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Making Sense of the Chaos: Identifying Triggers for your “Challenging” Child

Courtney Rennicke, Ph.D.If you are the parent of a child who has behavioral difficulties, you have likely been told on many occasions to set up a sticker or star chart to reward your child for good behavior. Behavioral reward charts that reinforce your child’s positive behaviors are an important and well-researched way of dealing with disciplinary problems. However, parents of children with behavioral difficulties sometimes find that while they work in the short-term, sticker charts often fail in the long run to make lasting change in their child’s behavior. When these reward systems fail, parents tend to feel disempowered and helpless to address their children’s troubling behavior and children, in return, feel more damaged and “bad.”

When you take a moment to think about the assumptions behind how reward charts work, they are essentially that your child either does not know what is expected of him/her and/or that they receive more attention for “bad” behaviors and not enough attention for “good” behaviors. While both of these assumptions can be true, star charts tend to overlook the possibility that your child’s challenging behavior might be due to an underlying difference in how their brains are wired. In short, many children who often get into trouble can quickly tell you what they were “supposed to do.” They know that they are not supposed to hit their sister or talk out of turn, yet they continue to misbehave. Therefore, the frustrating question for parents remains, “Why does my child continue to act this way?”

One possible answer, according to Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., who developed a new treatment for behavioral problems in children called Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS), is that “children do well when they can.” In short, that if your child is misbehaving it is not because they want to ruin your morning or embarrass you in the checkout line (although it can certainly feel that way!), it might be because they lack the skills to deal with the situation at hand effectively. Thus, a crucial component of the CPS approach is identifying the patterns in your child’s behavioral difficulties in terms of which situations, times of day, and types of possible skills deficits tend to act as triggers for their tantrums and other challenging behaviors.

The five main areas targeted for assessment with some examples of the children’s observed behavior are:

  • Executive Functions (e.g., “Max never seems to consider the consequences of his actions. He just seems to do whatever he wants to do without thinking. Act first, ask questions later, that’s Max.”)
  • Language Processing Skills (e.g., “After Sarah throws a tantrum, I’ll try to ask her what was bothering her and she can almost never tell me what set her off. Its like she doesn’t know what words to use to tell me what went wrong.”)
  • Emotion Regulation Skills (e.g., “When Alex gets angry, he doesn’t get a little angry, he explodes. At that point, it is impossible to talk with him and I just have to wait for his storm to pass.”)
  • Cognitive Flexibility (e.g., “One morning we had run out of Anna’s favorite cereal and she just fell apart. It’s like she can’t deal with any change in her routine.”)
  • Social Skills (e.g., “Once I saw that Chris was cheating on a board game by not allowing his friend to take a turn. He seemed completely happy and totally unaware of how angry and miserable his friend was.”)

Parents who feel like they are walking on eggshells by the seemingly random and unpredictable nature of when their child will explode often feel some degree of relief to finally have labels for what they routinely struggle with. In addition to the educational materials listed below, getting a thorough evaluation by a psychologist can be a helpful first step in identifying underlying skills deficits, possible psychological issues, and environmental contributors to your child’s behavioral difficulties.

Recommended Materials:

  • The Explosive Child (2005) by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. [book].
  • Parenting the Explosive Child (2004) featuring Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. and J. Stuart Ablon, Ph.D. [DVD].
  • Center for Collaborative Problem Solving website: http://www.ccps.info

About the Contributor: Courtney Rennicke, Ph.D. is an advisory team member and regular contributor to the NYC Firm Schools Blog in the area of parenting and child development.

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