You know how it goes. You want this little person to do the thing and they won’t do the thing and somehow zero-point-two-seconds later you’re in the midst of a tear-filled screaming match in the hair care aisle at CVS.
You start thinking about how your real kid may have been switched at birth for this pint-sized tyrant who seems bent on reenacting “The Omen” in public. And teenagers make you want to skip right past negotiating and just call an exorcist. Yes, you love them, but kids can drive you crazy.
Or… maybe we’re just working off a completely boneheaded paradigm when we deal with our children. I will now attempt to illustrate this point with a seemingly absurd scenario:
I’m with my fictional friend Hans. Hans only speaks German.
Me: Speak English.
Hans: (something in German)
Hans: (something in German)
Me: Stop defying my will, Hans!
Hans: (shouts in German)
And on it goes. Who’s the idiot here? Me. Why? I’m acting like he’s willfully resisting me when the reality is that he simply doesn’t have the skills required to comply. No amount of me shouting, threatening or pleading is going to suddenly teach him to speak another language.
If I asked you “Do kids have the abilities and self-control of adults?” you would laugh and say, “Of course not.” But we often treat kids — especially during heated moments — like they have the abilities and self-control of adults. Does not compute.
This doesn’t mean we just let them do whatever they want. But it does mean we need to think a little less of parenting as being a prison warden and more like it’s about teaching.
Yeah, sounds nice but easier said than done, right? Well, let me up the ante even more…
What if you could exert discipline and teach your kids better behavior and develop a stronger bond with them, all at the same time? Sound good? But how the heck do you do that?
Frankly, I have no idea. But luckily, Ross Greene does…
He was on the faculty at Harvard Medical School for over 20 years. Greene designed a system that has not only been validated by research but has also been successfully used for decades in families, schools, juvenile detention facilities and inpatient psychiatric units. His book is The Explosive Child.
Let’s get to it…
For sake of argument, I’m going to assume your child is not pure evil, malevolently bent on resisting your wishes and focused on spoiling your dreams. It’s a stretch, but indulge me.
Start with the assumption that your kid is lacking skills, not the desire to comply. Work from the idea that kids do well if they are able to. If someone does not have the skills to deal with frustration and rationally problem-solve at a particular moment, they simply cannot do the right thing, no matter how much you shout or threaten.
How rational are you when you’re all worked up? Exactly. And taking away Hans’ Xbox will not teach him another language.
From The Explosive Child:
I encourage you to put aside the conventional wisdom and strategies and consider the alternate view: that your child is already very motivated to do well and that his challenging episodes reflect a developmental delay in the skills of flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. The reason reward and punishment strategies haven’t helped is because they won’t teach your child the skills he’s lacking or solve the problems that are contributing to challenging episodes. Indeed, you’ve probably noticed that punishment actually adds fuel to the fire, and that your child only becomes more frustrated when he doesn’t receive an anticipated reward. Your energy can be devoted far more productively to collaborating with your child on solutions to the problems that are causing challenging episodes than in sticking with strategies that may actually have made things worse and haven’t led to durable improvement… You and your child are going to be allies, not adversaries. Partners, not enemies.
What evidence do you already have for this? That your kid doesn’t misbehave 24-7. I’ll bet the majority of the problems you have aren’t random. Maybe getting them to do their homework consistently produces a meltdown. Or bedtime is always a battle of epic proportions. There are a handful of situations that are disproportionately responsible for the conflict you two experience.
He has “difficulty with doing chores.” She has “difficulty with getting up for school.” That’s something we can address. Parents often shout “You do this every time!” but rarely stop to think there might be a real reason it happens so consistently at that particular time. There’s what Greene calls an “unsolved problem.”
But instead of thinking about the skill that’s lacking, we just focus on the bad behavior. If we aim to discover and solve the underlying problem, the behavior goes away on its own.
You want him to stop hitting his sister when he gets frustrated. Do you really think for a second his thought process is, “I just love punching my sister. It’s one of my favorite hobbies.” Of course not. It’s more like, “I’m frustrated and don’t know how to handle my emotions.”
If you just enforce a strict ban on sister-punching, it’s not going to teach him to handle anger any more than me shouting is going to teach Hans a second language. Sister-punching is just going to morph into some new anger-induced bad behavior, leaving you to assume the kid has a lot more problems than he really does. The unaddressed anger issues just create a game of “Bad Behavior Whac-A-Mole” that you will never, ever win.
Help them identify the unsolved problem, teach them the lagging skill, and the awful behavior gets replaced by something that will make them a more effective human — and stop you from going prematurely gray.
(To learn more about how you and your children can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Sounds good, but there’s a very common resistance to this logic that we need to address…
“But I’m The Parent!”
Many parents will respond that the kid should just obey. “They’re the child! I’m the adult!” To this I have a very simple reply:
So how’s that working out for you?
(Don’t bother to reply. I know the answer — because you’re still reading this.)
“The kid should just obey” is the old paradigm. Parenting from when TV’s weren’t flat and telephones were all attached to a wall. And maybe it forced short-term compliance but it didn’t teach Hans another language and so sister-punching just turned into some other bad behavior. And now that kid is an adult and he’s probably breaking into my car right now.
The irony of merely imposing your will on a child is that the kids least likely to be able to comply with this method are the ones most likely to receive it. Kid has trouble with emotional control, so we shout and threaten, this causes further emotional overwhelm which the kid doesn’t have the ability to handle, and it’s a downward spiral until your living room is a reality show.
Most times when you see conflict escalate it’s because of that logic — that it’s a contest of wills, not skills. If a child is upset, threats just make it worse, and if a kid is not upset, threats are an excellent way to get them upset. You have the skills to control your behavior, they don’t.
Greene sums it up nicely:
Here’s a simple math equation that might suffice. Inflexibility + Inflexibility = Meltdown.
Nobody’s saying you have to cave and give in. But it’s not weak to ask questions. To assume that maybe there is a legitimate reason they’re struggling, and that it’s something you can help them get better at. Being immediately dismissive of someone’s feelings is rarely a good idea.
Do you want your child to be an adult who just mindlessly obeys? No. We want them to have better self-control, better problem-solving skills, to consider the feelings of others and to negotiate.
From The Explosive Child:
If a kid is putting his concerns on the table, taking yours into account, and working collaboratively toward a solution that works for both of you—and if therefore the frequency and intensity of challenging episodes are being reduced—then he’s most assuredly being held accountable and taking responsibility for his actions.
We’re forgetting that parents don’t just need to be enforcers — they need to be teachers. Many will say, “He just wants attention” or “She just wants her own way.” Here’s the thing: those two sentences are true of every human on this planet. Your kid is just going about it all wrong. They need to learn the skills to do it better.
Without them, they’re not learning a lesson about emotional control or frustration tolerance, they’re learning that whoever has more power can unilaterally make the rules. Congrats, you’re raising a bully. Start saving bail money and tell him to stop breaking into my car.
People with MD’s don’t rob banks and they don’t buy lottery tickets. They have the skills to make a lot of money in a better way. If your kid knew a better way to get what they want, they’d do that.
(To learn how to deal with out-of-control kids — from hostage negotiators — click here.)
Alright, lots of talk about teaching skills and problem-solving… but how do we actually do that?
Okay, so we are no longer responding to child tantrums with the words “RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.” Time for Hans and I to both take some Berlitz classes.
The best time to start a good regimen of diet and exercise isn’t after your quadruple bypass; it’s 20 years before your heart attack. And the best time to use this system isn’t when someone four-feet tall is screaming bloody murder in the vegetable aisle of the supermarket, it’s when things are calm at home. It can work in the midst of an argument, but it’ll be more effective and less stressful if you’re proactive.
There are three steps here and Greene has a Magic Formula for each. This should make things a lot easier for you to execute and, more importantly, should drastically reduce the amount of email I get saying, “But I don’t know what you’re telling me to do, Eric.”
Step 1: Empathy
Let’s say that getting them to do homework is always a struggle. But you’re smart, you didn’t wait until the next homework deathmatch to have this conversation. You’re being proactive. Time to address the problem before it’s a nightmare.
From The Explosive Child:
The Empathy step involves gathering information from your child to understand his concern or perspective about a given unsolved problem.
So what’s the Magic Formula for the Empathy step?
“I’ve noticed that…” + (problem) + “What’s up?”
So you’d say, “I’ve noticed we’ve been having some difficulty when it’s time to do your homework. What’s up?”
Be calm and gentle. This isn’t an argument or an interrogation. That said, we do need an answer. And most kids will respond with the dreaded, “I don’t know” or silence. That’s okay.
Frankly, the kid probably doesn’t know. They probably haven’t thought that much about it. Children aren’t known for quiet reflection, pondering the difficulties of life while lounging in a smoking jacket with a snifter of brandy. Heck, you don’t know why you do half the things you do either. It’s okay.
Be patient. Ask questions. Encourage them to talk. Get them to clarify. And try to find out why this problem occurs at homework time and not during other moments. Beyond that, the important thing to do is shut your big adult mouth. Do not rush to give your side of things or to solve the problem for them.
Some parents will say, “But I do listen! Why are we still dealing with this issue over and over?” If you already have a solution in mind and are just listening until it’s your turn and then tell them what you were going to tell them anyway, you’re wasting your time. Their issues won’t be addressed and the solution won’t last and you’ll be doing this whole thing again in a few days. I call it “Sisyphean Parenting.” By the way, it doesn’t work.
Patience. Gently ask questions. Don’t judge.
Step 2: Define The Problem
Okay, they told you their side. And knowing how kids are, they probably didn’t think too much about how that affects anyone other than themselves and that’s why they’re in trouble. But that’s okay. They’re a kid. If they had the skills, they would.
Again, don’t jump to solutions just yet. We need to teach them those skills: being considerate of others, problem-solving, etc. And that means we collaborate, not dictate.
The “Defining the problem” step is when your needs enter into the equation. Magic Formula?
“The thing is…” + (communicate your concerns about the problem)
Calm and gentle. Avoid the word “you” because unless it’s followed by “are wonderful” it’s going to sound like an accusation. Stick to the word “I” and talk about your feelings. This teaches them to think about other people’s perspectives.
Do both of you understand where the other is coming from? Can you both summarize the other’s position to their satisfaction? Awesome. Let’s build some more skills.
Step 3: The Invitation
Now it’s time for solutions. And, no, you still don’t get to suggest one. Sorry.
“I wonder if there’s a way we can…” + (address kid’s concern) + “but that still makes sure to” + (address your concern) +“Do you have any ideas?”
This teaches them to take other people’s feelings into consideration when problem-solving — which is a much better lesson than blind obedience to unilateral demands.
Giving them first crack at suggesting the solution doesn’t just improve their empathy and problem-solving muscles, it also lets them know you’re interested in their ideas. It’s a bonding moment. It teaches them, by example, how to collaborate — as opposed to teaching them “How To Be A Dictator.”
This is how you teach them skills that will make them a successful adult. And it doesn’t involve lectures that they’ll ignore.
Yeah, I know: nothing is ever that simple with kids. So how do we know if it’s working? And how do we course correct when it inevitably doesn’t the first time around?
The 2 Criteria For Good Solutions
In order to work, any solution has to include two elements:
- It has to be realistic. The kid has to actually be able to follow through.
- It has to be mutually satisfactory. It must solve the concerns of both parties.
For the record, kids are terrible at both of these. That’s understandable, these are skills to be learned. So let’s start teaching — but not by lecturing.
Children will offer solutions that solve their problem but not yours. So again, we’re gonna build those empathy muscles along with problem-solving powers. Don’t say, “That’s a terrible idea.” There are no bad solutions here, only ones that aren’t realistic or mutually satisfactory.
Greene’s Magic Formula for this one?
“Well, that’s an idea, and I know that idea would address your concern, but I don’t think it would address my concern. Let’s see if we can come up with an idea that will work for both of us.”
And let them try again. They’re learning to think about others’ feelings and make a plan before they behave. And when they come up with something realistic that works for both of you, you’re done for now. They’ll be more likely to follow through because it’s their solution.
You’ll know you’re making progress when the kid starts following through on their plan without reminders or help. Until then, they might screw up. No problem. Ask them how you can improve the solution so it’s more realistic or more mutually satisfying.
In fact, it’s good if you both acknowledge that the first solution may not work, but that you’re both trying in good faith. Often neither of you will know if it’s truly realistic or mutually satisfactory until it’s been tried. Acknowledging that durable solutions are refined with time reduces conflict. So don’t expect immediate miracles.
Just the fact that you both showed empathy and listened will bring you closer together than shouting and orders. It’ll make “Solution 2.0” better because your kid knows you’re willing to calmly listen and to give them some autonomy. You may not have immediately solved the issue, but you definitely improved the relationship. And that’s what leads to many more good solutions in the future.
(To learn the 10 steps to raising happy kids, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up — and for those who feel that this might be too touchy-feely, that the adult world is not always so collaborative, well, we’re gonna address that too …
Here’s how to be a fantastic parent:
- Mad Skillz: It’s not a battle of wills, it’s all about skills. And if you listen, they’ll learn.
- “But I’m the parent!“: If that was working there is no way you would have read this far. You’re not that masochistic.
- Step 1 – Empathy: “I’ve noticed that…” + (problem) + “What’s up?”
- Step 2 – Define the problem: “The thing is…” + (communicate your concerns about the problem)
- Step 3 – Invitation: “I wonder if there’s a way we can…” + (address kid’s concern) + “but that still makes sure to” + (address your concern) +“Do you have any ideas?”
- Realistic and Mutually Satisfying: I’m not sure those words describe anything I’ve ever done in my life, but when their solution hits both marks, you’re golden.
Some might say the adult world is not always such a collaborative place. Your kid may end up in a job with a boss who unilaterally dictates orders, doesn’t listen and makes threats.
That is a 100% real possibility. And that is a problem…
Which is why we taught them awesome problem-solving skills, right?
From The Explosive Child:
A (dictator) boss is a problem to be solved. How does your child learn to solve problems? (With the above three steps.) Which skill set is more important for life in the real world: the blind adherence to authority… or identifying and articulating one’s concerns, taking others’ concerns into account, and working toward solutions that are realistic and mutually satisfactory…? If kids are completely dependent on imposition of adult will to do the right thing, then what will they do when adults aren’t around to impose their will?
I’m going to stop shouting at Hans and we’re both going to use Google Translate.
You’re teaching your kid the skills they need to be empathetic and respectful, to problem-solve and negotiate. And in the process, you’ll get better at those things too.
When it comes to abilities, we act like kids are our equals. But when it comes to respect, we act like they’re inferior to us.
Try reversing that.
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