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Kids Do Well if They Can

Even the most challenging kid comes around when we start doing the right thing.

Key points

  • Kids do well when they can, so bad behavior isn't about laziness, control issues, manipulation, or attention-seeking.
  • Troublesome behavior is always a clue to skills deficits like flexibility, self-regulation, frustration tolerance, or problem-solving skills.
  • The Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model is a simple, straightforward system for turning things around with a challenging child.
Amanda Kain/Harper
Source: Amanda Kain/Harper

Ross Greene is a clinical psychologist who has worked with some of the most challenging kids in the world, the ones in juvenile detention facilities and inpatient psychiatric units. He’s also worked with families and schools struggling to handle out-of-control children and adolescents, and been on the faculties of Harvard Medical School, Virginia Tech, and the University of Technology Sydney.

A Method That Works with Challenging Kids

In The Explosive Child: A New Approach to Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, Greene describes an approach that’s proven effective with even the most troubled and troublesome kids: Collaborative and Proactive Solutions. In this wise, practical, and compassionate book, he describes his evidence-based model for helping kids move past concerning behaviors.

It's Not Because They're Lazy, Attention-Seeking, or Bad

The foundation of this approach is realizing that kids do well when they can, that kids whose behavior is problematic aren’t being lazy, controlling, defiant, attention-seeking, manipulative, or any of the other judgments frequently used about them. Instead, they have skills deficits. They need help acquiring some of the basic skills that come more easily to other kids, including flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem-solving.

It's All About Skills Deficits

Understanding it’s all about skills deficits transforms a potentially escalating conflict situation—kid behaves badly, parent criticizes or chastises, kid reacts badly to that, parent gets angry, etc.—into a learning opportunity. When a parent asks themself the question, “What skills does my child need help with that’s preventing them getting this right?” instead of, “How do I make my kid behave better?” it’s a game-changer. The parent and child can begin to work together toward better self-regulation, less stress, and more family harmony, in addition to more successful and satisfying interactions at school and everywhere else.

In The Explosive Child, Ross Greene uses case studies to show how things can go bad between parents and kids, and how parents can work slowly and patiently to turn that around. He doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges and heartaches involved, but his tone and message are strongly positive and reassuring. He describes in careful detail how parents can begin to work proactively and collaboratively with their child to find and solve the problems they’re having.

"Lose an Enemy and Gain a Problem-Solving Partner"

When parents show their child they’re as invested in ensuring that the child’s concerns are addressed as ensuring that their own needs are addressed, “That’s how you lose an enemy and gain a problem-solving partner. That’s how you move from adversary to teammate.” Greene also discusses in this book how to deal with issues with siblings and school, showing how the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model works in those situations, too.

Greene is as compassionate with parents as he recommends they be when dealing with challenging children, reassuring them that even if they’ve been doing it all wrong up to now, they can start today to do better. From a place of real experience with some seriously troubled children and adolescents, he observes unequivocally that kids are resilient, stating that “they come around if we start doing the right thing.”