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Three Ways of Dealing with Your Child's Challenging Behaviours

If you have a child with frequent or severe behavioural difficulties, you no doubt have heard a lot of advice from a lot of different people. It's confusing, conflicting, and overwhelming - not to mention riddled with other peoples' judgment of all of the things you should be doing as a parent. All of the judgment and unsolicited advice-giving from everyone else is so frustrating and maddening. Truly, they just don't understand. And yet, it compels you to sneak off into your little one's room at night just to catch a glimpse of your innocent babe snuggled up peacefully, wrapped in a blanket and the warmth of the moonlight. As you finally have a moment to relax, a tear rolls down your cheek as you are reminded of how fragile she is, and your heart is suddenly flooded with all of the love and joy you imagined would encompass your everyday parenting life. Why is every waking moment so hard? Why my child? What did I do wrong? How did I cause this? And what on earth can I possibly do to even begin to deal with it? This time will pass. It's not your fault. It can get better... You just need the right tools. Parenting a child with behavioural challenges requires a different approach to parenting, and a different set of tools. The first tool you need is a new understanding of your child. In a previous blog post, New Perspectives in Parenting a Child with Behavioural Difficulties, I wrote about the importance of understanding that your child is not bad or lazy or manipulative, but rather, that your child is having a meltdown or tantrum or outburst or whatever else you may call it, because he or she lacks one or more skills of flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, or problem-solving, in that particular situation. When you think about your child's behaviour from this perspective, you can begin to understand, empathize, and acknowledge their lagging skills, which allows you to recognize the problem that needs to be solved. This just introduces a new problem - how do you solve it? My guess is, you've tried everything - begging, pleading, negotiating, ignoring, yelling, bribing, rewards, punishments, time-outs, spanking...what else is left?!? Well, unfortunately, there is no trick, gimmick, or other quick fix. While yelling or bribing or spanking or all those other typical go-to's can often yield instant results (you yell, your child finally does what you've asked), they clearly haven't solved the problem, or you wouldn't still be stuck in this place. Furthermore, they can unintentionally make the problem worse over time (parents in this cycle will often eventually realize that their child will no longer listen unless and until they yell). Instead of looking for a quick response, it's important to think longer-term. What is it that you really want your child to achieve? You want your child to be a safe, independent, respectful, and productive member of society. That might mean different things at different ages and in different situations, but overall, isn't that most parents' ultimate goal? In order to address your child's lagging skills. According to Ross W Greene, PhD., in his book The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, you can respond in one of three ways, by using:
  • Plan A: Unilateral problem-solving
  • Plan B: Collaborative problem-solving
  • Plan C: Not problem-solving at all

Plan A: Unilateral Problem-Solving

Unilateral problem-solving is when an adult solves a problem with a child by exerting their own will over that child. For example, your child doesn't read or practice their spelling words, so you decide that he gets no screen time tomorrow as a result. This seems fair, and reasonable, and may work well for a typically developing child who has the knowledge, skills, and abilities to fulfill that task and is simply unmotivated to do so. According to Ross Greene, however:
The paradox is that the kids least capable of handling Plan A - the behaviorally challenging ones - are the ones most likely to get it.
I'm guessing this is the problem-solving method you tend to use most often, right? There's nothing wrong with unilateral problem-solving - if your child has the knowledge, skills, and ability to follow through with the task at hand, and to cope with this type of approach. However, if your child already struggles with frequent behavioural challenges, tantrums, and meltdowns, you have probably experienced that this approach only serves to create a new behavioural challenge, tantrum, or meltdown. Furthermore, it doesn't allow you any insight into your child's perspective of the problem, which can oftentimes be very informative. While there may be a time and place for the Plan A approach - perhaps when a child is unable or unwilling to engage in a more collaborative approach - a new approach may be necessary in order to effectively address the problem over the long-term.

Plan B: Collaborative Problem-Solving

Collaborative problem-solving is an approach than takes into account not only the adult's perspective of the problem, but the child's perspective as well. With this approach, you work together with your child to solve the problem at hand. The Plan B approach involves first empathizing with your child. In this step, you truly seek to understand and gain insight into your child's perspective of the situation. The next step involves defining the problem. In this step, you communicate your underlying concerns about the situation to your child. Your child will be more open to hearing your perspective and working together with you to solve the problem if they believe you are also working to understand and solve their problem in the situation. Finally, the invitation step involves working together with your child to create a realistic and mutually satisfactory solution to the problem, which addresses both of your concerns. This approach is meant to be done at a time when both of you are calm, and able to talk rationally about a problem or a situation, and not to be implemented in the middle of a crisis or an argument. It is also not meant to be a quick-fix or one-off conversation - you must have a genuine interest in understanding your child's perspective (even if it may be extremely different from your own) and in committing to helping them meet their needs within the problem situation as well as your own. This approach takes time, and oftentimes, the first proposed and agreed-on solution doesn't always work. Plan B requires ongoing evaluation of the problem, and tweaking of solutions or finding all new solutions as necessary. The key to this step is patience. As described by Dr. Ross Greene:
Solving problems durably, teaching skills, and changing fundamental aspects of the way you interact with your child will take time.

Plan C: Not Problem-Solving At All

Choosing not to address a particular problem at any given time, is not "giving in" or letting your child "get away with it". Plan C is a choice - an option that is used just as strategically as Plan A and Plan B should be used. If you have a child who struggles in a lot of different situations, the reality is that you will have to pick and choose which behaviours to address first, and which to set aside for later. As you know from personal experience, it's a lot easier to set yourself up for success by tackling one challenge at a time, than it is to try to tackle everything all at once. Prioritize the behaviours that are the most important for your child and your family to address, and save the rest for later. This will reduce the problematic behaviours your child experiences throughout the day, and increase the energy you both have to tackle the highest priority behaviours. Once those are under control, you can shift some of the problems that were originally set aside, into a Plan B approach. For example, if your child has a temper tantrum every night because she has to read and do spelling words, and is also running in the house, whining frequently, and not putting her laundry in her laundry basket each night, you need to choose which behaviour or behaviours are the most important to address right away. That is, what impact do these behaviours have on your child's functioning and what impact do they have on the rest of the family or others? Choose to use Plan B for those behaviours that you have identified as the most important to deal with right now, and set aside the others for the moment. You are not allowing your child to "get away" with whining or running in the house or not cleaning up after herself, for example, but are simply deciding that there are bigger problems to focus on for the moment. Once reading and spelling without tantrums become a regular daily routine, then you can decide which of the remaining three problems to tackle...and so on. Remember, your child will always have problems that he or she has to face, and learning to do this effectively will be a lot more challenging for some kids than it will for others. The more you can remain calm and use a Plan B approach to problem-solving - in which you identify the problem from both perspectives, and work together to find a solution - the more effectively you will be able to engage and support your child - particularly those with behavioural challenges.