How to Reduce Your Child's Challenging Behavior

When rewards and punishments only exacerbate your child's behavioral issues, you may feel like you're at the end of your rope. Dr. Nanika Coor explains the collaborative and proactive problem-solving process that can help parents reduce their child's challenging behavior.

Nanika Coor, Psy. D.
6-minute read
Episode #668

Often parents describe their frustrations with their child in terms of what they perceive to be their child’s purposeful non-compliance and annoying behavior.

I’ve heard statements like:

  • “She just doesn’t make good choices!”
  • “He’s just trying to get attention.”
  • “They just want their own way all the time!”
  • “She acts out for no reason!”

It’s understandable. When you’re repeatedly faced with kid behaviors that are anywhere from mildly challenging to very concerning, you can be so exhausted and frustrated that through the lens of your activated nervous system you mostly see negativity. It’s hard to consider any other explanation for your child’s behavior other than a lack of motivation or refusal to do better.

Not wanting to be a permissive, lax, or neglectful parent, it might be hard to imagine that there are alternatives to taking a hard line with your child. So you double down on restrictions, take away privileges, or impose consequences in hopes that your child will start doing what you want them to do if environmental conditions get unpleasant enough.

Alternatively, you might blame your child’s diagnosis—like ADHD—for their challenging behavior and spend a lot of time trying to fix what you and consulting professionals see as problematic about your child. Just get them to focus more, try harder, follow directions more, and/or listen more and things will get better—right?

What if you looked at your child’s behavior from a different perspective?

Your child isn’t giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time

The main tenet of the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions  (CPS) communication model originated by Dr. Ross Greene is that “kids do well if they can.” Kids would prefer to do well—they want their adults to feel and act positively toward them. So challenging behaviors are a signal that something is getting in their way. There’s an incompatibility between your child’s unique characteristics (their personality, preferences, abilities, developmental stage, mood, etc.) and the demands being placed on them.

Challenging kids struggle to meet demands because they’re lacking crucial cognitive, social, and emotional regulation skills, without which they really can’t do any better than they’re doing in any given moment. The environment is demanding that they use skills that they haven’t developed yet! Dr. Greene refers to this developmental delay as “lagging skills.” We all respond maladaptively when we lack the skills to respond in a positive way. So it makes sense to treat your children (and yourself) with compassion and understanding when they (and you) are not able to do well.

Resolving incompatibility

When you’re able to do an assessment of your child’s lagging skills, you’re in a better position to identify which expectations they’re having trouble meeting. In CPS, those unmet expectations are called “unsolved problems.”

When the environmental demands being placed on your child are incompatible with the skills they have to meet that demand, the result is challenging behavior, or “incompatibility episodes.” This can look like whining, sulking, crying, withdrawing, screaming, cursing, hitting, kicking, throwing, stealing, lying, etc. By going through this assessment process you’ll begin to see that these incompatibility episodes are highly predictable and actually occur under specific conditions.

Here’s the shift: instead of trying to reduce incompatibility episodes by focusing on getting your child to change their behavior, proactively work together with your child to solve the unsolved problems. Being proactive is about forward-thinking preparation instead of heat-of-the-moment or after-the-fact knee-jerk reactions.

Challenging behavior happens downstream—it’s the signal that there’s incompatibility. It’s far more productive to focus on reducing the incompatibility causing challenging behavior by taking upstream actions.

You can’t solve a bunch of problems all at the same time

After listing all of your child’s unsolved problems, you might feel overwhelmed. Where should you even start chipping away at these things? Well, it’s impossible to work on everything at the same time, so choose one to three unsolved problems to work with based on their safety, frequency, or gravity.

Safety first—unsolved problems that contribute to your child’s worst moments or unsafe behavior are an effective starting place. Next, prioritize frequency—these are the unsolved problems that contribute to incompatibility episodes most often. Finally, prioritize unsolved problems based on their gravity—those unsolved problems that have the greatest negative impact on your child or others.

Proactively and collaboratively solving problems with your child helps them build lagging skills.

Your 3 options for handling unsolved problems

Dr. Greene lays out 3 possibilities for dealing with the unsolved problems you’ve identified.

Plan A: You solve the problem unilaterally. This usually looks like you imposing your will on your child. Maybe you even dole out punishments and rewards to coerce your child to comply. This usually causes challenging episodes and doesn’t durably solve any problems.

Plan B: You and your child solve the problem collaboratively as a team. This involves three “ingredients.”

  1. The Empathy Step involves getting information from your child so you have a very clear understanding of their perspective and concerns related to the unsolved problem.
  2. The Define Adult Concerns Step involves identifying and communicating your concerns.
  3. The Invitation Step involves brainstorming with your child to select solutions that are realistic and mutually satisfactory.

Plan C: You set a lower-priority unsolved problem aside for the time being. This means you entirely drop this expectation of your child, and you find another way to meet your expectation yourself, or you radically accept that it won’t be met for now.

Plan B helps your child build the skills they’re lacking

Proactively and collaboratively solving problems with your child helps them build lagging skills. The Empathy Step helps kids consider and identify their own concerns and practice communicating them in understandable ways, all while regulating their emotions enough to take part in the discussion. In the Define Adult Concerns Step, your child will build capacities for listening, considering and empathizing with another’s perspective, appreciating the impact of their behavior on others, and tolerating the frustration that may arise when hearing someone else’s point of view. And finally, the Invitation Step helps kids practice generating creative solutions that work not just for them but for others, too, considering the outcomes of those solutions, and learning to resolve disagreements without conflict. CPS helps adults build those skills too!

The Plan B process is about helping kids—especially behaviorally challenging kids—feel understood, valued, and heard. Solving problems with your child in this compassionate, effective, and productive way also improves your relationship with them. Kids come to trust that you’re really going to listen to them and not try to steamroll them. When you get clear about the fact that lagging skills are causing your child’s difficulties, you start seeing them differently, feel more empathetic towards them, and understand what they need from you.

Challenge yourself!

For the next 30-90 days, use the CPS assessment tools to identify your child’s unsolved problems, and choose one or two to prioritize solving with your child. Start with what’s creating the biggest problem, and take a stab at Plan B!

You have to practice Plan B to get good at Plan B, and Dr. Greene suggests that parents think of their first 20 attempts as practice—learning this new way of responding to behavior takes time! He also suggests that you spread your first Plan B discussion over a period of days—use the first day for the Empathy Step and come back to the other steps on another day.

Remember that the Empathy Step is more about you listening than talking. On its own, the first step is relationship- and trust-building, so if you get through this one step consider it a win! And if you do end up coming to some collaborative solutions, don’t be surprised if the problem is not completely solved for the long haul. Just go back to the drawing board and clarify that everyone’s concerns have really been identified and that the solutions are realistic and mutually satisfactory.

Lagging cognitive skills and unsolved problems are at the root of the behaviors that are pushing your buttons.

It can externally appear that your child’s challenging behaviors are limit-testing, coercive, manipulative, attention-seeking, or unmotivated. What’s really going on is that lagging cognitive skills and unsolved problems are at the root of the behaviors that are pushing your buttons.

Using the steps of Plan B, you can meet your child’s individual needs by collaboratively discovering durable solutions to problems. Together you’ll reduce the likelihood of challenging behavior, and you’ll both learn important skills!

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Nanika Coor, Psy. D.

Dr. Nanika Coor is a New York-based clinical psychologist and respectful parenting therapist. She helps overwhelmed parents hear a kinder inner voice and experience more mutually-respectful interactions with their children. Find out more about her work at www.brooklynparenttherapy.com.

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Coor to answer on Project Parenthood? Leave her a message at (646) 926-3243 or send an email to parenthood@quickanddirtytips.com