Parenting the Challenging Child

Many parents of adolescents feel that they have little influence over their children, but the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.”

Jane Waldfogel, What Children Need

Given that having children isn’t a prerequisite for having strong opinions about childrearing, it’s not remarkable that when we do have children, we can be overly defensive about our parenting style.

This is true even when it seems to be working well; but what if our child’s behavior seems particularly challenging? Because we take our responsibility seriously, we may focus on who or what is to blame, rather than on what we can do to improve the situation. We may even wonder whether it can be improved. Is a noncompliant toddler doomed to become a challenging adolescent? Worse, if we have a defiant teenager—one who refuses to comply with requests or follow rules of conduct—do we have any real chance of producing the result we want for him or her?

To answer this question, we first need to know exactly what result we want. We may have a general idea: happiness, success, physical and mental health. And we all want to be able to communicate well and enjoy a positive relationship with our children, which offers more than the immediate reward of a peaceful household. After all, teenagers who communicate well with parents tend to share the family’s values in key areas. But what do these admirable aims mean in terms of concrete skills and abilities?

In studies looking at countless families and teens, researchers have identified five core competencies that lead to favorable life outcomes: a positive sense of self, the ability to practice self-control, effective decision-making skills, a moral system of belief, and prosocial connectedness. Although additional attributes could perhaps be included, the consistent message of existing research is that adolescents who demonstrate high levels of these five key assets are better equipped to become happy, productive adults.

For a few fortunate parents, laying the foundation for these skills seems to go fairly smoothly. But if you are one of many who find themselves with challenging children, your family may have become locked in patterns of interacting that make communication difficult. Parents may wish they could stop the endless nagging, but they may also have a hard time picking out any positive aspects of their child’s behavior to focus on instead. As children become more sullen or confrontational and no one can remember the last warm hug or affectionate banter, some parents may come close to giving up and Googling the nearest boot camp for troubled teens.

If any of this sounds familiar, take heart: there are viable ways to begin engaging with your challenging child, whatever his or her age. If you are willing to consider a few strategies that may not seem quite natural at first, you may be surprised to find how much more effectively you can begin to communicate, even with teens whose behavior is very defiant. Fortunately defiance is not a permanent trait but a behavior—and behavior can be changed through positive interactions.

Wired to Connect

The place to start is with the understanding that your teen needs you and craves your approval, whether it appears so or not. The human brain is wired to connect, especially with caretakers and parents, and this is true even of adolescents. But in addition to your approval, love and affection, they also need you as a teacher, role model and support scaffold as they learn to navigate the conflicts and barriers they will encounter in the world around them.

Like you, they blossom when they can contribute in a positive way and are recognized for it, and wilt under constant negativity and criticism. Common sense alone should tell us this, perhaps; but a large body of research also confirms that positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative feedback in bringing about changes in human behavior. Negative feedback does have its place, of course. Unfortunately the human brain is generally better at noticing when things are going wrong than when they are going well. This is just as true of a parent’s brain as for that of a child or adolescent. As a result, our challenging child—whom we love and who craves our love and approval—almost certainly is going to receive a higher percentage of negative than positive feedback from us and is going to notice our negative feedback disproportionately as well. The attention our child craves, then, is most often being paid exactly when it is least effective, and in the form that is least effective. A cycle is born because our child fails to respond, so we ratchet up the negative feedback. Inevitably, if somewhat irrationally, we’re surprised when the negative behavior also escalates.

Complicating matters, teens soon become aware of negative expectations held by other adults in their sphere. “There is no doubt that there is an overwhelmingly negative stereotype attributed to adolescence in our society today,” writes Oxford University researcher John Coleman. “The negative stereotype has a number of unfortunate consequences. For the great majority of law-abiding and hard-working young people it means all too often that they find themselves treated by adults as if they were trouble-makers. . . . For parents it means that expectations are created about the teenage years which focus predominantly on the problems.”

How do we break the destructive negative cycle once we’re caught up in it?

An important orienting principle is the goal of helping your children internalize the core competencies referred to earlier. If you think back to when you taught your children to walk, you remember aiming for a balance between controlling and neglecting them; encouraging them and discouraging them. At first you supported them almost completely while they practiced taking steps and praised them effusively when they succeeded. When they failed, you didn’t scream at them but encouraged them to get up and try again. Gradually you allowed more autonomy until they were standing on their own feet, taking steps without holding your hand. This approach comes fairly easy to parents when faced with teaching toddlers physical skills, but it’s much harder to judge the right balance in scaffolding as children grow older. We sometimes misjudge their capacities, which can have one of two consequences: we may overestimate some, which leads us to overreact to the “falls” that help them perfect their skills; and we may underestimate others, which leads us to control more than we need to, discouraging them.

It’s not always easy for parents to transition between wielding all the power and allowing teens to wield some. But, Coleman reminds us, “parents have to develop a flexibility and willingness to move to new ways of interacting with their adolescent sons and daughters if serious clashes are to be avoided.”

If serious clashes have become the norm in your household, however, it is not impossible to turn things around. But you’ll need to do whatever you can at first to increase the likelihood of compliance so there will be some positive behavior to reinforce. Once the pump has been primed for positive interactions, the cycle will become almost as effortless as the former negative cycle. Both parent and child will enter into interactions expecting a positive outcome—and expectations have a strong effect on how people respond to one another.

The effectiveness of punishment depends on whether and how often the positive opposite is reinforced. . . . A strong reinforcement program can be enhanced by very occasional punishment when the child doesn’t do the behavior you’re trying to develop.”

Alan E. Kazdin, The Everyday Parenting Toolkit

Clinical child psychologist Alan E. Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, specializes in helping parents of children with severe conduct problems. His evidence-based techniques do not include prescribing drugs or humiliating teens by making them stand on a street corner wearing their failures on a sandwich board. Kazdin’s toolkit offers what he calls the ABCs of parenting. As parents, he says, we can learn how to effectively use A, antecedents; B, behaviors; and C, consequences to change children’s behavior.

A for Antecedents

To replace a negative pattern with a positive one, we need to consider the circumstances that typically lead up to the problem behavior: its antecedents. Perhaps a father has asked his daughter to clean her room; she shrugs and continues what she’s doing. The antecedent here was a prompt: she has been asked to do something. This may be one of the most common tools parents use to elicit certain behaviors from children, because it’s very direct. However, a child’s willing response to prompts can be increased when parents supplement them with other types of antecedents.

In his Everyday Parenting Toolkit, Kazdin looks at a few that are known to be especially effective. Having made the behavior more likely, we can then respond with positive consequences that reinforce that behavior. With enough repetition of this cycle the behavior will be internalized; we’ll be able to withdraw our scaffolding—the antecedents and consequences—without losing the behavior.

In terms of antecedents, Kazdin and his team encourage the use of setting events, choice and high-probability requests. Setting events include anything that sets the stage for a behavior; choice refers to offering two options acceptable to the parent. Admittedly, as parents we might feel that we shouldn’t have to pave the way for obedience; we are in charge, right? Then again, it may be helpful to reflect on how we like to be treated. Are we more likely to listen to someone who shows us they care about our feelings, or someone who steamrolls over them? There are certainly parenting gurus who promote military-style discipline that will make children “draw into a quiet shell and obey,” but there are also plenty of firm but gentle tactics that encourage obedience.

Overpunishing is ineffective and simply acts to perpetuate the vicious cycle. You want to punish much less, but much more effectively.”

Stanley Turecki, The Difficult Child

So how does one use antecedents to make a desired behavior more likely? Let’s say your toddler resists bedtime. Is he generally doing something stimulating right before bedtime? Wrestling with Daddy, playing with a favorite toy, chasing the cat? A setting event sets the stage either positively or negatively for a desired behavior. Stimulating activity is a negative setting event in this case; it doesn’t set the stage very effectively for sleep. A bath and a quiet story, on the other hand, would be positive setting events for bedtime compliance. Choice can be another helpful bedtime antecedent. Not choice about whether or not to go to bed, mind you, but a choice of stories or bath toys or which pajamas to wear.

You can also use high-probability requests to increase the likelihood that your toddler will respond to your bedtime prompt. “People do some things more readily than others when requests are made of them,” Kazdin explains. “‘Please come here and hug me,’ for instance, or ‘Please help me finish this leftover apple pie.’” If you’re trying to get your toddler to bed, of course, eating apple pie may not be a good setting event, but a hug would be. How about, “May I have a hug? Thank you! Will you please choose a bedtime book from the shelf and bring it to me?” The point is, offering a couple of easy prompts before the tough one makes compliance more likely. This is a principle so well proven that it is used in a range of applications from couple’s therapy to sales to hostage negotiations. Each time your child complies with your high-probability request, you’ll respond with positive reinforcement—a delighted thank-you, a smile and a hug—which will encourage continued compliance when you get to the target request.

It should go without saying that the tone of voice used when making requests or giving feedback is very important, as is the social setting. If you’re in the presence of other adults, school friends or siblings, prompts and reprimands should be delivered up close and quietly, not from across the room. A public display of your displeasure prolongs the negative cycle because it humiliates; but more importantly, research demonstrates that the closer you are to someone when you deliver a prompt, the more likely he or she is to comply. A gentle touch on the arm or other small display of affection can also help.

A common mistake is to imply from the outset (with phrases like “or else!”) that you don’t expect to be obeyed. “The most effective antecedents are delivered calmly, without harshness, with ‘please’ and the promise of flexibility in one’s request, which implies choice,” says Kazdin. “If that strikes you as the kind of wimpy parenting advice that has led to moral decline in our formerly moral nation, think of it this way: a parent who pours on the harshness and coercion is broadcasting a signal that she’s not confident that her commands will be obeyed; a parent who’s confident of the outcome can afford to be relaxed about a prompt.”

B for Behavior

Behavior, the B of Kazdin’s parenting ABCs, is perhaps our central focus most of the time. It’s the thing we’re trying to change, right? But wait. What we really want are those core competencies, the building blocks of good character and lasting happiness. Does that mean addressing every little behavior one by one? Not exactly. Did we teach our children a different way to walk on the sidewalk versus on the grass, or did they show themselves able to apply the walking skill to different surfaces and circumstances? We won’t need to teach every individual expression of kindness or each form of self-control. So to inculcate an overall idea of “kindness,” we start by shaping specific behaviors, beginning with one or two that occur most often. Identify the positive opposite, the behavior you’d like to see in place of the one you’re seeing now. For instance, the positive opposite of a tantrum (one of the easiest behaviors to eliminate, says Kazdin) would be the ability to express frustration calmly, without screaming or throwing things. The opposite of defiance would be respect for family rules and requests and even the occasional expression of love and concern. Sometimes the behavior we want is actually a set of behaviors, in which case we need to break it down to its components.

Once we’ve identified a positive behavior to build, we can use simulations, shaping and jump-starting to turn it into a habit, depending on the child’s current level of success with that behavior. Simulation, as the term implies, is used when you aren’t yet seeing any of the behavior you want. It involves practicing the behavior under artificial conditions, which may be presented as a game of “pretend” for young children, says Kazdin, or as practice or role-playing for older children. The point is to reward the practice with positive consequences, whetting their appetite. Shaping is used when you’re seeing bits and pieces of the behavior you want, but not in its entire form. You shape the behavior by rewarding the small bits the child currently does and gradually upping the ante, expecting him or her to go a little further each time until you’ve “shaped” the complete behavior. Jump-starting may not be required as often as shaping, but it’s particularly useful if a child is already fairly competent in a behavior but not necessarily consistent. Jump-starting simply involves priming a behavior—doing the first steps with the child, for instance, knowing that once the first steps are taken the child is more likely to complete the behavior.

Each of these behavior-building techniques rests on a well-proven concept: when a child repeatedly reaps positive consequences for a behavior—in the form of positive interaction with you—he or she will begin to internalize that behavior. Researchers call this “reinforced practice,” but the important aspect is the positivity of the cycle. Rather than reinforcing a cycle of negative behaviors and negative consequences, you’re developing and reinforcing a cycle of positive behaviors and positive consequences. It’s important not to withhold praise until your child has reached all of your expectations. Again, think back to when your child learned to walk. Teaching is about building success a step at a time, and if we don’t recognize that our first step is headed toward success, we won’t take the second.

C for Consequences

This brings us to the C of Kazdin’s parenting ABCs. The concept of consequences is familiar to most of us; as parents we may have given a lot of thought to negative consequences, or punishment. But have we given equal thought to the range of positive consequences available? There are also neutral consequences, where ignoring a behavior is called for, but for now we’ll concentrate on positive reinforcement because it is most effective in turning around negative patterns of relating. By far the most important form is positive attention, including praise. A point system can also help, and Kazdin offers detailed instructions for using one effectively. But the most powerful tools parents have for positive reinforcement arise from their natural love and affinity for their child. If a point chart is used, says Kazdin, it should be an addition to praise and attention, not a replacement.

Good communication refers to genuine exchanges in which you and your child talk to each other and, even more important, listen to each other.”

Alan E. Kazdin, The Everyday Parenting Toolkit

When Kazdin writes of praise and attention, he means pointing out behaviors and expressing verbal approval along with an affectionate look, a smile and a touch. But statements of praise can be counterproductive if delivered only in general terms. Be enthusiastic, certainly—especially with younger children—but be specific. “Of course, it’s OK to say ‘Good job’ (enthusiastically), if it’s followed by statements of exactly what the job was and what made it good,” says Kazdin. The specifics are important, but the key is to be sure the reinforcing attention follows the behavior as directly as possible.

As well proven as these principles are, reinforcing positive change does require time and patience. Some families may even want outside help to become consistent in their efforts to change long-standing patterns. If the atmosphere between you and your teen has been negative for some time, attempts at positive expectations and affectionate support may seem unnatural to both of you at first. But it’s important to persevere until it feels natural. And it will, because the rewards you reap from each step will keep you—and your child—moving forward.

This is not to say you can expect a relationship that is forever afterward free of conflict. The human brain is subject to conflict, and unless our fundamental nature undergoes a complete transformation, we will always have challenges to overcome in our relationships. But we can ease the emotional distress that permeates families when we fall into negative patterns of relating. If we are willing to commit to making positive changes in our approach as parents, there is no need to give up hope of having deeply rewarding relationships with our children—not only through adolescence but far beyond.