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Managing Challenging Behavior During Traumatic Times

Trying times require trying proven strategies.

Everyone is struggling now. Parents, teachers, kids—we are all feeling incredibly isolated and stressed. Mass dysregulation is perhaps the best way to describe it. The COVID-19 pandemic is leading to escalating conflict in our homes and disturbing rates of abuse across the globe. And the traumatic effects are just beginning.

Responding to the pandemic is demanding extraordinary flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem-solving skills from us all—much more than we have been accustomed to in our daily lives. Ironically, however, those very skills we need the most right now start to disappear on us under chronically stressful situations like this.

At our program at Massachusetts General Hospital, we specialize in working with people who struggle with flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem-solving skills. And the good news is that there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that work that can be applied directly to today’s challenges. We can handle this together, but we need to do things differently.

First, we need to think differently. We need to realize that we are all doing the best we can right now under these trying conditions. We need to have extra empathy for each other and ourselves. Remembering our simple mantra can help: People do well if they can.” 

Next, we need to establish new routines and expectations. Many of those involve our kids. Rather than imposing new routines on them, we need to work together with our children to set those new routines, expectations and schedules. By making kids co-authors of their new reality, they will feel control, which is something we all need in the midst of a situation that is very much outside of our control. They will also be much more invested in the plans and routines working out well. When some of these new structures inevitably do not work well, it won’t be our fault as parents and teachers. Rather, we will be in it together with our kids and students.

Finally, when our best-laid plans don’t work out well, we need to avoid the impulse to attempt to restore our sense of control by resorting to power and control. Specifically, we need to avoid doling out rewards and punishments to try to make our kids adhere to those new routines. Instead, we need to engage kids in the problem-solving. Fortunately, we have a proven formula for effective problem solving with stressed individuals where flexibility and frustration tolerance are key:

1. Start by listening first to kids’ perspectives of why something isn’t working. Whether it is online classes, physical distancing, bedtime, the need for exercise, you name it—ask what’s getting in the way. What’s hard for them? If they are struggling to explain, try educated guessing. And if they don’t seem to want to talk at all, reassure them that you value their perspective and really want to understand it.

2. Only once we have a sense of their perspective on the issue, should we can share our perspective on the problem we are trying to solve.

3. Finally, once we understand each other’s stances, invite them to come to the table to brainstorm solutions that will work for all of us. Give them the first chance to craft solutions.

This is a process we call collaborative problem solving for obvious reasons. It is widely considered a way to manage conflict that is sensitive to the issues raised by traumatic events. It has been proven effective in the most chronically stressful situations even with kids with significant struggles with flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem-solving skills. We know it can be helpful right now. 

Problem-solving like this reduces conflict peacefully, improves relationships, and maximizes skills. Listen first and then invite collaboration, all while trying to maintain empathy for ourselves and others.

These are trying times. Trying times require trying a different way. But let’s try one that we know works.

References

Ablon, JS. Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work. New York: Penguin Random House; 2018.

 Ablon, JS, Pollastri, AR. The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior using Collaborative Problem Solving. New York: Norton; 2018

Pollastri, AR, Epstein, LD, Heath, GH, & Ablon, JS. The Collaborative Problem Solving approach: Outcomes across settings. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 2013, 21(4), 188-199.

As originally posted in Psychology Today.