When a child is acting out or misbehaving, some people might say it is because adults are too lenient, or the child doesn’t have respect. Others might say it’s because the child wants to upset the parent. Others may say it’s because of a mental health diagnosis such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Autism, or Reactive Attachment Disorder. All these things impact youth and their behavior. But through the lens of Collaborative Problem Solving® (CPS), we see it as a matter of SKILLS, specifically, problem-solving skills, driving these challenging behaviors. We are talking about the kind of “thinking skills” that all humans need to get through everyday life situations: the ability to communicate our wants and needs, organization & memory skills, staying calm so we can think straight even when we’re upset or angry, problem-solving, and reading social cues.
When using Collaborative Problem Solving, we believe that challenging behavior happens when a person finds themselves in a tough situation and doesn’t have the thinking skills to handle it well. They can’t figure out what to do. In those moments, the skills necessary are lagging. For example, you might ask a child to put their iPad down and come to the dinner table while they’re in the middle of a game. (Most kids will agree this is a very challenging situation, even if we don’t think it’s a big deal!) If the child has the necessary thinking skills, they might be unhappy to stop in the middle of the game, but they can stay calm and think to themselves, “it’s okay, I can save where I am in the game and finish playing later.” But if they are lagging in those thinking skills, you might see arguing, resistance, and even violence.
Why doesn’t my child have the skills they need? Maybe the child was born this way. Maybe being disorganized, emotionally reactive, or highly inflexible runs in the family. Perhaps they learned it, or something happened early in life to make the child this way. Maybe there is a learning disability or a mental health diagnosis. Maybe there has been trauma and adversity, and this was their brain’s way of adapting. All these things can impact the skills a person has access to in day-to-day life.
Regardless, it all boils down to lagging skills and what the brain can and cannot do in difficult moments. It’s like not having the right tools in the toolbox to fix something. You need a wrench to fix your leaky faucet, but you only have a hammer. So, you use the hammer… and you break the sink! Or you don’t fix the sink at all, and it just gets worse! And you may need some help to figure things out.
I knew a 10-year-old named Devin* who would get really upset when his dad made unplanned stops at the grocery store on the way home from school. He would get so angry when his dad turned off the usual route home. He would yell and scream that his dad was a stupid idiot. He would threaten to get out of the car and walk home, no matter what the weather was like or how far they were. He would demand that his dad turn the car toward home. Once, he even grabbed the steering wheel. That didn’t end well. No one got their way that day.
Was this kid acting out in the car on purpose to upset his dad? Did he want to put his dad in danger by trying to crash the car? Devin was on the Autism spectrum. Is that why he behaved this way? I’m more prone to think that he acted out because it was simply hard for him to adjust to the unexpected change in plans, which is a cognitive flexibility skill. He didn’t have the emotional regulation skills to calm himself down or handle his feelings about it. And it was hard for him to communicate those feelings to his dad without being rude or hurtful. He might have dealt with the situation differently if he could have accessed any of those skills that afternoon.
I had a problem-solving conversation with Devin a couple of days after the steering wheel incident. I asked him what was hard about stopping at the store that afternoon. I learned that he doesn’t like surprise stops because going to the store with his dad is boring. And waiting in the car is even more boring. He was also worried about an Amazon package supposedly waiting on the porch at home on that day. He was afraid someone would steal it if they didn’t get home in time.
If he’d had the skills to do so, he might have been able to find a way to entertain himself or patiently wait while in the car. Or he might have been able to say (calmly), “Dad, I’m worried our Amazon package will get stolen from the porch.” But he didn’t have those skills in his toolbox. Instead, he did the only things he could think to do: Make threats, say hurtful things, and act in unsafe ways. These were his best solutions to a problem he didn’t know how to solve.
Devin did a great job explaining his concerns once he was calm. His behavior was dangerous and problematic, but his feelings and worries made a lot of sense once I heard them. He regretted the things he’d said to his dad. He even said he understood that it was hard for his dad to plan ahead. He understood that adults struggle with the same kinds of skills too. And he’s right: We all do well if we can! We all handle day-to-day demands well when we have the skills to do so. Devin’s behaviors were more extreme than the average person’s, and he had many other factors impacting his skills and abilities. Still, we’ve all found ourselves handling things poorly from time to time. I’m sure many of us have those moments of 20-20 hindsight. “What was I thinking?” “Why did I say that?” People do well if they can! And just like Devin, we are all much more than our challenging behaviors.
If you have a realistic, important expectation of a child, we want them to meet that expectation! We take challenging behavior seriously, but it is not the focus of our work. Instead, we focus on the things that lead up to the behavior. The Collaborative Problem Solving approach improves behavior by helping adults uncover what triggered the behavior in the first place. What was it a response to? What was the expectation or demand that was too much and led right into the negative behavior? Challenging behavior is the tip of the iceberg. It is a reaction, a symptom, to an underlying difficulty. Through empathy, listening to the child, expressing the adult concern, and collaboratively coming up with a solution, we have the opportunity to change the behavior and, more importantly, to help kids build the kind of skills they need to change their behavior in the future.
*Name changed to protect identity.