewarding positive behavior and using incentives:

      1. With our Loved One (LO), we used incentives sparingly. We used them, have some success with them, but they are not the main process for rewarding our LO. Incentives tend to be more about about what I want to see happen with my LO and less about what he wants (maybe not completely because the task may be his idea initially but adding the incentive requires him to fulfill some of my wants and needs). This adds an external element to the whole process.

      2. Reinforcing positive behavior is the process we preferred to use in a large quantity because our goal was to find the positive behaviors, efforts and ideas that could be solely owned by our LO. So we were always waiting to observe his efforts and work prepared with some kind of immediate reward to give to him. We believe that this strengthens and empowers him internally. It’s all him, we are just rewarding to encourage him to repeat that behavior.

      Now, we almost never use incentives. We almost exclusively use reinforcing techniques. (I say ‘almost’ because I have learned through Substance Use Disorder that the only thing that is absolute is absolutely nothing).

      3. Some of the best rewards are those that establish a connection and is an expression of of caring, compassion and understanding. It’s the smile, eye contact, and words of pride and happiness that really bolsters internal pride and confidence in ability. There is nothing better than seeing the look on my LO’s face after saying something positive about him and what he has accomplished. Not to mention, after what he has had to overcome, well deserved. Spending time and engaging with my LO is a reward not only for him but for me and my husband too. Rewards that promote better relationships and interaction are the ones that also empower and build up self confidence in our LOs and let them know that we believe they are capable.

      4. We do use incentives and rewards that cost a bit more but we use them sparingly. We believe that costly rewards can lose their impact if they are given too frequently. It can dilute the ability to have an affect. When our LO was early on working on his recovery he was under water monetarily and so we helped, but we did not just give freely. For us it was really important to utilize the expensive rewards for something that was really deserving of an expensive reward. For example, our LO had been in an IOP, seeing a counselor, working towards getting his license back, etc. for about 9 mos. and started talking about going back to school. We jumped at the opportunity to help pay for his tuition.

      A couple of added things to think about:

      Remember, both incentives and reinforcing positive behavior is done by rewarding after the behavior. Maybe consider giving your daughter that manicure after she has attended her program without telling her in advance. It could go something like this, “I see that have been really focused on your recovery. You have been consistently attending your program and I am proud of you. I would love to take you for a manicure (or if you cannot go with her, send you for a manicure).”

      I believe in giving gifts but this is another place I have to take care. I make sure to check my motivation when I am giving a gift. I ask myself questions like: “Do I expect a particular behavior out of my LO if I give them this?” or, “am I just giving this because I want to without an expectation in the end?”. If I have an expectation of behavior then it’s not a gift. It’s a tool I am using to manage my LO. If my LO does not meet that expectation, how disappointed will I be? If I am giving the gift without this expectation, then it is truly a gift. I just have to be honest with myself because in the past I wasn’t. Then I end up struggling with disappointment, can become resentful of my LO, and really it’s my own doing. A gift is something that comes with no strings attached. I am not saying you are doing this, I am just sharing things to watch out for and things I know I have done.

      I hope that sharing my experiences help with some of this. I hope it inspires thought and creativity on your part and how you can apply CRAFT strategies to your situation. Each of us are different with different situations. Remember, you are not alone.


      1. Thank you very much for this reply. I feel better about the gifts I have given now. It was an incentive when we picked up her share of the living expenses while she went to inpatient dual diagnosis treatment.
        The clothes and manicure were gifts without any expectation of a return. They bolstered her lagging self esteem as she was no longer ashamed by her appearance.
        She has now moved on to her second inpatient stint. This one is 30 days of a partial hospitalization program with a sober house for her residence. It is also dual diagnosis. She’s only been there one day and she reports a big difference from her last program. This one is more rough in their interactions. Different can be good. She called today and seemed “good.” Better than she has sounded in years, in fact.
        I will let the program roll along for a while without any “gifts.” She really is a gift to me now, that’s for sure. I love the woman she is becoming.

  2. I tried to reward my son long before he had addiction problems. I thought I was rewarding him correctly, but I learned I was really just bribing him and by age 8, he was calling the shots, “what do I get for it.” I kept thinking he would learn to work for rewards in life, but I was rewarding incorrectly. This article was perfect for me to read and continue to use in the future.

  3. I remember to remember to spread the message of CRAFT beyond to the culture at large. Because I learned 5 things:

    1) not to rely on miracles nor anyone else to do for me things I must do myself

    2) expect that I need wisdom and valuable help

    3) seek to get the wisdom and values that help myself.

    4) My LO faces “cultural headwinds” leading to SUD

    5) We don’t live in a vacuum, so I believe the CRAFT message needs to be spread to a bigger cultural audience.

    My opinion that offends only my laziest self.

  4. Thanks so much for this post. Sometimes, it’s tricky for me to determine if what I’m doing reflects a bribe, a reward, or an incentive. I’m clear on rewards are something my LO wants, and I’m clear that boundaries I draw for myself must be something I can control about me, not him.

    However, when I stick to my boundaries, such as not helping my son in getting his drivers license (driving him to the lessons, paying for them, taking him driving to practice), he claims I’m trying to control his behavior and that it will never work. I explain to him, I want to feel safe behind the wheel and that he doesn’t need me to get his license or learn how to drive, but I’m just not participating in helping him while he still uses pot daily. There have been moments where he has had several hours at home and I know he didn’t use during that time, so I’ll ask if he wants to go driving. I admit, I use that as a reward and an incentive, but so far it hasn’t worked. He claims if he got his license he would have an incentive to stop/reduce use, but for now he doesn’t have incentive, so why should he? He is hard headed, but I can be, too. How do I proceed from this argument? I’ve asked him to meet me half way and to let me know what that might look like for him, but hasn’t taken me up on that at all. Do I stick to my boundaries as they are, or do I take him up on his idea that it would be an incentive for him if he did have his license?

    He will be 18 the end of May. He finally finished his high school credits and will graduate (we mentioned the looming deadline only twice in one month, other than that we stayed out of the way of natural consequences). This is a huge accomplishment. He had a major outburst last week when he brought up the driver’s license. He literally worked himself up into a frenzy and it got pretty ugly, but I luckily I was able to remain calm and did not engage in a back/forth with him. He still keeps pot in the house, we repeatedly ask him not to and he doesn’t do much around the house, but for the most part his attitude has been better. What to do?

    1. The exchange of rewards between family and LO isn’t easy. A driver’s license is a good example. Once he has it, you can’t take it away if you want to remove the reward. He is 18 and can certainly navigate getting a license without you. He must feel this is still beyond his reach.

      You can however, give and take away driving lessons (one by one? Is that possible?) and practicing driving together. This sounds like halfway. Feeling safe behind the wheel is a different issue, a huge issue that anyone who uses drugs must address. It will be out of your control 99% of the time.

      It is terrific that your son got over the finish line of school. What a huge success for everyone! Thank you for letting us know. We were rooting for him. Your son is also a bit easier to have home. Hurray!

      It’s the day to day that is the hardest, but you and your son are accomplishing a lot. Thank you for keeping us posted.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your explanation, comparisons and examples of incentives vs. bribes.
    I intend to pass on this information to those that I work with and coach.

    Sincere thank you.

  6. I completely agree with the explanation of bribes and incentives vs reinforcing positive behaviors. My son does not respond well to negative feedback, and that is what we mostly gave him in the past. He would often respond to us that the negative feedback we were giving him made him want to use more. In the past year, we have been practicing calm talking with love and catching him doing things right. He has been able to achieve better sobriety, more confidence in himself and allow us to be involved in advising him on important career decisions. Our house is a far more peaceful place!