Oppositional Behavior

Time for Plan B? 10 Tips for Dealing with an Explosive Child

When faced with defiant or violent behavior, most parents try “Plan A,” where they impose their will on an oppositional child. The problem? Plan A doesn’t work. Parents who move to “Plan B” — a collaborative and proactive parenting style — have a much better chance of solving their children’s behavior problems.

An explosive child dealing with her anger by crying and putting her hands on her head
Upset girl with pink sweater hands on head crying

Oppositional, noncompliant, and defiant behaviors magnify and outshine nearly all other challenges faced by kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). The arguments, backtalk, and (in some cases) physical aggression turn daily interactions into constant sources of frustration for both the kids themselves and their caregivers — and there is too much disparate advice available for caregivers to know the best way to respond.

The model I originated — now called Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) — in my books The Explosive Child and Lost at School, is a straightforward (and effective) place for parents to start to understand and cope with these challenging behaviors. CPS is based on the premise that defiant behavior is simply a response to a child’s lack of skills — that is, when a child feels incapable of responding to a specific expectation, he’ll lash out, push back, or melt down. CPS focuses on the skills that a child is lacking, and the expectations that are frustrating him, rather than on the negative behaviors themselves.

Some of what you will read below may be contrary to the way you’ve always thought about parenting. But if you feel that raising your explosive child isn’t going well, the following 10 tips may be a life-changer.

1. Don’t worry too much about a diagnosis. Getting a diagnosis “certifies” that there’s something different about your child, but it doesn’t tell you about why your child is oppositional and explosive. Childhood psychiatric diagnoses are labels that are applied to clusters of negative behaviors. The behaviors themselves, though, are the ways in which your child is letting you know that he or she is having difficulty meeting certain expectations. If your child is hitting, spitting, biting, kicking, throwing things, screaming, swearing, or destroying property, the behaviors all say the same thing: “I’m stuck. There are expectations I can’t meet.”

2. Explosive children lack important cognitive skills. Research done over the last 40 to 50 years tells us that behaviorally challenging kids lack important skills, especially flexibility/adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. This is why they explode or exhibit challenging behaviors when certain situations demand those skills.

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

3. Expectations outstrip skills. The clash between expectations and skills occurs often in behaviorally challenging kids, and their reactions tend to be more extreme. But these kids aren’t always challenging: their problems are situational, limited to certain conditions and expectations.

4. Figure out which skills your child lacks and which expectations he has trouble meeting. In the CPS model, unmet expectations are referred to as unsolved problems. How do you determine what those problems are? By using a tool — don’t worry, it’s only one sheet of paper — called the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP). You can find it on my website, Lives in the Balance (livesinthebalance.org). It is free.

5. Try a new parenting plan. Many caregivers try to solve behavior problems unilaterally by imposing rules on their child — called Plan A in the CPS model — but you’ll be more successful if you and your child solve those problems together instead (Plan B). When you solve problems together, you become partners — teammates — not enemies or adversaries.

6. Solve problems proactively. The heated moment is a bad time to solve problems. But how can you solve problems proactively when your child’s worst episodes are unpredictable? They’re actually not as unpredictable as they might seem. Once you use the ALSUP tool to identify the problems, you can pinpoint when they will occur, so you can work on solving them.

[Free Resource: 2-Week Plan for Ending Defiant Behavior]

7. Prioritize problems before solving them. Don’t try to work on too many problems at once. When you’ve created a comprehensive list of unsolved problems — all the expectations your child is having difficulty meeting — pick two or three to work on. Set aside the rest for later.

Which problems should you tackle first? Are there any that are causing safety issues for your child? Work on those. If not, start with the problems that cause the worst behavior, or those that have the worst impact on your child’s life or the lives of others.

8. Don’t mislabel your child. Seeing your child’s difficulties through the prism of lagging skills permits you to stop referring to your child in counterproductive ways, calling him attention-seeking, manipulative, unmotivated, button-pushing, and so on. Mental health professionals often label the parents of behaviorally challenging kids as passive, permissive, inconsistent, or inept disciplinarians, but those characterizations are off the mark as well.

9. Get good at Plan B. This is a new skill for both of you. As you start to develop muscle memory for solving problems collaboratively, your communication and relationship with your child will improve.

10. Don’t fret over disagreements. Conflict between children and caregivers is not inevitable. It’s how you address those problems that either causes conflict or fosters collaboration.

[Back From the Brink: Two Families’ Stories of Explosive Behavior]


Parenting Plans: From Bad to Good

What strategy are you using to raise your child: Plan A, Plan B, or Plan C? The right plan will help you better manage your child’s behavioral challenges. The wrong one will diminish your relationship with him or her.

Plan A:  It tries to solve problems unilaterally, and it’s very popular. Using Plan A, you are the one to decide the solution to a given problem, and you’re imposing that solution on your child. The words “I’ve decided that…” are a good indication that you are using Plan A. Plan A incorporates your experience, wisdom, and values, and it cuts your child completely out of the picture. It sends the clear message that your point of view is the only one that matters, and that her point of view won’t be heard or taken into account.

Plan B:  This plan involves solving a problem collaboratively. You realize that if your child is having difficulty meeting expectations, something must be getting in his way. You also recognize that you’re the one who figures out what’s getting in the way, and that your child is your best source of information. You work together to solve her problems.

Plan C:  It involves modifying, adapting, or setting aside an unsolved problem, at least temporarily. It can also involve waiting to see if your child can solve his problem independently. Many parents see the “setting aside” part as the equivalent of “giving in.” Actually, “giving in” is what happens when you try Plan A and end up capitulating because your kid responded badly to your imposition of a solution. The C of Plan C doesn’t stand for capitulating or caving.

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