Challenging Boys Blog:

Understanding Your Son, Yourself, and How to Bring the Best Out of Each Other

Challenging Boys Blog:

Understanding Your Son, Yourself, and How to Bring the Best Out of Each Other

Steve Jobs: Innovator, Entrepeneur, and Challenging Boy

On August 24, 2011 Steve Jobs submitted his letter of resignation to Apple’s board of directors. When people think Steve Jobs, they think incredibly influential innovator and entrepreneur. As a child, however, Jobs describes himself as having been a “little tyrant.” He hated school, tested every rule and limit, and challenged the patience of his parents and teachers. Steve Jobs was a challenging boy.

Steve Jobs’s challenging boy nature, however, didn’t limit his success. In fact, it played a key role in his phenomenal achievements. He was uncompromising and determined in the pursuit of his vision. He challenged convention, challenged himself, and challenged his colleagues to think bigger, work harder, and achieve more than they could have ever imagined. Steve Jobs’s story is helpful to keep in mind when dealing challenging boys who challenge the limits of our patience. It reminds us of the tremendous potential contained in a challenging boys’ challenging personality. One mom of a challenging boy summed it up beautifully, “His greatest personal strengths are exactly those things that make it most difficult to be his parent.”


Daniel Alef’s biography, Steve Jobs: The Apple of Our i, depicts Jobs as a classic example of a challenging boy. We find out that Jobs was “hyperactive, constantly pressing the limits of childhood … testing, prodding, always determined.” Of himself Jobs said, “I was pretty bored at school and turned into a little tyrant.” According to Alef, at age 11 Jobs refused to go to school. This defiance eventually forced his parents to move to a new school district for fear that he would never return to school. Jobs was also passionate, and he developed an intense interest in electronics. This interest would eventually lead to his meeting fellow rebel and outside-the-box thinker Steve Wozniak. Later the two would team up to found Apple Computer.

As an adult, Steve Job’s challenging boy nature played a key role in his phenomenal success. He was uncompromising (to the point of being rigid) and determined (to the point of being obsessed). Job’s vision of how things should be drove him and he pursued it with all of his energy. Jobs challenged those who worked with him to be just as driven.

As an adult, Jobs didn’t stop being challenging, in the sense of difficult to work with. Abel describes Jobs’s personality as “direct, abrupt, impatient, and determined. … he wanted things done his way, on his terms and his time schedule.” John Sculley, one time Apple CEO, described Jobs as “a zealot” with “a vision so pure that he couldn’t accommodate that vision to the imperfections of the world.” An Apple board member said of Jobs that “he was uncontrollable … He got ideas in his head, and the hell with what anybody else wanted to do.”

Job’s life story powerfully illustrates the double-edged nature of challenging boys. Challenging boys definitely are “challenging” in the sense that they can be oppositional, difficult, defiant, manipulative, willful, noncompliant, rigid, angry, temperamental, and rebellious and they tend to make life difficult for their parents and teachers. However, the challenging side of these boys’ personalities also has many important positive qualities as well. They are bright, curious, creative, passionate and sensitive kids who have a very strong sense of the way things should be done. They are capable of great things and have important contributions to make to the world if they do not become too turned off by the world’s frequent negative reaction to their challenging personalities.

After years of frustration, many parents understandably find it difficult to see their challenging boy’s personal qualities as strengths. Instead of sensitive, we experience our sons to be easily hurt and angry. Instead of energetic, driven, and persistent, he is stubborn. Instead of principled and committed, we find him rigid and inflexible. Instead of creative and insightful, he seems sneaky and manipulative. Finally, the challenging boy’s greatest asset – his advocating and innovating spirit – is experienced by us as his having an oppositional and contrarian nature.

Jobs’ story reminds us not to forget the positive and potential in these boys’ forceful personalities. It also reminds us that our goal is not to turn our challenging boys into compliant boys, but help them learn to fight important battles (not every battle), to oppose unjust authority (not every authority), and to take other peoples’ feelings into account even as they pursue their own uncompromising vision.

Visit these earlier posts for tips on how to end the power struggles with your son, while respecting and preserving his strengths as a challenging boy.

How to get kids to cooperate: Think like a firefighter!

The Parent Diary: A Powerful Tool for Decreasing Power Struggles

Back to School: Why Your Son Hates School and 5 Ways to Make this a Great School Year for Both of You

It’s back to school time and maybe you’ve noticed that your son is becoming more moody and/or challenging than he has been during the rest of the summer. His change in behavior is likely due to that fact that school has started or will be starting soon and he is anxious and unhappy about it.


School is a highly frustrating and depressing place for many boys. The thought of going back stresses them out. In this blog, you will learn some of the reasons why your son hates school, as well as 5 things you can do to make this a happier and more successful school year for you and your boy.


Why Your Son Hates School.


It Starts Early: Today’s Kindergarten Curriculum Sets Up Boys to Fail


For many boys the difficulties with school begin in kindergarten. Today’s elementary schools emphasize early literacy, as a result kindergarteners are expected to do work that thirty years ago was done in the first grade.


At the age of 5, most boy’s cognitive development and fine motor skills are not ready for these academic demands. Pediatrician, Leonard Sax, in his book Boys Adrift says that at the age of 5 boys’ brain development is around a year and a half behind that of girls. According to Sax, “trying to teach five-year-old boys to learn to read and write may be just as inappropriate as it would to try to teach three-year-old girls to read and write … [and it] may be the worst possible introduction to school.”


By being given work in kindergarten that they cannot do, many boys learn very early on that school is a place where they can’t succeed. This negative first impression can have long-range effects.


Decreased Time for Recess: Boys Especially Need Outside Recess Breaks to Discharge Physical Energy and Recharge Attentional Batteries.


Another way today’s elementary schools are not boy friendly is the decreasing amount of time allotted for recess. Boys are more physically active than girls and they are less able to sit still and be quiet for extended periods of time. Recess is good for the social and cognitive development of boys and girls, but boys especially need the break. Insufficient recess time sets boys up to get into trouble more often for talking, not staying in their seats, or otherwise being disruptive. Most of this misbehavior is not because the boys are disobedient, but because they are being asked to comply with behavioral expectations that they are not capable of meeting. This creates more negative associations to school. Boys learn that school is a place where you get into trouble.


Emphasis on Learning by Worksheet: Boys Learn Best by Doing.


The current emphasis of evaluating students, teachers and schools through standardized tests has led to an emphasis on “teaching to the test.” Auditory learners (also sometimes called ‘read/write learners’), who are more typically girls, are better able to handle a curriculum where learning primarily occurs through listening, reading, writing, and pencil-and-paper work. Boys more frequently are active, visual/kinesthetic learners who learn best by doing: through moving their bodies, through interacting with materials, through experimenting, and through other active and exploratory methods. As active learners, boys are frustrated and bored during the worksheet driven lessons of today’s elementary school.


These are just a few of the factors that may be contributing to boys being turned off to school. An absence of male teachers to serve as role models for boys, as well as the boy culture which says it isn’t cool to like school are examples of other factors that might also be contributing to the problem.


Returning to school for your boy may mean returning to a place where he is going to feel misunderstood, disrespected, stupid and unable to succeed. His need to maintain his self-esteem leads him to counter these bad feelings by saying to himself, “I’m not stupid, school is stupid!” Unfortunately, you only hear half of his story. Instead he just says to you “school is stupid” or “I hate school” or maybe he says nothing. All that you see is a boy not invested in school and unmotivated to do his schoolwork. He doesn’t necessarily let you know how school makes him feel bad about himself.


What can you do to help? Here are five suggestions that will help make this a better school year for you and your son. All of these suggestions are based on the idea that the most important thing you can do to help your son with his school problems is to be on his side. Being on your son’s side does not mean overlooking his misbehavior, denying that he has a problem with school, or agreeing with him when he says that school is stupid. Being on your son’s side means being his ally and his advocate in dealing with the problems that going to school and doing schoolwork present to him. It is easy to get sucked into fighting with your child about school. Being on his side, in contrast, means letting your son know that you love him unconditionally, that you respect his feelings (including his feelings of hating school), and that you want to join with him in finding a solution rather than becoming part of the problem.


1.  Resist the Temptation to Label Him


When faced with a boy who is not doing his homework, says school is stupid and that he hates his teacher, it is easy for us as parents to get caught up in feeling that our son is lazy, oppositional, and disrespectful. When we view our son’s lack of motivation through the negative lens of these labels we start to expect him to behave in negative ways. Our sons pick up on this negative attitude and it makes them even more sad, frustrated, angry and even more likely to oppose school. The first step in helping him solve his problems with school is to understand that he is unmotivated because he has learned that school is a place where he can’t succeed, won’t be respected, and is likely to get into trouble. Imagine having a job where you were made to feel as stupid, controlled and stifled as school makes your son feel. In that type of environment you’d find it difficult to be invested in your job and you’d probably want to quit – I know I would.


2.  Accept His Feelings


When your son says that school is stupid and a waste of time, or that he hates his teacher, it is very easy to get pulled into correcting him. “School isn’t stupid” you might want to say, “it’s important and you better work harder.” Our instincts tell us if we validate our son’s negative feelings about school that we are going to encourage them to grow and make them harder to change. However, the opposite is true. With kids and their feelings, the axiom is that “the bad feelings have to come out before the good ones can get in.”


When your son says, for example, that school is stupid, you can validate his experience of school without agreeing with him. You could say something like “sounds like school is pretty frustrating.” This statement accepts his feelings and invites him to say more about the problems he is having.


3.  Don’t battle over homework.


As parents, we want the very best for our children and we know that doing well in school and ultimately going to college gives a person an important advantage in the competitive world of work. When a boy says that he doesn’t care about school, we feel understandably afraid for his future. When he doesn’t do his homework, we want to make him do it. It is important, however, for school to belong to your son. You will do whatever you can to help him do well, of course, but ultimately your son has to take ownership for his school performance. Remember, it is your job to be on your son’s side. You can offer to help him with his homework, but provide the help only if he accepts your offer. As you work to establish yourself in your son’s mind as his ally in dealing with his school problems, he will be increasingly more likely to accept your help.


(Click this link to see my post on homework battles: From Homework Battles to Self Management: 4 Tips for Parents.)


4.  Talk to the teacher


If your son doesn’t like school or isn’t doing well, it’s a good idea to talk to his teacher. Find out if the teacher really ‘gets’ your son. Find out if he or she has an understanding of how boys and girls can have different learning styles. Many teachers were never taught about these gender differences. You might mention to the teacher that you read a great book about teaching boys and you’d be happy to loan it to him or her. Examples of these books are:


Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School by Abigail Norfleet James.


Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies that Work — and Why by Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley.


Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences by Leonard Sax.


5.  Get help.


If you aren’t able to make substantial headway with suggestions 1 to 4, you might consider getting help. Tutors can be enormously helpful in dealing with school problems. A tutor alleviates the need to fight with your son over homework. The tutor and your son will handle staying on top of homework together. A good tutor will furthermore not only assist your son in learning his school subjects, but will also be able to help your son learn strategies for doing better in school.


It can also be enormously beneficial to consult with a psychologist. A psychologist can make recommendations and provide treatment that can reverse your son’s negative attitudes toward school and poor performance. A psychologist can also evaluate whether your son has some learning issues that are making school even more difficult for him.


Remember, you can help your son make this the happiest and most successful school year ever. It can take a little time to turn things around, but if you start today by accepting and understanding your son’s feelings, you will be started on a path that will change your son’s feelings about school, and more importantly, that will improve the quality of your relationship with him.



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How to Talk to Children about Divorce


Recently, I was interviewed for an article about helping children cope with divorce. The interviewer specifically wanted to know my recommendations for how parents’ should tell children about their plans for divorce. Below is a summary of what I discussed.


Getting divorced is an extremely stressful experience. One of the many heart-wrenching aspects of divorce is telling your children that you are breaking up. Hopefully, by following the guidelines below, you can make a very difficult conversation a little easier for everyone.


1.             Tell your children together.


2.             If possible, have a plan worked out before you tell them. (The plan should include who is moving out, when and where s/he is going, when and how the children will see that parent.)


3.             Agree in advance on what you will say to them.


4.             Do not place blame on each other. (For example, don’t say, “Your mother doesn’t want to be married anymore” or “Your father had an affair.”) State clearly, even though one parent is leaving, that it is a mutual decision. This helps children avoid feeling that they have to take sides.


5.             When giving a reason for the separation, say something that is true, but does not burden the children with too much information. (For example, “We haven’t been getting along. We’ve tried to work it out, but we’ve decided that we’d be happier if we lived apart.”)


6.             Reassure your children that you both love them very much, that it is not their fault that you are getting a divorce, and that you will continue to work together as parents.


7.             Let the children know your plan for the when’s and how’s of the separation and the sharing of custody (see item 2).


8.             Let the children know that any feelings they have about the divorce are acceptable (anger, sadness, relief) and that you want to hear about their feelings.


9.             Let the children know that they can ask any you any questions. Answer all questions honestly, but also recognize that you do not have to answer every question. Also, do not give answers to questions that place blame for the divorce on one of the parents or otherwise imply that it is not a mutual decision (see item 4).


10.          Let the children know that they can talk to you about the divorce and their feelings about it, or ask you questions at any time. Many children will have little to say at the time of the initial conversation. They may be in shock. It is important for them to know that they can discuss their thoughts, feelings, and questions with you as they come up over time.


Children are resilient, but give them space to process this upsetting news after you tell them. Like you may be, they are grieving the loss of the family as they know it. Peppering them with questions at this time might actually interrupt their healing process. So, let your children know you are there for them, and that you love them no matter what—this will go a long way in smoothing their transition to this new version of family life.


Once you have opened the door to hearing about feelings and questions, it is important to follow through and be accepting of and pay attention to the feelings and questions when they are brought up. It also helps keep the lines of communication open when you look for openings to have little conversations. If your child looks sad or is acting very frustrated, just acknowledging that the divorce is very upsetting is sometimes enough to get the child to tell you a little about what he or she has been feeling.


Divorce is not something that happens at a moment in time. It is a process. The feelings that children have about their parents’ divorce change over time, and can continue to change through out the children’s lives. The children, like the parents, go through a process of grieving the loss of the family as they’ve known it. Like you their grieving includes feelings of denial (believing the parents will get back together), anger, and sadness.


Here’s a link to the eHow article that I was interviewed for.


Keep in mind that it can be very helpful for couples contemplating divorce to consult with a qualified child psychotherapist or their pediatrician before talking to their children about divorce. Also, you should consult your pediatrician or a qualified psychotherapist if concerns come up about how your children are reacting to your divorce.


How to get kids to cooperate: Think like a firefighter!

If you are frustrated that your relationship with your child has too many struggles and too little cooperation, you are not alone. If you have looked to parenting books for help but have found the advice difficult to implement, you are in good company. In my previous three blog-posts, I have discussed my thoughts about why the sound recommendations in many great parenting books are not so easy to follow (click here to view). To summarize: following the advice of parenting books requires that we stay calm – however power struggles with our kids feel like emergencies and put us into fight or flight mode where we feel anything but calm. Once in fight or flight mode, it is difficult to calm down, and it is difficult to remember what we read in the parenting book. Instead, we slip into old modes of parent-child interactions which we absorbed as children in our struggles with our own parents. Once established, patterns of struggle between parents and children build up tremendous momentum and resist change.

So, what are we, as parents, to do if we want to reduce struggles and increase good feelings and cooperation in our families? To have success in making the changes that we want to make in our families, I suggest that we learn to think like firefighters.

Firefighters, and other emergency service workers, have to deal with extreme situations that can arise unpredictably, where intense experiences of adrenaline and fear arise that need to be calmed in order to deal with the emergency effectively, and where they may have to rescue civilians who are distressed, dysregulated, and disoriented.

Note the similarities to power struggles: they can arise unpredictably, they can stir intense emotional reactions in us that need to be calmed if we are to respond effectively, and they involve dealing with kids in the middle of meltdowns who are distressed, dysregulated, and disoriented.

In order to deal with difficult, dangerous and unpredictable situations, firefighters plan, practice, prevent, educate and debrief.


You do not want to be trying to figure out how to fight a fire in the heat of the moment. Firefighters have strategies, roles, and contingencies worked out ahead of time. They also make sure that they have the equipment that they will need to deal with most emergencies on their trucks in easily accessible places. The middle of an emergency is a terrible time to try to figure out what to do.

Anxiety and stress (such as that which occurs in a burning building, or in a power struggle) disrupts a person’s ability to think clearly and solve problems effectively. Solving many of the problems that regularly and predictably occur at a fire scene prior to a fire call – in the relatively calm and low stress environment of the fire house – leads to much better decisions than does trying to make decisions on the fly under the stress and chaos of the fire scene.


Firefighters practice the skills they need for dealing with emergencies. Frequently this practice occurs under conditions that simulate actual emergencies. Smoke machines are used to create the poor visibility conditions encountered in fires. Firefighters also use burn buildings which are specially built structures (or which are buildings scheduled for demolition) that can be set on fire so that firefighters can conduct live training drills.

Well-practiced tasks are much less likely to be disrupted by anxiety and stress. Practicing firefighting techniques under simulated and controlled firefighting situations helps the firefighter remain calm in real emergencies, and it establishes good firefighting habits that hold up in a real emergency.

Practicing implementing firefighting plans familiarizes you with the plans so that they are not newly encountered at the fire scene. Practicing plans also helps find places where the plans may break down in a real emergency.


Firefighters deal with emergencies also by trying to prevent them in the first place. They enforce building codes and smoke detector laws that help prevent sparks from leading to life-threatening conflagrations.


Firefighters visit schools to educate children about fire safety. They let them know what to expect and what to do in an emergency. Children are taught that they should “stop, drop, and roll” if their clothing catches fire. Firefighters wear their firefighting gear (called “turnout gear”) to schools. A firefighter in turnout gear, wearing an air mask looks a lot more like Darth Vader or some other type of monster than someone trying to rescue you. Seeing a firefighter in his gear at school helps prepare a child to recognize a firefighter in an emergency.


After the emergency has ended and the firefighters have returned to their station and prepared their trucks for the next call, they frequently take time to debrief. In a debriefing a time line of the event is constructed beginning with the time prior to receiving the call through to the event’s conclusion with the return to station. The process of constructing the time line has three main functions. First, it allows the firefighters present to have any confusion or misunderstanding about what happened clarified. Second, it allows for firefighters to express and vent any negative emotions that were experienced in course of the call. Finally, the time line provides a basis for learning lessons from the call – both what went right and what went wrong – that can be incorporated into planning so that future operations can be conducted more safely and effectively.

As parents dealing with entrenched negative patterns with our children, we can benefit from applying the methods of firefighters. Our process begins with debriefing. After an upsetting episode is over and things are calm, take a few moments alone, or with your spouse if he or she was present, to construct a time line of what happened. As with an emergency service worker debriefing, this process of constructing the time line allows us to get more clear about what happened with our child, to release the negative emotions that linger from the episode, and provides a basis for making plans for how to deal with events in the future.

After several of these debriefing sessions, the specifics of the negative interaction pattern with your child will become clearer; what triggers it and how it evolves over time. This knowledge provides the basis of making a plan for how to deal with problems when they arise. Your own brainstorming, tips from your friends, and your reading of parenting books come in here. They provide the basis of your emergency response plan. Having a plan in place means not having to think of what to do in the stress of the moment of an escalating power struggle.

After you have had the opportunity to put your plan in action, another debriefing session is called for and plans are revised. In future posts will be writing more about this process of making and revising plans through the debriefing process. I will also discuss the role of practice, prevention and education in helping transform family life.

Why the Good Advice in Parenting Books is Often so Hard to Follow, Part III

From time to time, all parents encounter resistance or even tantrums when they say no to a treat, a purchase, or an activity that a child really wants. And even families with easy, compliant kids and serene, Zen-like parents have fights that occasionally escalate in regrettable ways. In most cases, if the parents hold firm, the child will eventually accept the parents’ decision. Things become concerning, however, when power struggles shift from being occasional events and become frequently repeated and difficult to avoid patterns. Unfortunately, once established, these habitual aversive, angry, and unhappy parent-child interactions are extremely resistant to change.

Consider 10 year-old Bob*. When Bob’s mother says “no” to him, he mopes, yells, pushes her, and argues in an unrelenting manner. Let’s focus in on a specific example. Bob wants to go out for ice cream after dinner. Bob’s mother says “no” because it’s getting late and Bob hasn’t finished his homework. Also, Bob’s mother is tired and she doesn’t feel like going out. In response to his mother’s “no,” Bob yells. “This isn’t fair! You never want to do what I want to do!”

Bob’s mother might try reasoning with him. “We went out for ice cream when you asked two nights ago, and besides you need to get your homework done.” Bob then tries negotiating. “If we go out for ice cream, I’ll start on my homework the minute we get back.” Or, he might use threats. “If you don’t take me for ice cream, I’m not going to do my homework.” Eventually, Bob’s mother caves in and takes him for ice cream. “Remember,” she says, “the minute we get home it’s right to the homework.” Of course when they get home Bob doesn’t start his homework.

Sometimes Bob’s mother gets fed up with his pleas, threats, whines and promises and loses her cool. She might yell, “Nothing is ever good enough for you! Why can’t I ever just say ‘no’ and have you accept it!” Power struggles like these happen over and over between challenging boys and their parents. No matter who gets their way, nobody wins. Power struggles always end with anger, hurt, and guilt being felt on both sides.

What do the parenting books say to do? How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, one of my favorite parenting books, recommends accepting and respecting a child’s feelings. One way to do this, they say, is to  “give the child his wishes in fantasy.” In our example, Bob’s mother might say, “I wish that we had enough time to go for ice cream tonight.” Another great book, Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child, recommends making a clear statement of the limit, using as few words as possible, and connecting it with natural consequences. “We aren’t going for ice cream tonight. You need to stop arguing with me on this and get started on your homework, or there won’t be time to watch TV before bed.” Positive Discipline would have Bob’s mother recognize that Bob cannot force her to take him for ice cream. Likewise, she should recognize that she cannot force Bob to do his homework. Positive Discipline recommends that Bob’s mother avoid engaging in a power struggle over going for ice cream, or doing homework, that she instead take a “positive time-out.” In a positive time-out, the parent removes him or herself from the conflict with the child in order to calm down (click this link to read more about how to take a positive time-out).

All three of these are reasonable suggestions. For many children, having their feelings acknowledged and accepted is enough to help them get over their disappointment at not getting what they want. Similarly, many children find a parent’s clearly stated limit to be soothing. Although the child doesn’t get what he wants in the moment, it is calming to know that your parents are in charge and not overwhelmed by your strong feelings. Finally, calming down and avoiding power struggles is always a good idea. No one, parent or child, ever wins in an escalating power struggle.

However, because Bob and his mom have a well established negative pattern around times when Bob wants something that his mother thinks wouldn’t be good for him, none of these suggestions are likely to work very well. For example, part of what Bob is so frustrated about is his belief that his mother doesn’t care if he’s happy. Of course Bob’s belief is mistaken. If anything, Bob’s mother is overly concerned that he be happy and not upset. Unfortunately, the anger and hurtful words that have come out during his fights with his mom, and his guilt at his own demanding behavior has led Bob to see himself as a bad kid and to believe that his mom thinks so too. So, even if Bob’s mother were to give him what he wants in fantasy – by saying “I wish that we had enough time to go for ice cream tonight” – Bob wouldn’t believe her.

Regarding firm limits, it has been Bob’s experience, up until now, that when his mother says “no” that he can usually get her to back down if he pushes back hard enough. So his initial response to a clear statement of a limit and consequence is to immediately escalate things. This relates to a well-established phenomenon in animal training: when you try to eliminate an undesirable behavior, the animal will initially engage in the behavior with more intensity before that behavior starts to decrease in frequency over time.

Similarly, in their negative cycle of power struggles, it has been Bob’s mother’s experience that if she gives in to Bob’s demands he will stop his tantrum. Bob’s mother knows by giving Bob what he wants that she can avoid an unpleasant fight and restore peace – temporarily. Even if she can initially manage to avoid the temptation to give in to keep the peace and set a firm limit, as Bob’s tantrum increases in intensity the temptation to give in becomes more and more difficult to resist.

Finally, considering the positive time-out, even leaving the situation to calm down can be very difficult to do. If Bob’s mother manages to implement the positive time-out, he might not let her get away. Bob might follow her as she tries to leave and continue his badgering, berating and whining. Or Bob’s mother might feel so angry that she can’t bear letting him have the last word. Leaving the heated exchange might feel to Bob’s mom like a surrender or show of weakness.

Why are negative patterns so hard to break? They may begin innocently enough. A parent makes a request of the child to do something such as, get dressed for school, turn the TV off, quit playing a video game, go to bed, etc. But maybe the request wasn’t made clearly or firmly enough, or not enough time was allowed for the kid to comply, or maybe the parent combined the request with criticism (“don’t you want to do something other than waste all your time watching TV?”). Perhaps the situation is amplified by a major transition in the home: a sibling is born, the child begins kindergarten, problems have arisen in the parents’ marriage.

An easy child can, by and large, tolerate requests that aren’t crystal clear, or are made too abruptly, or have a tinge of criticism. That child, most of the time, gets ready for school, turns off the TV or the game, or goes to bed with little resistance. However, things get complicated with a child who, by virtue of an irritable temperament, or poor impulse control, or difficulty with transitions can have difficulty complying with parental requests.

This more challenging type of child is prone to responding to the parental request coercively, with whining, a tantrum, or an explosion. The parent (who, like most parents of young children is tired, stressed, frustrated) doesn’t have the will to fight this battle and retracts the request. The child then stops his or her coercive tactics because he or she is no longer confronted by a demand for compliance. In this way the parent and child train each other to engage in a negative dynamic over and over again. The parent rewards the child for being coercive by retracting the demand for compliance. The child reinforces the parent for acquiescing by stopping the coercion in response to the parent retracting the demand. A basic law of reinforcement is that behaviors that are reinforced are more likely to occur. In this case, the reinforcement makes it more likely that the child will respond coercively to requests and more likely that the parent will retract a request that is met with resistance.

In spite of this reinforcement, a negative pattern is still relatively susceptible to change in these early stages. As it occurs more and more times the pattern becomes deeply established. Not only does the repeated reinforcement of the destructive behaviors solidify things, but the negative pattern leads to other changes in the parent-child relationship that further entrenches the pattern. The parents and the child develop beliefs based on these interactions. The parent feels annoyed and frustrated with his or her inability to be in charge of the child. This frustration and annoyance leads the parent to develop upsetting beliefs such as that his or her child is bad, defiant, pathological and destined for problems through out life. The parent also feels like a failure as a parent. These negative beliefs, in turn, are communicated to the child; directly in statements like, “what is wrong with you?” or “why can’t ‘no’ ever mean ‘no’ with you?” They are also communicated indirectly through the parent’s withdrawal, irritation, or hostile attitude toward the child. The child, in turn, believes that the parent doesn’t love him or her (this is accentuated if he or she has a sibling who is an easier kid) and that the parents don’t want him or her to be happy. The child also, at a deeper level, feels that he or she is a bad person for the way he or she behaves and for not having the parents’ love. When a parent reads a parenting book, even a very good one, it is difficult to turn what they learn into positive change. Real changes are hard to make because of all the weight of the reinforcement and the negative feelings and beliefs that keep negative patterns in place.

I hope I haven’t made you feel too pessimistic by now. It is very difficult to change negative family dynamics, but not impossible. In the next entry I will talk about how to bring about change that can overcome these patterns and how to bring about a positive climate in the home that endures.

(To skip to how to start addressing these problems, click here.)

*Bob and his mother are fictitious characters and are not based on any specific individuals. They were created to illustrate the type of entrenched patterns of conflict that develop between challenging boys and their parents.