Contextual Behavioral Science is a new form of behavior science that is grounded in a contextual view of life which seeks to develop concepts and methods that are useful in predicting and influencing the actions of an individual or group. Contextual Behavioral Science is rooting in Behavior Analysis and has been the birth place for Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) and Relational Frame Theory (RFT).

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a branch of clinical Behavior Analysis which aims to improve psychological flexibility. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a mindfulness-based approach to help people move toward their valued behavior. ACT is considered to be in the third-wave behavioral therapy which expands on other behavior therapies by focusing on contextual and experiential strategies aiming to increase mindfulness and acceptance.

ACT helps people get clarity on what really matters to them and learn new ways to be intentional about their behaviors. Rather than attempting to eliminate negative experiences, the objective of ACT is to accept those experiences that life brings while simultaneously taking steps towards your valued behaviors.  ACT emphasizes committed actions (i.e., specific goals) that are connected to a person’s chosen values – what really matters to you.  With acceptance and mindfulness, a person learns to contact the present moment and acknowledge the private events (e.g., thoughts, feelings, urges, body sensations) they experience without fusing with them or allowing them to determine their behavior.

When an individual wants to make changes related to their own behaviors, it is often necessary to address the impact of private events and the context in which they occur. What ACT brings to the science of behavior-change is the understanding that self-regulating your behavior often needs to begin by examining the impact and context of your thoughts, feelings, memories and physical sensations.

ACT can be utilized in a variety of ways. Through metaphors and experiential exercises, people learn how to relate to their private events in a way that supports their long-term desires and values. Part of this process involves looking at how words/language impact perceptions and actions.

ACT has been evaluated in more than 200 randomized-controlled clinical trials in a variety of settings. Studies have included treatment of chronic disease, pain, depression, anxiety, parent training, decreasing smoking, reducing stress, and more. Participants have reported reductions in stress, enhanced wellbeing and improvements in their work and relationships.

One study, completed by Blackledge and Hayes (2005), found that a brief two-day ACT workshop provided to parents of children with autism spectrum disorder was helpful for improving parent’s symptoms of depression and psychological distress and also increased psychological flexibility.

Psychological flexibility is defined as: “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being, and to either change or persist when doing so serves valued ends” (Hayes, et al., 2004).

Basically, psychological flexibility is about adapting and embracing a growth mindset and doing what matters to you even when it’s hard. Life is full of unexpected events and our ability to respond to these events will determine our success.

Why is this so useful for parents?

Learning tools and strategies based in behavior science can be a huge benefit for many parents and most of the time these strategies can cause significant positive change within the household. However, these improvements do not mean that the struggles completely disappear. Parenting will continue to provide new challenges at every turn. The addition of ACT training alongside parent training programs provides parents with tools to help them cope through the unavoidable challenges – it also helps them find ways to connect with the things that are deeply meaningful to them even while facing the challenges head on.

Parenting can be hard even in the best of circumstances. When parents are dealing with additional stressors it can be very difficult for the whole family. When reacting under stress, the default response may be reactive and undesirable. When parents learn methods to help them be aware of their patterns of responding and then commit to meaningful actions, it can make a world of difference. It is through the process of taking many baby steps that big progress occurs.

As humans, our tendency to want to avoid pain and suffering can be problematic if it leads to actively fighting against the difficult reality that we face. ACT is about learning ways to face the difficult things without running away and without engaging in problematic coping strategies that take you away from the things that are important to you.

When we let go of the struggle we can show up to live meaningful lives even in stressful situations. We can learn to not let difficult thoughts and feelings get in the way of doing what really matters.

Parents who have children with disabilities or special needs face an increase level of stress and often experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, financial stress, and marital stress. Sometimes behavior concerns can be very complex and typical parenting advice might not be sufficient. Often times these families need individualized support to address specific concerns while also finding ways to decrease parental stress. ACT can be useful for helping those parents develop resilience and has shown to have positive affects across many domains. ACT has been shown to decrease stress levels and increase psychological flexibility. It also helps parents be present to truly enjoy the process of parenting.

6 Core Processes of ACT: Hexaflex

Acceptance

  • Acceptance is the alternative to experiential avoidance
  • Allowing our experiences to be as they are without cutting out part of the experience
  • Willingness to be with what cannot change (such as unpleasant emotions)
  • Not running and hiding from the problem
  • Learning to live with the good and bad things in life
  • Open up, making room, acknowledging
  • Being with it rather than trying to fix it

Contact with the Present Moment – Mindfulness

  • Be here now
  • Notice your experience with kindness and curiosity

Values

  • Identify what matters most in life
  • What is most important to you
  • What do you want your life to be about

Committed Action

  • Acting in ways that are connected to your values
  • Keep working for what matters
  • Don’t give up even when it’s hard
  • Behavior change strategies to move toward what matters to you

Cognitive Defusion

  • Stepping back from your own thoughts and mind
  • You are not your thoughts
  • Watch your thinking
  • De-literalizing language

Self as Context

  • Seeing yourself as a holding space for thoughts and experiences as well as the self that is connected to personal history, thoughts and emotions
  • You are more than your thoughts, behaviors and experiences
  • Be the real you
  • Pure awareness

ACT Recommended Reading

The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years 

by Lisa W. Coyne PhD (Author), Amy R. Murrell PhD

Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy 

by Steven C. Hayes PhD 

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT

by Russ Harris 

References:

Blackledge, J. T., & Hayes, S. C. (2006). Using acceptance and commitment training in the support of parents of children diagnosed with autism. Child & Family Behavior Therapy28(1), 1-18.

Blackledge, J. T., & Hayes, S. C. (2006). Using acceptance and commitment training in the support of parents of children diagnosed with autism. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 28(1), 1–18.

Biglan, A., Hayes, S. C., & Pistorello, J. (2008). Acceptance and commitment: implications for prevention science. Prevention science : the official journal of the Society for Prevention Research9(3), 139–152. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11121-008-0099-4

Greco L.A., Blackledge J.T., Coyne L.W., Ehrenreich J. (2005) Integrating Acceptance and Mindfulness into Treatments for Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders. In: Orsillo S.M., Roemer L. (eds) Acceptance and Mindfulness-Based Approaches to Anxiety. Series in Anxiety and Related Disorders. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-25989-9_12

Hayes, S. C. (2004). Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies. Behavior therapy35(4), 639-665.

Whittingham, K. Parents of Children with Disabilities, Mindfulness and Acceptance: a Review and a Call for Research. Mindfulness 5, 704–709 (2014).