Oppositional Behavior

6 Truths About Challenging Kids That Unlock Better Behavior

Standard parenting models tell us to reward behaviors you want to encourage, and punish behaviors you don’t. Dr. Ross Greene says that strategy only slaps a Band-Aid on an unsolved problem. Here, learn the basics of his CPS model for getting to the root of your child’s challenging behaviors.

A father comforts his son after a bout of challenging behavior.

Your child’s outbursts aren’t a sign of insubordination, disrespect, or rudeness. They are a red flag you are inadvertently ignoring. They are telling you that your child is seriously struggling to meet your expectations because of some lagging skill(s), and he or she doesn’t know how to move forward.

This is the central premise of the collaborative and proactive solutions (CPS) model for treating challenging behavior. Described in depth in my books The Explosive Child, Lost at SchoolLost & Found, and Raising Human Beings, the CPS model is an empirically-supported, evidence-based treatment approach that focuses on identifying the skills your child is lacking and the expectations he or she is having difficulty meeting. It is a new, collaborative and proactive approach to solving a problem most parents face daily.

The six key tenets of CPS model are as follows.

1. Emphasize problems (and solving them) rather than behaviors (and modifying them).

Many parents, educators, and mental health clinicians focus primarily on a challenging behavior and how to stop it. The CPS model sees “bad” behavior as a signal — a sign that the child is communicating, “I’m stuck. There are expectations that I’m having trouble meeting.” Meltdowns, for the most part, indicate a problem upstream, just as a fever often indicates an infection elsewhere in the body.

If you treat a fever without looking for the ailment causing it, the recovery is often only temporary. Similarly, if you try to change a behavior without identifying the unsolved problem sparking it, the outburst is bound to happen again.

In this model, caregivers are problem solvers, not behavior modifiers.

[Free Download: Your 10 Toughest Discipline Dilemmas – Solved!]

2. Problem solving is collaborative, not unilateral.

Solving problems is something you’re doing with your child rather than to him. In traditional discipline models, adults often decide the solution and then impose it on a child – especially when the child is exhibiting challenging behaviors that need to stop now.

Instead, position yourself as your child’s partner. Generally, children are delighted to give input and signoff on ideas designed to solve the problem.

3. Problem solving is proactive, not emergent.

Solving problem behavior is all about timing. An intervention should not occur reactively, in the heat of the moment. It should be planned and implemented before the outburst occurs.

Kids typically don’t blow up or melt down out of the blue. Many parents and clinicians spend their time trying to answer “whats.” What disorder is my child showing symptoms of? What underlying condition could this behavior indicate? These questions could lead to a diagnosis, which can be helpful.

But, they don’t answer the more important questions of why and when is this kid experiencing problems? These two questions can help caregivers understand the root cause of the problem.

[10 Tips for Dealing with an Explosive Child]

4. Understanding precedes helping.

There is no shortage of diagnostic categories used to explain difficult behavior, but only two descriptions really matter: Children are either lucky or unlucky in how they communicate the difficulties they face with meeting expectations.

Lucky communicators do the following:

  • Use their words
  • Whine
  • Pout
  • Sulk
  • Withdraw
  • Cry

These ways of communicating rarely get a child put in time out, deprived of privileges, or in trouble at school. They often elicit empathy from caregivers.

Unlucky communicators do the following:

  • Scream
  • Swear
  • Hit
  • Spit
  • Bite
  • Kick
  • Throw
  • Destroy
  • Run

These behaviors are likely to result in a timeout, detention, or suspension, and are far less likely to elicit empathy from caregivers.

Challenging kids are challenging because they lack the skills to communicate in a way that is not challenging.

Caregivers take a giant leap forward when they come to view a child’s difficulties through the prism of lagging skills and unsolved problems. Compassion starts to shine through.

They stop saying things like:

  • “He’s pushing my buttons.”
  • “He’s making bad choices.”
  • “He could do it if he tried.”

Instead they say, “He’s lacking skills. There are expectations he is having difficulty meeting.”

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have Oppositional Defiant Disorder?]

5. Kids do well if they can.

All children want to do well, and they will if it’s possible. If they aren’t doing well, then something must be getting in the way.

The biggest favor a potential helper (a parent, educator, or mental health professional) can do for an unlucky kid is to finally figure out what is getting in his or her way:

  • What are the child’s lagging skills?
  • What expectations is the child having trouble meeting?
  • What are his unsolved problems?

This is a very different mentality from, “Kids do well if they want to.” There are a lot of clichés applied to unlucky kids to justify the belief that they want to do poorly: attention seeking, manipulative, coercive, unmotivated, limit testing. They are not true; they simply justify the belief that the child doesn’t want to succeed.

6. Doing well is preferable.

The difference between a lucky kid and an unlucky kid is not that the well-behaved child wants to do well and the poorly behaved child doesn’t. Unlucky kids often want to do well even more than well-behaved, lucky children; you can tell because they are working so hard trying to get there.

Some kids have been so over-corrected and over-punished for so long that they decide doing well is not in the cards for them. When parents or caregivers apply these six key themes, they often find hiding under all of the behavioral challenges a child who always wanted to succeed, but was just having a really hard time getting there.

To learn more about the skills that behaviorally challenging kids are lacking, read this article.

[Learn the Right Reasons for Your Child’s “Wrong” Behavior]

This advice came from “Beyond Rewards & Consequences: A Better Parenting Strategy for Teens with ADHD and ODD,” ADDitude webinar lead by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., in June 2018 that is now available for free replay here.

Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Specialist Panel.

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