At the playground recently, I watched a mom try to convince her 6- or 7-year-old daughter to leave behind a collection of sticks and twigs she had been playing with. The mom’s patience finally ran out, and she spoke firmly: “Sarah, you heard me. No sticks in the car. It’s time to go.” Her daughter instantly exploded with rage. Screaming in protest, she flung the sticks at the car, burst into tears and ran off to the opposite side of the playground to sulk.
Why is it that some children are more willing to cooperate than others? Why do some kids respond reasonably well when limits are placed on their behavior while others erupt in emotional fireworks? According to clinical child psychologist Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings,” it is a mistake to think of kids like Sarah as willfully oppositional, manipulative or unmotivated to do better. Rather, they are children who lag behind their peers “in the development of crucial cognitive skills such as flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance and problem-solving.”
The intense reactions that set our teeth on edge are actually distress signals indicating that the child’s mental circuits are overloaded and unable to cope. All children feel this way occasionally – when they are tired, hungry or sick, for example. But children who consistently flare up in situations that require flexible thinking and adaptive behavior most likely do so because they have not yet developed the cognitive skill set that’s needed.
Your Extra-Challenging Child Needs Practice With Problem-Solving
Conventional tactics for controlling children’s behavior, such as rules and punishments, sometimes work in the short term, but ultimately backfire with extra-challenging kids because they don’t address their lagging cognitive skills. To develop the flexibility necessary to respect limits, extra-challenging children need more opportunities to participate in resolving conflicts.
Clinicians such as Green recommend collaborative problem-solving as the most effective way to establish limits with your extra-challenging child. Not only does this method help curb out-of-bounds behavior in the short term, but it also fosters the development of coping skills that will prepare the child for the challenges of life in the long term.
Instead of Punishment, Use the Three “P’s”
When setting limits with (not for) your extra-challenging child, remember the three “P’s” of Prevention:
1. Stay Positive. Research shows that positive reinforcement works far better than punishment in modifying behavior.
2. Be Proactive. Telling your child in advance what you expect will enable her to plan ahead rather than react in the moment. With practice, this shift will strengthen the brain functions governing self-regulation.
3. Set Priorities. Build on successes and maintain positive momentum by working on resolutions to no more than two or three problem situations at a time.
Pinpoint the Problem
Patterns in your child’s behavior will provide clues to the skills she lacks. What types of situations usually cause trouble? Is it when she is asked to stop a pleasurable activity? Or when she is being rushed? When a sibling invades her space? Are there more specific triggers, such as being told to turn off the computer or TV?
Begin the conversation by letting your child know you are on her side and want to help. Empathize with her position. “I can see how much you enjoy that new computer game. No wonder you feel disappointed when your time is up.” The feeling of being understood will calm her emotions and encourage a receptive, rather than a defensive, frame of mind.
State your own concerns clearly and in impersonal, nonjudgmental language: “I feel anxious when computer time goes on longer than we agreed because I worry that there won’t be enough time for the other things we have to do.” Show that you want to solve the problem (rather than control the child) by asking for her input. “I’m not sure how to fix this situation. Would you be willing to help me think of some ideas?”
Work Together Toward a Solution
Now is the time to listen – really listen – to your child’s perspective. When we take the time to hear and understand the child’s needs and desires and make a reasonable effort to accommodate them, we set a positive example for extra-challenging kids. We model the adaptability, respect and cooperation we would like to see them practice.
In most cases, the child’s perception of the problem holds the key to a lasting solution. Often, it is far simpler than you think. For example, the child who melts down when told to turn off the computer may have lost all track of time. She might need a visual clock, such as the Time Timer, to mentally prepare to shut down. Or it could be that completing a level of her favorite computer game takes longer than the time allowed. Through discussion, the child and parent might agree on a longer period of computer time in exchange for fewer days each week.
Collaborating on the Fly
What about situations you can’t plan for in advance? Collaborative problem solving can be done even in the thick of the struggle. The mother I observed at the playground might have helped her daughter, Sarah, control her intense feelings by first empathizing with her and asking for more information. (“Wow! You found some cool things. What do you plan to do with them?”) If Sarah wanted to keep them in her room, her mom could have expressed her concerns and invited her daughter’s imaginative ideas for alternatives. (“The sticks might get dirt on your bed. What do you think would be the best hiding place on the playground to keep them safe until we come back?”) Together, they might have found an out-of-the-way spot to stash the sticks and then had an enthusiastic discussion about building a tiny house for birds or a fort for squirrels on their next visit.
Whatever the problem, a collaborative approach can help develop solutions that work for both parents and children, while also providing the training and practice extra-challenging kids require to adapt their behavior to the needs of the situation.
This article was originally on Washington Parent Magazine’s website.