You’ve finally got the school routine down. Lunch packing, remembering to fish out the crumpled worksheets from the backpack every night (if you’re an overachiever, you’ve managed to get your child to do it), and you’re finally getting those permission slips turned in semi-on time. You’re nailing it.
Then you look up, and summer is upon us.
Your child’s likely favorite time of year can easily become your most dreaded, especially if your child struggles with anxiety, overwhelming emotions, tantrums, defiance or explosive behavior. We often charge into summer with great plans for a relaxing and fun break, but how many times have we found ourselves on the verge of a breakdown within the first two weeks?
I’m going to share some tips to help make the best use of the summer months to improve your relationship and bond with your child. Because after all, isn’t that ultimately what we want? Sure, we’d like them to excel in school and bring home those straight A report cards. We’d love it if they weren’t constantly the kids begging for toys at Target every time we run in for milk (when they aren’t busy watching YouTube all day, that is.) And hey, who hasn’t fantasized about telling that mom next door that your kid eats Brussels sprouts and kale salad with her mini corndogs? But at the end of the day, when you have a child who struggles with managing emotions and behaviors, the best gift we can give them is a safe and loving environment to learn the skills they need to solve the problems getting in their way.
If I were to tell you to work on asserting more authority, to be more strict and consistent, and to make sure you lay down more guidelines and rules, I would be pointing you in the wrong direction. I’d also be insinuating that you are the cause of your child’s behavior. Here’s some good news: you’re not. But you can help change it. Dr. Ross Greene, the originator of the research-based approach called Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) and author of “The Explosive Child, Lost at School, Lost & Found,” and recently “Raising Human Beings,” provides us with a completely different approach to dealing with challenging behaviors. It is not lost on Dr. Greene that it’s a dramatic departure from what we’ve been doing for decades, nor is it a secret that research continues to pour in supporting the positive effects of his approach.
The first thing you need to master is seeing your child in a completely different way.
1. Change your lens.
Research in neuroscience over the past 30 to 40 years supports the conclusion that kids are challenging when they lack the skills necessary to not be challenging. Kids do well if they can, not if they want or choose to. Challenging behavior is an indicator that a child is lagging in cognitive or executive functioning skills. Kids develop skills such as impulse control, frustration tolerance, flexibility, focus, the ability to empathize with others or appreciate how his/her behavior is impacting others at different rates, especially when a diagnosis such as ADHD is at play.
We’ve learned to see challenging kids as manipulative, coercive, poorly motivated and attention-seeking, which has informed the way we intervene. When we use consequences or punishments to manage behaviors, we are essentially punishing a child for having not developed the skills they need to solve a problem. When we implement a system of rewards or incentives, we are assuming the child can simply “flip a switch” and decide to have suddenly mastered skills he/she previously were lagging in. We may see temporary improvement as a child hangs on with dear life to earn that extra video game time or avoid losing pool time this summer, but when they can no longer hang on (and they will eventually let go, since they have not learned the skills and/or solved the problem at hand), you will see the behavior return.
2. Learn how and when to talk with your child about what’s going on.
Children aren’t unique in their inability to think clearly in the “heat of the moment.” When we are in a heightened emotional state, we understand as adults that it’s best to give ourselves time to calm down before we can rationally consider solutions to the problem at hand. Expecting your child to effectively manage their own behavior when they’re already in a heightened emotional state will almost certainly make things worse. If your goal is to score a front row seat for the ‘‘same behavior, new day” show, try teaching your child a lesson or make them reflect on their behavior during or immediately after a heated moment or tantrum. Talking with your child and figuring out what problem is standing in their way must be done proactively.
Have you ever had someone point out one of your shortcomings and ask you why you are like that, or why you do that thing you do? Maybe you can’t seem to kick the extra-dessert habit, or perhaps potty words roll out of your mouth a little too easily (hypothetical). My guess is that your response to the why question would likely be, “I don’t know.” If you ask your child why he or she is doing (insert behavior of choice), you’re likely going to get the same answer.
Do not talk about or even mention the undesirable behavior. Yes, you read that right.
Do we really believe your fourth grader doesn’t already know it’s bad to hit a teacher? Have you been thinking your second grader doesn’t already understand it’s a no-no to slam the door off the hinges and trash his room? Of course they know, and certainly these behaviors are not their first choice. They want to do well because it feels better to do well. Your child would do well if he or she could.
The most effective approach is reflecting back to your child with empathy what you’re noticing they are struggling with, i.e, difficulty coming inside for dinner when dad calls you in from riding bikes with Bobby; difficulty keeping your hands to yourself in the backseat when we’re on our way to camp in the morning; difficulty making it into bed by 9 p.m. Engage them in fact finding while you build trust with empathetic listening and reflecting statements so you can get to the bottom of the real problem.
Dr. Greene provides a wealth of resources on his Lives in the Balance website to help you work with your child to identify the unsolved problem at hand and work collaboratively with your child to implement and troubleshoot solutions. Such a shift can be daunting, but you’ll find that when the real problem underlying your child’s behavior is solved, the behavior disappears. If we continue to address behaviors with authoritative, punitive interventions or extrinsic rewards and motivators, the problem will still be there.
3. Don’t panic.
There is hope. If you find yourself with a pint of ice cream on the couch, yelling at your child between bites of cookie dough, don’t panic. Tomorrow’s a new day.
As you embark on the process of really seeing your child through this new lens and understanding behaviors as indicators of undeveloped skills and unsolved problems, you will free yourself of the resentment, anger and frustration that’s keeping you from enjoying your child’s unique and amazing talents and qualities. You’ll find more time to relish the way she seems to always know when someone needs a hug and is always willing to share half of everything in front of her…or how much he loves animals and nature, or that he memorized the jersey numbers of every quarterback in the NFL.
This summer may not be three months of peace and perfect behavior, but it’s possible to make it a time to grow together with your child. You’ll find yourself better prepared at the start of next school year to communicate with educators about your child’s needs, and you’ll be better equipped to ensure your child is surrounded by a team of adults who can see your child the way you now do.
If nothing else, at least we don’t have to pack their lunch for three months.
— By Katie Greenleaf, M.A., Licensed Professional Counselor at Meghan Barlow and Associates, a behavioral health practice in Rocky River that focuses on the needs of children, adolescents, and their families. The practice offers a diverse, multi-disciplinary team whose expertise ranges from traditional counseling to social skills, ABA and speech therapy.