≡ Menu

The Proactive, Purposeful, Power of Empathy: Preventing Chaos

Courtney Rennicke, Ph.D.In my last blog, I discussed a new approach to dealing with difficult behaviors in children called Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) developed by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.

The CPS motto is that “children do well when they can” a deceptively simple idea that can be very hard to swallow when you and your child are in the midst of an entrenched, toxic tango of difficult behaviors and futile-feeling solutions. Frequent battles with your child can severely deplete your reserves of compassion for them when they are “acting out”, as well as diminish your sense of efficacy as a parent. When parents begin to experience compassion “burn out” towards a child’s challenging or puzzling behaviors, a very important aspect of the child’s behavioral difficulties tends to get overlooked: Why are they getting so upset in the first place?

In the CPS approach, parents are coached how to elicit their child’s concerns and empathize with their experiences during non-crisis moments when both parent and child are feeling relatively calm. The timing of these conversations is crucial, like all human beings, children respond best when they are not upset and angry. The key element of all the steps to follow is to strike while the iron is COLD instead of when it is HOT. So once you have gathered some ideas about the patterns of your child’s behavioral or emotional struggles, the next step is to have a conversation about them when you and your child are out of the heat of battle.

There are three main steps to collaborative problem solving with your child:

Step 1: Be Empathic: Reflect, Reflect, and Reassure
Feeling heard and understood is a universally good feeling. It can be even more meaningful for a child who does not quite know how to label what they are feeling or are used to adults and peers being turned off by their ways of expressing distress and frustration.

Child: “I don’t want to do my homework when I get home!”

Adult (reempathizing): “You don’t want to do it when you get home. How come?”

Child: “Because I’m tired…I need a break.”

Adult (reempathizing): “Let me make sure I’ve got this right…you don’t want to do your homework right after school because you’re tired and you need a break. Yes?”

Child: “Right!”

Adult (reassurance): “Ugh! That must feel so hard every day after school to feel so tired and to need a break and not get one.”

Step 2: Do Define the Problem, Don’t Jump to Solutions and Conclusions

So often the “problem” becomes your child’s method of expressing his/her frustration and the actual content of their dilemma gets overlooked. The experience of clarifying what your child’s complaint is and communicating what your concern as the parent is helps your child with their problem solving and perspective taking skills.

Adult (defining the problem): “So you feel tired and need a break after school and I’m really concerned that if you don’t do it right after school it won’t get done.”

Child: “Yeah.”

Step 3: Invite Your Child to Brainstorm: Don’t Judge Ideas, Celebrate Them

When parents move in too quickly to solve conflicts or focus exclusively on disciplining their children when they are emotionally reactive, significant opportunities for their children’s emotional and cognitive growth are missed. Involving your child in considering solutions that are both feasible and mutually satisfactory can really pay off in the long run in terms of improving your child’s underlying problem solving abilities. I put real emphasis on MUTUAL. This approach is not about letting children discipline themselves, it is about using the fuel of understanding their concerns to power an improved understanding of them and what might work to solve their issues within your parental values.

Adult: “Do you want to try to think how we can solve this homework problem?”

Child: “Yeah. I know! Maybe I could do homework after some ice cream.”

Adult: “That’s an idea! But you know what, I’m still concerned that if you eat ice cream every day before homework that you’ll have a harder time concentrating. What if we looked at your after school schedule and made a plan for quiet time and then a specific time when you start your homework?”

Child: “Okay. What about if I get to play for an hour after school and then start my homework at 4:30PM?”

Adult: “Sounds like a good plan to me. Let’s try it starting tomorrow and see how it goes.”

Yes, the example sounds easier said than done and in many instances it is. However, in my experience working with children and families, over time these proactive, empathic conversations create powerful and sustainable change. Give it a try for a week, for a month, you might be surprised at the ways this approach can help you and your child untangle your impasse and feel genuinely closer and more loving towards one another.

For more information, see these resources:

The Explosive Child (2005) by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. and www.thinkkids.org

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.