Oppositional Behavior

What Are the Lagging Skills Holding Your Child Back?

Children don’t act out to gain attention or control their parents. They do it because they can’t meet our expectations, and that is incredibly frustrating. What they need is not punishment, but help identifying and strengthening the deficient skills that are to blame. Here, Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., offers a road map for parents.

A mother comforts her daughter after identifying the unsolved problems causing her meltdowns.

Rewards and punishments are virtually worthless if caregivers don’t first spend time doing the following with their behaviorally challenging child:

  1. Identify lagging skills and unsolved problems
  2. Start solving these problems collaboratively and proactively

This is the central premise behind a proactive, positive parenting model called collaborative and proactive solutions (CPS), which is an empirically-supported, evidence-based treatment approach that really works to solve tough behavior challenges. To learn more about the six key tenets of CPS model, read this article.

Identifying Lagging Skills

Behaviorally challenging kids typically lack one or more of the following:

  1. Executive skills
  2. Language processing and communication skills
  3. Emotion regulation skills
  4. Cognitive flexibility skills
  5. Social skills

To make sense of your child and his or her most challenging behaviors, begin by diving into these categories and investigating lagging skills. Only then can you see your child through a more compassionate, accurate, and productive lens; only then can you stop taking a behavior personally. Specific skills lacking in behaviorally challenging kids may include:

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  • Exhibiting empathy
  • Appreciating how one’s behavior is affecting others
  • Resolving disagreements without conflict
  • Taking another’s perspectives
  • Exhibiting honesty

To determine your child’s deficient skills, use The Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP), in combination with this 45-minute tutorial that teachers parents how to use it.

[Find more CPS Essentials here.]

Solving Problems Proactively and Collaboratively

There are three main ways to solve any family problem:

  • Plan A: Solve the problem unilaterally.
  • Plan B: Solve the problem collaboratively.
  • Plan C: Set the problem aside for now to prioritize bigger problems. This can be stabilizing for children with many unsolved problems.

Plan A works if a child is in immediate danger, but it doesn’t create a long-term solution. In the CPS model, you will use plan B, which comprises three parts:

  1. Empathy: To solve a problem, you need to first sit down with your child and gather information to find out what is getting in his or her way of meeting an expectation.
  2. Define adult concerns: Next, you will explain — calmly and kindly — your concern about the unmet expectation.
  3. Invitation: Finally, you invite your child to collaborate on a solution that is realistic and satisfactory to everyone. That means both of you can do what you’re agreeing to do, and the solution has addressed the concerns identified in steps 1 and 2.

[Self-Test: Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Children]

To start a CPS session, approach your child proactively and say, “You know what? There is something I would love to understand better than I do. Is there a time that you and I could have a discussion so you could help me understand it? You are not in trouble. I am not mad at you.” Then, it’s a good idea to tell your child what it is you’d like more information about so the problem isn’t sprung upon him. Make an appointment and give kids advanced warning.

It is a common parenting myth that adult-child conflict is inevitable. Conflict often arises from the methods parents typically use to solve behavioral problems. Solving problems unilaterally is about holding power over a child, and that power dynamic causes conflict. Plan B is about collaboration, which brings adults and children together as teammates.

The reality is that children and adults will disagree with each other, and children will have difficulty meeting some parental expectations. But conflict does not have to result from those disagreements. Parents and children can work together to jointly solve the problems that affect their lives.

When you parent collaboratively and proactively, you are simultaneously improving behavior and teaching kids the skills they need next time a challenge rises up. When children help to devise them, the solutions are more effective and more durable.

For more information, visit:

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What if my child won’t collaborate?

When I try to collaborate with my child, he answers, “I don’t know.” How can I get my child interested in teaming up on solution?

It’s important to use the right words when approaching your child. First, talk only about the expectation he is having trouble meeting, not the challenging behavior that results from missing that expectation.

Often, kids shut down when they think they’re in trouble. They get defensive and they don’t communicate. Or, parents try to intervene in the heat of the moment, which rarely works.

“I don’t know” can also mean:

  • “I haven’t thought about my concerns in a very long time because I am so accustomed to them not being acknowledged.”
  • “I don’t trust you or this process yet because adults in my life have never really listened to me.”
  • “I don’t have the words.”

“I don’t know” could mean a lot of different things.

To break through, you can try the five fingers rating system. Five means very true, four means pretty true, three means sort of true, two means not very true, and one means not true at all. Then, you can make statements and your child can respond without having to verbalize. He can just hold up the fingers to respond to each statement.

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.

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