One of the topics that comes up a lot is when people want to solve the behavior rather than the problem. For example, a parent came to us recently and said “Okay I really want to work on her attitude. She is defiant about everything. How are we going to get her to be more agreeable?” While we agree that an ultimate goal is more harmony at home or agreeableness, you can’t “problem solve defiance.” What you can do is look at the situations in which she is defiant and pick one or two to work on. When you solve the problems specific to those situations, you are reducing the defiant behavior–not to mention working on the skills that likely led to the behavior in the first place! So in this case the parent said, “Well, meals are a nightmare, she won’t eat anything I make.” Okay, so let’s choose a particular meal time and have a Plan B conversation around that. This parent choose the most frustrating one for her–dinner time. So then the next step is to talk to her daughter well away from the dinner hour–proactive Plan B.
Parent: “Hey, I noticed when we sit down for dinner it doesn’t tend to go so well sometimes? What’s going on with that?”
Child: “I hate eating dinner with you.”
Parent: “What do you mean?” (taking a deep breath to avoid being furious and saying something flip) “Look, I really want to understand what happens that makes us both miserable?””
Child: “I have no clue….the food sucks.”
Parent: “What don’t you like about it?”
Child: “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like eating that junk!”
Parent: “Well, there’s probably a nice way to let me know that, but what I’m really interested in is whether its that you don’t like what
I cook or that you just don’t feel like eating?”
Child: “I’m just not hungry for anything and then you are all over me that I don’t like your cooking and I can go cook for myself blah
Parent: “Okay, okay I know I can be short and cranky after work, but my feelings are hurt when you shove away the plate of food I have
made. So you are telling me it’s NOT what I cook it’s that you just aren’t hungry around 7?”
Child: “ Well when I got home from school at 5 I am starving…”
By this time, they’ve come to a better understanding of why the child is refusing to eat and being rude about it (by identifying the
concerns behind the behavior). Now they are poised to be able to work out a solution around the problem of “not eating dinner“ which in turn will certainly decrease the defiant behavior.
The moral: don’t go after the behavior directly – go after the problem leading to the behavior! Solve that problem and the behavior will improve.