A great parenting book I highly recommend is Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child. Even if you wouldn’t describe your child as “explosive,” (i.e. tends to throw tantrums, show inflexibility and defiance, and generally cause frustration for adult figures) it can benefit anyone raising children. The book lays out a simple and very effective parenting philosophy called “Collaborative Problem Solving” (CPS). One of the basic ideas of the book is that
Children will generally behave well if they CAN, not because they WON’T.
Their acting out or becoming frustrated happens because they don’t yet have the skills to successfully handle difficult situations in a more constructive way. It is not simply because they are by nature unruly and actively trying to be defiant and make your life difficult. From this perspective, difficult behavior in children is understood as resulting from lagging skills, rather than merely intentional effort to seek attention or manipulate adults – which is a common misconception.
Just as certain children are slower than others to develop reading or math skills, some children delay in developing the skills of managing frustration, transitioning between tasks, or receiving and following instructions.
But if children feel equipped and supported to succeed, they are far more likely to do so. Adults often respond to childrens’ difficult behavior in 2 ways:
“Plan A”: This could be described as the authoritarian approach to parenting e.g. harsh discipline, punishment and unilateral decisions that exert power over the child and only prioritize the parents’ perspective. This might be temporarily effective in some situations, but often can lead to further defiance, escalated power struggles, and continual frustration. In the long run, this approach also fails to give kids the opportunity to develop effective problem solving skills.
“Plan C”: The opposite of Plan A, this approach means giving in to the child’s problematic behavior and abandoning a parents’ will altogether. Again, in some situations this may work fine, as parents need to be thoughtful about which issues really need to be prioritized – and when. However, this also ultimately does not convey the concerns that the parent wants to convey to the child and is also less than ideal.
The prescribed alternative, a more lasting way to help address problem behaviors and bolster new confidence and skills in children is “Plan B”, or Collaborative Problem Solving.
CPS generally consists of 3 steps:
1) Gathering information: The parent seeks to express empathy and understanding for what the child is feeling in the midst of the misbehavior.
2) Expressing concerns: The parent states their concerns and perspective on the issue, and explains why the current behavior may be problematic.
3) Discussion of possible solutions: The parent and child work together to brainstorm alternative solutions that address the concerns of both parties in a collaborative way
The great nugget of wisdom here is that the order of responses from the adult figure is central.
Children need to first know that their feelings and opinions in a given matter are validated (even if the corresponding behavior is not condoned).
Once a parent can convey this understanding effectively, then a child will be much more receptive to hearing an adult’s concerns about the issue. In addition, both adult and child are able to express and understand one another, and then can collaborate in coming up with ideas for improving how the difficult situations are handled.
Martin Hsia, Psy.D. is the Assistant Director of CBT SoCal, and specializes in helping people with OCD, Anxiety, and Insomnia in Glendale, CA.