Are you parenting a challenging child? One who tantrums easily or has a super-short fuse for frustration? Does your foster or adopted child seem inflexible and unable to adapt to his environment beyond what might be typical for his age? Some kids consistently cannot handle those rising feelings when they occur. When you are parenting a challenging child, you need tools to address your child’s needs, build his skills, and improve his quality of life – and yours.

Collaborative Parenting Starts with Us

The hard truth is that building skills to parent well almost always starts with us. We must do the work to figure out what our child needs to succeed, but we also need to figure out what is going on inside of us that might be preventing the child’s success in our homes.

We did a radio show last fall with Dr. Ross Greene, the originator of the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions parenting model. You might recognize his name as the author of The Explosive Child** and Raising Human Beings.** The premise of this parenting model is that children exhibit challenging behavior when the expectations placed on them exceed their ability to respond appropriately. In other words, actions like whining, pouting, screaming, swearing, hitting, or biting are how they express the difficulty they feel in meeting expectations or facing frustrations.

“Kids do well if they can.”

Our job as parents is to equip our kids with the skills they need to work through those challenges. The caveat is that we first have to re-frame our kids’ struggles from a “won’t” to a “can’t yet.” She isn’t a challenging child, she’s a child with challenges. That’s a big re-frame for many parents who are accustomed to viewing a child’s misbehavior as defiance or assuming the child has intent to be obstinant or lack of desire to comply.

In the collaborative parenting model, Dr. Greene explains that often our kids are challenging because they currently lack the skills not to be challenging. In other words, if they had the skills needed to manage their big feelings, they wouldn’t manifest problematic behavior. That’s because – and here is perhaps the key theme of the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions model – “Kids do well if they can.”

“Doing well is always preferable to not doing well.”

Re-framing our perspective trains us to look at a child’s challenging behavior as a skill yet to be built. We instead assume the best about our children by remembering that “doing well is always preferable to not doing well.” It puts the onus on us to recognize that children can meet expectations or face disappointments when we build in them the right skills. We are telling them that difficult moments are problems to be solved together.

How Do We Determine What Skills Are Lagging?

Many factors influence a child’s development. Two factors that parents of foster or adopted kids see most commonly are trauma and developmental delays. It’s a little bit of a “chicken or the egg” dilemma to tease out which of the factors comes first or is the primary culprit in a child who has experienced trauma. Delays in development can sometimes pre-date or co-exist with the trauma of abuse or neglect our kids have experienced because of prenatal exposure or heritable illnesses.

Regardless of the influencing factors, when we determine to teach our kids how to solve their problems in healthy and productive ways, there are three skills to focus on.

  1. Frustration tolerance
  2. Problem-solving
  3. Flexibility and adaptability

When we shift how we look at our children who struggle with these skills, we can then consider that these lagging skills are their own kind of learning challenge. As with any other learning struggle, then we can then be about the business of finding the supports and tools our kids need to succeed.

The alternative, and certainly not a recommended path, is that we end up taking our kids’ behaviors personally. Or we set up an adversarial relationship in which our expectations are not being met. Either way, the child’s behavior isn’t supported for change.

How Do a Child’s Lagging Skills Show Up in Behavior?

When a child has one of these delayed or undeveloped skills, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t just make our life hard. Living with these behavioral challenges is hard for our kids too. It becomes a cycle that fuels more frustration, and the child feels defeated and confused. Common behaviors you might see in a child who is challenged by lagging skills include:

  • Difficulty in transitions
  • Defiance to authority
  • Inability to accept changes in plans
  • Unmet expectations and inability to meet expectations
  • Tantrums, rage, tears, meltdowns, biting, kicking, etc.

How do I Practice Collaborative Parenting?

Dr. Greene summarizes collaborative parenting in a three-step approach to build a challenging child’s problem-solving skills. It’s important to remember that these steps are proactive in nature. So practice them when things are going smoothly, and there are no tempers (yours or theirs!) flaring. Practicing these three steps creates a new, regular pattern of interacting with our kids that says, “I’ve got you – we can do these hard things together.” Then, when the meltdowns happen, your child already has access to that felt-safety of working with you on the skills she needs to manage her big feelings at the moment.

The 3 Steps of Collaborative Parenting

We’ve outlined the three steps here with examples for each that can help you create scripts until the language becomes more natural to you.

Step One: Empathy

To begin the collaboration, the parent gathers the necessary information to understand the child’s concern or perspective about the unsolved problem she is facing. It’s important to remember at this step, you are just gathering information, so you should do more listening than talking and ask clarifying questions without judgment or censure.

The Example — “Janie, these last few weeks, I noticed that you seem to have a problem brushing your teeth at night before bed and in the mornings before you go to school. I’m sorry you are so frustrated and that you have so many tears when I ask you to do it. Can you tell me what is going on for you?”

A follow-up question might sound like, “So are you saying that you don’t like the flavor of your tube of toothpaste, or is it the texture of all toothpaste?”

Step Two: Define the Adult Concern

Once the parent has listened to the child’s concerns or perspective on the problem, the parent shares her perspective on the issue. For your younger kids, keep it small and specific.

The Example — “Thanks for telling me how you feel about the flavor of your toothpaste, Janie. I’m concerned that if you don’t take good care of your teeth by brushing them every morning and every night, you will develop cavities. Cavities can be painful and cause other infections. Plus, you’ll have stinky breath!”

Step Three: Invite Your Child to Collaborate

Now that the child has stated her challenge and you’ve voiced your concerns, you can work together to brainstorm a solution or two. The goal is to create a plan of action that is both realistic and mutually satisfactory. You are building her problem-solving skills when you make that plan together. The secondary goal is to hold that first solution lightly, in preparation that sometimes first attempts don’t succeed. Then you can both feel safe and free to admit that it’s time to try another solution together.

The Example — “So, Janie, I wonder what we can try that will help you be okay with the flavor of the toothpaste you use and keep your mouth clean? Fresh breath makes it more pleasant to snuggle with you, so I’m looking forward to solving this puzzle with you. What do you think we can do?” Then stop talking and let Janie come up with a few ideas.

If this feels too new or too big for Janie to answer, consider making the question smaller and offering two reasonable choices. For example, “Janie, would you like to try my toothpaste flavor? Or would you like to go to the store with me to find some sample sizes of other toothpaste flavors to try?”

How Do I Do These Three Steps with My Teen?

Even if this approach is brand new to you, it’s not too late to start now with your tweens or teens who struggle with challenging behavior. Here’s another example, using one scenario that is common to those raising older kids.

The Empathy Step

“Hey, John! I noticed the other night that you missed curfew by 20 or 30 minutes. Was everything okay when you were out with the guys?” Listen and tease out what you think John’s problem with the curfew was.

The Define the Adult Concern Step

“I’m glad to hear you were all safe and having a great jam sesh. I lose track of time when I’m immersed in a project too, so I understand. Thanks for being honest about it. But, I worry when you are that late, and I don’t get a text or phone call.” You can phrase your concerns in a way that expresses your empathy and prompts him to understand your dilemma at the same time.

The Invitation Step

“I’d like to avoid feeling anxious about you missing curfew the next time you and the guys are jamming in Joe’s garage. But I also want you to be free to hang with the guys and make your music. Do you have an idea that would solve both our problems? Maybe you could send me a text to let me know that you might be late?”

This is another strengthening resource for Parenting Tweens and Teens.

Working Together, Not Against Each Other

As you can see, collaborative parenting is a parent-led joint effort to increase understanding and build skills. For some of us, it’s a new way to approach parenting, and it might feel unnatural or awkward at the beginning. Try breaking it down into small parts for yourself. First, try looking at a few of your child’s most challenging behaviors. Be curious about what is driving those actions. Maybe that can be the natural lead-in to decipher what skill your child lacks when he acts out in those challenging ways.

If this parenting model is new to you, equip yourself with other great resources that tackle the issues in more detail, like Dr. Greene’s other books (linked at the start of the post). Working with your challenging child to build skills will create bonds of trust and connectedness between you. You will give him a safe foundation from which to try other new skills when he faces a new challenge. And when you are learning the new-to-you skills for this parenting model, you are showing your kids that you value them and are willing to grow and learn — with them and for them!

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Image Credits: klndonnelly; judy dean; Guilherme Yagui; Steven Depolo; Rafael Castillo