As you’re trying to rush out the door, you look over at your son on the couch zoned in on his tablet. “Okay honey, we need to go. Get your shoes on.” He doesn’t even acknowledge you as your struggling to balance all you need for the day. You repeat yourself a little louder. Still no response. You try one more time and even toss him his shoes. He pushes them on the floor and continues with his game. You decide to snatch the tablet and say “GET YOUR SHOES ON!” His face turns beet red and he goes in to full meltdown mode. You look at the clock and realize you have to be at work in 10 minutes! You grab his shoes and force them on as he’s kicking and screaming the entire time. You pick him up and run out the door, flustered still after you drop him off and drive to work. The next morning you decide to hide his tablet, thus removing the distraction. Problem solved. He wakes up and as soon as he notices his tablet was missing, another meltdown and repeat of the previous morning.
How frustrating! He knows you need to go to work. He knows how to put his shoes on. Why is he making this so hard for you? The reality is children don’t enjoy these moments either and are doing the best they can, though it may not seem like it. According to Dr. J. Stuart Ablon, if kids are challenging, there is something getting in the way and it is our responsibility to figure what that is. He believes behaviors occur due to a lack or delay of one or more of the following skills: 1) language and communication (ex. Understanding spoken direction or expression of concerns, needs or thoughts in words) 2) attention/working memory (ex. Maintain attention or ignores irrelevant noise or people when necessary), 3) emotion and self-regulation (ex. rational thinking or adjust arousal level relevant to situation) 4) cognitive flexibility (ex. Handles transition well or adjusts to unpredictability) 5) social thinking (pays attention to verbal and nonverbal or empathizes).
So what can we do? The first thing would be to look at your parenting style. Are you a parent who uses sticker charts and an allowance to get your kids to complete tasks? Are you quick to take away electronics or send them to their room if they are having behaviors? Most people use a traditional way of parenting with rewards and punishments. Studies are now showing this style fails to teach children complex thinking skills, build a relationship, or help children stay regulated. In reality, it’s using your power and control to manipulate your child’s behavior and get them to do what you want and does not work long-term. How long was that sticker chart effective?
Let’s look back at your struggling son. First, identify the challenging behavior that’s occurring. He yells, cries, kicks, and refuses to complete his task. Next, describe the situation prior to the behavior in as much detail as possible. Clearly, getting the opportunity to play on his tablet in the morning and not being able to is very difficult for him. You were rushing to get out the door and getting frustrated with him, which may have fueled the tantrum. Usually, his tantrums occur in the morning before school and he’s able to pull himself together by the time you get to the school. Now reference above to the potential lagging skills and brainstorm which one(s) may apply to him. Language and communication may be a struggle for him, as he will scream and cry when he gets his tablet taken away. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in the schedule, although clearly does a good job of tuning out irrelevant noises (like your voice) so his attention and working memory may be lagging, as well.
Now it’s time for an action plan to avoid this behavior in the future. Ablon’s Plan B method encourages the child and the adult to work collaboratively on a solution. Sit down with your son after you pick him up from school and start the conversation with your neutral observation of the behavior that morning, for example, “Hey buddy, you seemed to struggle to get out the door in the morning. How come?” It’s important to use empathy and truly attempt to understand their concerns. He may say he doesn’t like to go to school or playing on the tablet helps him wake up in the morning. After he has had the opportunity to talk about his concerns, it’s your turn to do the same. For example, “Yeah, I get that. So my concern is everyone has to go to school and it’s important that we’re on time. I also don’t want to get in trouble with my work for being late in the morning.” You may get some push back when addressing your concerns, but it is important maintain the expectation while still validating their feels. Exposure to small doses of stress can actually help change the neural connections in the brain. Finally, you will want to encourage him to think of solutions. As Ablon stated, there is no such thing as a bad idea. If he is struggling, it’s okay to help brainstorm but making sure he is in control. Eventually, a solution will be made and he has decided to play his tablet on the way to school, instead of at home. Through that process, you have helped him self-motivate and encouraged skill development or improvement, even the one that may be lagging.
Albon’s Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) Approach is an evidence-based practice that has demonstrated effectiveness with children and adolescents with a wide range of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges across a variety of different settings: from families, schools, mentoring organizations and foster care agencies to therapeutic programs such as inpatient psychiatry units, residential treatment and juvenile detention facilities. This approach requires practice and may not be successful every time. Once you have been able to master it, you will find yourself utilizing in other relationships in your life because, hey, we all have lagging skills.
For more information of Dr. Albron’s Collaborative Problem Solving Approach www.thinkkids.org
This blog post was written by Post Adopt Coordinator Brittney Engelhard, LBSW.