Parenting plans — and strategies — to deal with kids' behavioral challenges
Ross Greene, PhD
Clinical child psychologist, NYT bestselling author, and Founder of Lives in the Balance

Under quarantines and stay-at-home orders, families are together more now than ever. And, dealing with kids’ challenging behaviors can make it even harder. As parents adjust to homeschooling their kids, they are gaining a newfound appreciation (and longing) for teachers. Dr. Ross Greene is a clinical child psychologist and New York Times bestselling author of the influential books, The Explosive Child, Lost at School, Raising Human Beings, and Lost & Found. Dr. Greene joins us to explain his Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) model, an approach parents can use to understand and handle their child’s behavior issues – under any circumstance. But he believes this moment presents an opportunity for parents to model resilience and flexibility, build empathy with their kids, and team up with them to solve underlying problems that cause challenging behaviors.

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Why behaviors like aggression, defiance, tantrums, and sulking are signals of a child’s underlying unmet expectations
  • Skills that a child with behavior issues may lack, and how to spot them
  • Plans A, B, and C – the three primary ways in which caregivers can solve problems with kids
  • Reasons why simply exerting parental power and authority will never truly resolve a child’s behavior issues
  • How to collaborate with your child to discover the unmet expectations and unsolved problems that are causing their behaviors
  • Tips for getting on the same page with your partner to successfully deal with behavior issues

For more information and free resources for parents, visit www.livesinthebalance.org.


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Parenting plans — and strategies — to deal with kids' behavioral challenges

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard. It's even harder right now when we're all in quarantine and dealing with children who may have some behavioral issues. Today's guest is Dr. Ross Greene. He's the clinical child psychologist and best-selling author of the influential books, The Explosive Child, Lost at School, Raising Human Beings, and Lost & Found. Dr. Greene pioneered the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions model, an approach parents can use to understand and deal with their child's problematic behaviors.

Of course, dealing with behavioral issues is frustrating at any time, but right now, when we're all at home together under one roof, and when our kids' lives and ours have been completely disrupted, it can be even more trying for the entire family. In this episode, Dr. Greene talks us through his approach and offers parents methods they can use to help defuse meltdowns, defiance, and aggression in their kids. Have a listen. Dr. Greene, I'm so grateful to have you here today. This is a topic that I've personally struggled with and I'm sure a lot of other parents who are listening can relate.

Ross Greene: It's my pleasure to be on with you.

Emily Paisner: Let's start by talking about the model you've developed, the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions, or CPS. Can you give our listeners a high-level overview about what this is, and why it works?

Ross Greene: At the 10,000-foot view, Collaborative & Proactive Solutions brings a few very important things to the table. Number one, it does not view challenging behavior as the result of poor motivation, or attention-seeking, manipulative, coercive, unmotivated limit testing, all of these things we so frequently say about behaviorally challenging kids, not true. What the research tells us is that the primary factor contributing to challenging behavior is lagging skills in the general realms of flexibility, adaptability, frustration, tolerance, problem-solving.

That's a big lens shift for many caregivers who have been thinking that the kids' challenging behavior was intentional, goal-oriented, malicious, not true. Lagging skills is the primary factor contributing to challenging behavior. That helps us wear much more compassionate, much more accurate, much more productive lenses. The other big shift is that you're not even focused in this model on the kids' behavior, you're focused on the problems that are causing the behavior, what we call unsolved problems or expectations that a child is having difficulty meeting.

Whether that's difficulty brushing teeth before going to bed at night, or difficulty completing a particular homework assignment, or difficulty taking the trash out on Tuesday mornings, or difficulty sitting next to Tommy during circle time, we're focused on those expectations that are causing challenging behavior. We're not focused on modifying the behavior that those problems are causing. Those are two very big shifts. I think that has a lot to do with why the model is effective because a lot of the kids who the model is applied to have been on the receiving end of more rewards and punishments, more adult imposed consequences than most of us will experience in an entire lifetime.

Emily Paisner: Well, I have to tell you that hearing that is actually a huge relief for me and almost makes me want to cry, to know that this is something that is just a lack of skills, and not the child wanting to be misbehaving, and not anything that the parent is doing wrong.

Ross Greene: Well, that's the thing. We've been blaming parents for children's challenging behavior for a very long time. I stopped doing that when I started noticing that the vast majority of parents of the behaviorally challenging kids that I was working with had other children in their home who were well-behaved. We're out of the parent blaming business in this model as well.

Emily Paisner: That's, I'm sure, going to release a lot of guilt that parents tend to feel around this. Misbehaving is part of being a kid. How do you know that your child has some of these behavioral issues that are rearing themselves because of a lack of these skills that you talked about, or if they're just simply misbehaving?

Ross Greene: I don't distinguish between simply misbehaving and the more extreme behaviors that I see in a lot of the kids that I work with. In the CPS model, behavior is just the signal, just the fever, just the means by which a child is communicating something very important, "I'm stuck. There are expectations I'm having difficulty meeting." I don't put any effort into distinguishing between extreme behavior, and mild behavior, and misbehavior. This is because of lagging skills, and this is because the kid just wants what he wants. Behavior is the same no matter which behavior it is. It's communicating, "I'm stuck. There are expectations I'm having difficulty meeting." I'm less focused on the extremeness of a kid's behavior.

By the way, you know you have a problem if your kid is communicating that he or she is having difficulty meeting expectations in ways that are extreme, but you also know that you've got something to work on if your child is communicating that he or she is having difficulty meeting expectations in ways that are less extreme. Crying, pouting, sulking, withdrawing, all of those are signals that tell us something important is going on. If all we're doing is paying attention to the behavior, then all we're going to end up doing is trying to modify or squash behavior, but the problems that are causing those behaviors are going to remain unsolved.

Emily Paisner: Let's get into what you call, Plan A, B, and C. I remember reading about them in The Explosive Child, but as we're all under one roof right now, I know that I could definitely use a refresher. Can you walk us through each of these and explain them for our listeners? I really empathize with people who are dealing with these behaviors right now, as I said, when we can even leave the house.

Ross Greene: It's hard right now, although, I must tell you that there are some kids who are better behaved right now because what was setting them off primarily was things that are going on at school, and now, they're not in school. It's interesting. It can break both ways. Certainly, there's something to be said about too much togetherness. One of the things about this pandemic is that it has given us too much togetherness, much more than we're accustomed to anyways.

It's also put a lot of parents on the hook for doing things that parents were not accustomed to doing. Namely, being the primary point person in the education of children. That's not something parents have been accustomed to. That's something teachers are very well equipped to do, but a lot of parents don't have that kind of training, but you asked me about Plans A, B and C.

Emily Paisner: My children would agree with that by the way. [laughs]

Ross Greene: There you go.

Emily Paisner: I don't think they like me being the teacher either.

Ross Greene: [laughs] There are a lot of parents who suddenly have a great deal of respect for goes on at school these days. You know what? That's not a bad thing either.

Emily Paisner: Exactly.

Ross Greene: There's one silver lining. What I've done with Plans A, B, and C, is I've identified the three primary ways in which caregivers solve problems with kids. You're either using Plan A, Plan B, or Plan C if you're dealing with a kid who's having difficulty meeting an expectation. In the CPS model, you're only using two of those plans, B and C. Plan A, the one that you're not using is there primarily as a reference point because it's very popular. Plan A is where the adult is deciding what the solution is to an expectation a child is having difficulty meeting and imposing that solution on the kid.

Emily Paisner: Just so I'm clear, this is how a lot of parents tend to-- they tend to go towards Plan A. That's the natural reaction, right?

Ross Greene: Not just parents, adult human beings. What's interesting is, it doesn't have to be that way, it's just that a lot of adults feel like, "Who else would be able to figure out what the solution is to this problem?" Well, in this model, we tell them who else, the kid in collaboration with the caregiver. A lot of caregivers breathe a great sigh of relief when they are suddenly coming to the recognition that they're not on the hook anymore for coming up with ingenious solutions to problems without any input or involvement whatsoever from a kid. It's unnecessary. It's actually more counterproductive.

Worst of all, if you rewind the tape on the vast majority of challenging episodes and challenging kids, what you'll find is an adult using Plan A to try to deal with an expectation that we already know the kid is having difficulty meeting. That is because Plan A is about power, and power causes conflict. We better hurry up and get to the other two plans because those are the plans that you're using in this model. Plan B is your other option for actually solving a problem in this model. The difference between A and B is that, while Plan A is unilateral, Plan B is collaborative, something you're doing with the kid, not to the kid.

When you're using Plan B, you and the child are partners, you are teammates. We find that that is a much more productive way to solve problems. Plan B is about collaboration. Collaboration brings people together. We don't want to leave out Plan C because, especially with kids who have many unsolved problems, when those unsolved problems remain unsolved, they tend to pile up over time because the expectations being placed on kids simply increase over time.

Plan C is very important for kids who have a lot of unsolved problems because you're not going to be able to work on all of them at once, which means you're going to have to prioritize. Plan C are the expectations that the caregivers have decided, "You know what? We're not working on that right now. We're not even going to expect that right now." The reason Plan C is important is because it greatly reduces challenging episodes because kids do not lose their minds over expectations that we are no longer placing on them, at least for now.

Emily Paisner: What happens if parents don't agree on the plan if they just have different philosophies around how to deal with their challenging child?

Ross Greene: What they need to agree on is what expectations the child is having difficulty meeting. That's usually not something they have difficulty agreeing on. Both parents know that the kid's not reliably taking out the trash on Tuesday mornings. Both parents know the kid is having difficulty completing certain homework assignments. Both parents know that the kid is having difficulty brushing teeth before going to bed at night. Those are not difficult to get agreement on. The rest is a little more interesting. Then, they've got to prioritize, which ones do they think they want to work on first, which ones are the most important, which ones are most commonly causing challenging episodes. That part's not especially difficult either.

Then comes the discussion because in a lot of families where there's two parents, one parent is primarily doing Plan A, using force. The other parent is dropping everything. They think they've got balance, but they don't have balance at all. Often the Plan A parent is looking at the parent who is dropping everything and saying, "You're passive, permissive. You're a wet dishrag." That's why he won't do it. The parent who is primarily dropping things is saying to the other parent, "You know what? Dropping it is far preferable to me than all the fighting and conflict that we have going on in this family."

They both have a point. Both parents actually want the kid to meet the expectation. It's just that they're going about it in ways that are diametrically opposed to each other, and neither is actually getting the job done. That's the important thing that I often point out to many parents, "Neither of you is getting the job done." Now, by some ways of thinking, it's the inconsistency between the parents that is causing the behavior. It is not the inconsistency between the parents that is causing the behavior, it's the fact that this kid has been having difficulty meeting this expectation for a very long time and we haven't solved that problem yet.

The only problem-solving plan is Plan B. The good news is Plan B is not going to cause challenging episodes so the parent who's been dropping everything is now happy. Plan B is going to get the expectation met in ways that are actually far less adversarial and conflictual than Plan A has been doing, so the Plan A parent is now very happy too. They've already agreed on what the unsolved problems are. They've already agreed on what they want to prioritize. Generally speaking, I can get them to agree on how they want to solve problems with their kids once they understand that neither A nor C is going to solve anything. Now, all they got to do is get good at Plan B.

Emily Paisner: With Plan B, I love the collaborative approach. If your child is old enough to have these conversations with them, and you say, "What do you think would be helpful in this situation? They just say, "I don't know." how do you get them to be part of that collaboration?

Ross Greene: Getting them to be part of the collaboration is the easy part. I find that kids are so eager to have agency, so eager to have their voices heard, that generally speaking, it is not that difficult to get kids involved in the conversation, but it is a very structured conversation. It consists of three steps. In the first step, we are gathering information from the child. This is called the Empathy Step about what's making it hard for the child to meet a particular expectation. What is hard about brushing teeth before going to bed at night? What's hard about taking the trash out on Tuesday mornings? What's hard about completing the double-digit division problems on the worksheet in math for homework? What's hard about that?

That's the info that we've been missing. We have been missing it because we adults are also famous for thinking we already know. A story that I tell sometimes, is that I was doing a podcast with somebody who's three year old. You mentioned if kids are old enough to have a conversation. A lot of people also have a very interesting definition of what's old enough. We do Plan B with two and three-year-olds. Two and three is old enough, believe it or not. His three-year-old was having difficulty brushing her teeth before she went to bed at night. He thought he knew why. He thought it was the taste of the toothpaste. He was telling me, 10 to 15 different flavors later, she was still having difficulty brushing her teeth before she went to bed at night.

Finally, he did Plan B. He asked her, "I've noticed you've been having difficulty brushing your teeth before going to bed at night. What's up?" That's what the Empathy Step sounds like when it's beginning. She said, "I hate when you use the electric toothbrush that it gets water all over my face." I said to him, "Now, there's a concern that 15 different flavors of toothpaste could not possibly address."

It is in that first step of Plan B, the Empathy Step, where we are gathering the information that we've been missing all along. The Define Adult Concerns Step is where the adult is entering his or her concern and consideration. Why is it important that the expectation be met? Cavities, the expense of the dentist, bad breath, all legitimate concerns. By the way, you're going to get those concerns addressed in Plan B and you weren't doing a very good job of getting them addressed in Plan A. You were just causing conflict. Finally, the Invitation. That's where child and caregiver are collaborating on a solution. The solution has to address the concerns of both parties. It's got to be what we call mutually satisfactory. Those are the types of solutions that tend to stand the test of time.

Emily Paisner: Dr. Greene, right now, parents and children are home, as you mentioned, spending more time together than they ever have. What may need to change as part of this model to meet this unprecedented moment that we're all living through and in some cases struggling through together?

Ross Greene: Kids are still going to have difficulty meeting expectations. Adults are still going to have to decide what approach they want to use to try to get those problems solved because parents are now on the hook for academics in ways that they've never have been. Plan C, removing some expectations at least for now is actually a bit more important because parents are now loaded up with a lot more unmet expectations than they may have previously been. Plan C might be important just because you can't work on everything at once.

The biggest issue is parents are going have to decide, "Is the best way to deal with this unprecedented scenario by imposing my will and causing conflict, or is this a good time for me to reinvigorate my relationship with my kid? Reinvigorate our communication, and really get down to solving problems together, and not just between adult and kid." Siblings are together a lot more than pre-COVID. Plan B is just as applicable to sibling conflict as it is to adult-child conflict. In some respects, the pandemic changes very little except that it's added a little more expectations to the plates of a lot of parents. Boy, Plan B and Plan C have never been more important.

Emily Paisner: Can you leave us with one piece of advice for parents whether it's during this crisis or more in a normal situation that we live through? What is the last tip that you would want to leave them with?

Ross Greene: These are very interesting times. We've never needed each other more. This is such a tremendous opportunity to model for kids how to handle situations like this, to model for kids' resilience, and empathy, and flexibility. This is a great opportunity for parents and other caregivers to shine. Shining is not usually accomplished through power. Shining is accomplished through collaboration, and communication, and relationships. I know it's very tough. That's when it's most important for us to shine, is when things are tough.

Emily Paisner: Dr. Greene, I know that you have some free resources for parents. Can you just share where they can find those?

Ross Greene: I have massive free resources for parents. They are all on the website of my non-profit Lives in The Balance and that's livesinthebalance.org. Make sure to sign up for the newsletter because there's a bunch of other free stuff in the pipeline that I want to make sure that people are aware of. It's all in a newsletter that's going to be coming out. There's so many free resources on that website, it would take people six months to get through them.

Emily Paisner: Dr. Greene, thank you so much for sharing some of your wisdom with us today. We really appreciate it.

Ross Greene: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me to do this.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go. I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.