If you care for a difficult or mentally ill child, you’ve probably heard every piece of advice out there. “Have you tried putting him in a time-out?” or “Just take away his favorite toy until she behaves;” or “Have you locked him in his room until he stops throwing a fit?” or “You need to take away the TV until he stops that behavior.” My favorite is, “I would never tolerate that kind of behavior in my house!”

If only it were that easy! Right?

Collaborative and Proactive Solutions is a groundbreaking approach to communicating with difficult youth. The method was developed by Dr. Rosse Greene, author of The Explosive Child and Lost In School. His premise is that kids don’t want to behave badly but lack the skills to communicate effectively. If we can identify what the lagging skills are and the problems they cause, we can work with kids to create solutions together. Hence, the name Collaborative and Proactive Solutions. So, instead of focusing on behavior, our focus should be on the lagging skills and creating a plan for unsolved problems.

It actually works! It’s amazing how simply changing your approach and wording with challenging youth can produce mutually agreeable conversations.

Let’s be clear – this approach doesn’t make miracles happen and it’s also not easy. However, if you use it, practice it and refine it, it’s about 1,000% better than the alternative – your child raging and/or you screaming and living in crisis day in and day out.

The following tips and examples are an abbreviated version of Dr. Greene’s method. If you want worksheets that walk you through it and information on how to be more effective with it, visit his  website at www.livesinthebalance.org.

Tips that Actually Work with Difficult Kids

  1. Use empathy – Using empathy with your challenging youth goes a long way in breaking down barriers and encouraging open communication. This can be a difficult mindset to change for many parents and authority figures. Instead of “Do as your told,” think more, “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
    • So, instead of: “It’s 10 p.m. and you haven’t even started your homework! What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just come home and get it done after school?!”
      • Try: “Hey, so I’ve noticed that you’ve been having difficulty getting your homework done. What’s up?” And then, be quiet and let them talk. If they respond with, “I don’t know” shoulder shrug, offer some suggestions, “Are you having trouble with a class? Is it hard to do your homework right after a long day at school?” Etc.
    • Instead of: “Stop screaming at the dog! He’s just drinking his water. You have to drink too, right!?”
      • Try: “I’ve noticed that you get really upset with the dog when he drinks his water. What’s up?” Again, zip it and see what your child says. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.
  2. Let them know you heard their concerns – After you hear “what’s up,” repeat back to your child what you heard and ask, “Is that right? Is there anything else?”
  3. Once you know the concerns, brainstorm a plan with your youth to help solve or alleviate the problem. 
    • The first scenario might sound something like this:
      • Parent: “So, you said after a long day of school the last thing you want to do is homework. You want to relax and play video games and all I do is nag you. Plus, your math class is really hard and you’re getting behind in it. Is that about right?”
      • Kid: “Yes.”
      • Parent: “Well, I know dad is really good at math and would be happy to help you get back on track. Would that be okay?”
      • Kid: “I guess so.”
      • Parent: “What about the homework thing. What would help you get started on it?”
      • Kid: “Maybe give me an hour or so to have a snack and chill.”
      • Parent: “Okay, so would it be okay if I set a timer or let you know when you’ve been home for more than an hour.”
      • Kid: “The timer would be okay. It’s not as nagging as you.”
      • Parent: “Great, let’s try it out and see how it works.”
    • The second scenario might go something like this:
      • Parent: “So, you say when the dog drinks his water it really bothers your ears?”
      • Child: “Yes.”
      • Parent: “Are there other things that bother your ears?”
      • Child: “Sometimes during school when kids tap their pencil, that bothers my ears and I can’t concentrate.”
      • Parent: “Oh, okay. Well, what if we move his drinking water to another room? Do you think that would help?”
      • Child: “Maybe.”
      • Parent: “Now, what about school? What would help you there?”
      • Child: “Maybe we could talk to the teacher and she could put me at a different table where the kids aren’t so noisy.”
      • Parent: “I think that sounds like an awesome plan. I will email her tomorrow to set up a time to talk about your concerns during class.”

As you utilize this method with your youth, keep in mind that this will be an ongoing process and will never be perfect. It takes continuous effort on both your part as a caregiver and the youth. The method may go more smoothly at times and not so well at other times. Be gentle and forgiving with your child and yourself.

The bonus – you will gain a better understanding of your child, their concerns, fears and struggles, and establish a closer bond and relationship.

For a practical guide to parenting children with mental illness and more information, check out Andrea’s book, ON THE EDGE, Help and hope for parenting children with mental illness at www.thelemonadeproject.com.