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An Alternative Approach

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

Did you have rules growing up, like a curfew? Do you have a curfew for your kids now, or plan to implement one when they are old enough? If so, how do you, or how will you, enforce it? As I write this, I feel the angst of the conflict that arises any time I/we (my husband and I) try to enforce rules on my kids. I’m either in conflict with the kids immediately because they don’t like the rule, or I’m in conflict with myself because I can’t seem to enforce the rule effectively or consistently.

Yes, I’m the mom, and we as the parents of the house have rules that we wish we could enforce without conflict. But the simple truth is that where there are rules, there is almost always going to be conflict. And when there must be a consequence for breaking said rules, the conflict is compounded. It can be miserable.

So, what might be an alternative to the vicious cycle of rule-breaking and punishment? Do we just relinquish our power and responsibility as parents to guide and govern, just to avoid the conflict – submit to the will of the kids and let the inmates run the asylum? No, that is obviously not a workable solution either.

Enter Dr. Rick Greene and his book, The Explosive Child, the highly-acclaimed parenting guide in which he first delineated his Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (“CPSA”). In this life-changing book, Dr. Greene explains (1) why kids exhibit challenging behaviors, (2) why traditional behavior management strategies may not be effective for many kids, and (3) how to use CPSA to teach children skills they may be lacking in controlling their own behavior. In so doing, he provides a new conceptual framework for addressing the conflict set forth above. It is no longer necessary to rely upon having to reward good behavior, or, even less fun, meting out punishment for bad. Instead, Dr. Greene's approach promotes parents working with explosive children (i.e., children who lack the skill of controlling behavior when emotionally dysregulated), to solve the problems that often precipitate explosive episodes and teach these kids the skills they need to meet behavioral expectations.

So let’s go back to our curfew example using the CPSA. What might be an alternative to unilaterally setting a rule that, “Curfew is 11:00”? Dr. Greene would suggest that you collaborate with your kids on setting standards for your house and family. Allow them to hear what is behind your thinking, and allow them to share their own points of view.

Now, to be clear, this is ONLY a discussion, essentially a collection of information. It is not the time for a decision to be rendered, and it is certainly not a negotiation with your children. Rather, think of it as both a time for you to investigate your child’s mind, as well as an opportunity for your child to articulate his or her own thoughts and gain clarity. Emotional outbursts are often caused by the frustration of unclear thoughts. Our brains cannot problem-solve as well during times of frustration, so a calm and reasonable discussion of the merits of the curfew for information only is a safe place to start. After all of the information is collected, you can decide on a curfew that has considered all points of view. While the solution may require some give and take, you are much more likely to get cooperation from your child. Where there is cooperation, there is less conflict, disrespect, and disruption. And think about what you are doing for your child by modeling those skills that those of us with ADHD lack like perspective evaluation, flexible thinking, time management, and emotional regulation.

Some common objections that parents may have:

Won’t compromising with children enable narcissism and entitlement?

In many households today, children seem to run the show. Could giving your child a say in the setting of rules make them narcissistic and entitled? We, as parents, have to disrupt that sense of entitlement, right? Thus, we must set the rules that we deem appropriate for reasons only adults can understand; and, they need to obey them. Not necessarily.

Overvaluing your own point of view or creating in children a sense that their point of view is the ONLY one worth considering could well encourage narcissism and entitlement. But simply gaining an understanding of a child’s point of view does not. The truth is that “when children are treated by their parents with affection and appreciation, they may internalize the view that they are valuable individuals, a view that is at the core of self-esteem.”[1]

Children cannot be given the power to set standards for the family because they, especially those with ADHD, have underdeveloped frontal lobes, and they thus lack the required wisdom.

Indeed, children’s brains are not fully developed. They do not have the same capacity as adults to reason and negotiate, and only develop abstract thinking after age 12.[2] So, for those, especially under 12, it’s best to give them concrete rules, right? Maybe, maybe not.

I’ll use a story to reveal the alternative here. When my kids' friends (around 10 at the time) were playing Fortnite, a violent video game, my kids wanted to play it as well and did not understand why I objected. It was especially hard to convince them when other parents allowed it. But for me, it was not an option. So, I laid down the law and did not consider their point of view. This was unilateral rule-setting that I knew, as a parent, was best for my kids and family. There was no “discussing it.” This was not well received.

Now, I wonder what it would have looked like if I had taken the time to do some detective work around their desire to play the game. A question like, “What makes playing this game important to you?” could have given me insight into what my kids needed that the game provided. This would have helped them learn how to self-advocate in a polite way, rather than merely complaining in a disrespectful way. If I had been more willing to hear them out, they might have been more open to my reasons for objecting. They may not have agreed, but they would have at least been given the respect of a listen and may have possibly given a respectful listen in return.

Parental standards help kids to feel safe and less stressed.

When parents set standards and routines for their children, it creates a sense of predictability that can remove uncertainty and reduce stress for children. Setting routines around meals, bedtime, homework, chores, and screen usage creates predictability, reducing uncertainty. Isn’t this part of our job as parents? Yes, BUT.

Yes, all of the above is true. But what if you also investigated what your children’s preferences are in coming to your decisions as to scheduling? You might be surprised to hear why an earlier or later mealtime is desired. What if, in the questioning around dinner time, you find out that your kids feel sleepy after eating and really can’t study or focus beyond dinner? Would it make more sense to postpone dinner an hour in order to allow more time for homework beforehand? Perhaps in the questioning, your child might also come to discover things about themselves they didn’t even know.

Parents should not cower to kids and their demands; children should respect the authority and boundaries their parents set, not vice versa. This will prepare them for life.

Well, this one I agree with. However, it is not an obstacle to implementing CPSA. My most fervent prayer as a child of God is that God will NOT leave me to my own devices. But, in His wisdom, God still lets me speak my mind and consequently make my own mistakes when I insist on doing things my way. He gives me room to learn the hard way, through experience. Does this make me feel less respect for Him and His boundaries? Certainly not! We learn by doing. Thus, what God does, and what we can do as parents then, is to be a safe place to land when mistakes happen. And in any event, demanding respect will not bring it. I’ve tried and failed at this many times.

Parents are almost always wiser to the ways of the world than their kids are. So, indeed, in a perfect world, we could set and enforce the rules without the pain of conflict and compromise. But this is not a perfect world. Our kids, especially teens, simply do not see that we have the wisdom that they lack. Consider the CPSA as an opportunity to model our wisdom and to share it in a safe way. Like Solomon, ask questions, listen to their answers, and reflect with empathy. Surely there is nothing unwise in doing so.




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