“What kind of parent are you? Why don’t you straighten him out!” rants the woman being jostled in the grocery store by your patient. “Easy for you to say,” thinks your patient’s frazzled and now insulted parent.
Blaming the parent for an out-of-control child has historically been a common refrain of neighbors, relatives, and even strangers. But considering child behavior as resulting from both parent and child factors is central to the current transactional model of child development. In this model, mismatch of the parent’s and child’s response patterns is seen as setting them up for chronically rough interactions around parent requests/demands. A parent escalating quickly from a briefly stated request to a tirade may create more tension paired with an anxious child who takes time to act, for example. Once a parent (and ultimately the child) recognize patterns in what leads to conflict, they can become more proactive in predicting and negotiating these situations. Ross Greene, PhD, explains this in his book “The Explosive Child,” calling the method Collaborative Problem Solving (now Collaborative & Proactive Solutions or CPS).
While there are general principles parents can use to modify what they consider “mis”behaviors, these methods often do not account for the “missing” skills of the individual child (and parent) predisposing to those “mis”takes. Thinking of misbehaviors as being because of a kind of “learning disability” in the child rather than willful defiance can help cool off interactions by instead focusing on solving the underlying problem.
What kinds of “gaps in skills” set a child up for defiant or explosive reactions? If you think about what features of children, and parent-child relationships are associated with harmonious interactions this becomes evident. Children over 3 who are patient, easygoing, flexible or adaptable, and good at transitions and problem-solving can delay gratification and tolerate frustration, regulate their emotions, explain their desires, and multitask. They are better at reading the parent’s needs and intent and tend to interpret requests as positive or at least neutral and are more likely to comply with parent requests without a fuss.
What? No kid you know is great at all of these? These skills, at best variable, develop with maturation. Some are part of temperament, considered normal variation in personality. For example, so-called difficult temperament includes low adaptability, high-intensity reactions, low regularity, tendency to withdraw, and negative mood. But in the extreme, weaknesses in these skills are core to or comorbid with diagnosable mental health disorders. Defiance and irritable responses are criteria for oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and less severe categories called aggressive/oppositional problem or variation. ODD is often found in children diagnosed with ADHD (65%), Tourette’s (15%-65%), depression (70% if severe), bipolar disorder (85%), OCD, anxiety (45%), autism, and language-processing disorders (55%), or trauma. These conditions variably include lower emotion regulation, poorer executive functioning including poor task shifting and impulsivity, obsessiveness, lower expressive and receptive communication skills, and less social awareness that facilitates harmonious problem solving.
The basic components of the CPS approach to addressing parent-child conflict sound intuitive but defining them clearly is important when families are stuck. There are three levels of plans. If the problem is an emergency or nonnegotiable, e.g., child hurting the cat, it may call for Plan A – parent-imposed solutions, sometimes with consequences or rewards. As children mature, Plan A should be used less frequently. If solving the problem is not a top life priority, Plan C – postponing action, may be appropriate. Plan C highlights that behavior change is a long-term project and “picking your fights” is important.
The biggest value of CPS for resolving behavior problems comes from intermediate Plan B. In Plan B the first step of problem solving for parents facing child defiance or upset is to empathically and nonjudgmentally figure out the child’s concern. Questions such as “I’ve noticed that when I remind you that it is trash night you start shouting. What’s up with that?” then patiently asking about the who, what, where, and when of their concern and checking to ensure understanding. Specificity is important as well as noting times when the reaction occurs or not.
Once the child’s concern is clear, e.g., feeling that the demand to take out the trash now interrupts his games during the only time his friends are online, the parents should echo the child’s concern then express their own concern about how the behavior is affecting them and others, potentially including the child; e.g., mother is so upset by the shouting that she can’t sleep, and worry that the child is not learning responsibility, and then checking for child understanding.
Finally, the parent invites brainstorming for a solution that addresses both of their concerns, first asking the child for suggestions, aiming for a strategy that is realistic and specific. Children reluctant to make suggestions may need more time and the parent may be wondering “if there is a way for both of our concerns to be addressed.” Solutions chosen are then tried for several weeks, success tracked, and needed changes negotiated.
For parents, using a collaborative approach to dealing with their child’s behavior takes skills they may not have at the moment, or ever. Especially under the stresses of COVID-19 lockdown, taking a step back from an encounter to consider lack of a skill to turn off the video game promptly when a Zoom meeting starts is challenging. Parents may also genetically share the child’s predisposing ADHD, anxiety, depression, OCD, or weakness in communication or social sensitivity.
Sometimes part of the solution for a conflict is for the parent to reduce expectations. This requires understanding and accepting the child’s cognitive or emotional limitations. Reducing expectations is ideally done before a request rather than by giving in after it, which reinforces protests. For authoritarian adults rigid in their belief that parents are boss, changing expectations can be tough and can feel like losing control or failing as a leader. One benefit of working with a CPS coach (see livesinthebalance.org or ThinkKids.org) is to help parents identify their own limitations.
Predicting the types of demands that tend to create conflict, such as to act immediately or be flexible about options, allows parents to prioritize those requests for calmer moments or when there is more time for discussion. Reviewing a checklist of common gaps in skills and creating a list of expectations and triggers that are difficult for the child helps the family be more proactive in developing solutions. Authors of CPS have validated a checklist of skill deficits, “Thinking Skills Inventory,” to facilitate detection of gaps that is educational plus useful for planning specific solutions.
CPS has been shown in randomized trials with both parent groups and in home counseling to be as effective as Parent Training in reducing oppositional behavior and reducing maternal stress, with effects lasting even longer.
CPS Plan B notably has no reward or punishment components as it assumes the child wants to behave acceptably but can’t; has the “will but not the skill.” When skill deficits are worked around the child is satisfied with complying and pleasing the parents. The idea of a “function” of the misbehavior for the child of gaining attention or reward or avoiding consequences is reinterpreted as serving to communicate the problem the child is having trouble in meeting the parent’s demand. When the parent understands and helps the child solve the problem his/her misbehavior is no longer needed. A benefit of the communication and mutual problem solving used in CPS is on not only improving behavior but empowering parents and children, building parental empathy, and improving child skills.
Dr. Howard is assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS. She has no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication is as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at [email protected].
Greene RW et al. A transactional model of oppositional behavior: Underpinnings of the Collaborative Problem Solving approach. J Psychosom Res. 2003;55(1):67-75.