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

Understanding Why Your Son is Challenging.

His greatest personal strengths are exactly those things that make it most difficult to be his parent,” mom of a challenging boy.

Challenging boys have many great personal strengths. They are sensitive, empathic, energetic, driven, persistent, principled, and committed. These characteristics give challenging boys a strong moral compass. They have clear convictions about right and wrong and oppose injustice and unfairness wherever it occurs. Challenging boys see beyond their own narrow self-interest and are budding social activists. They defend the rights of underdogs and outsiders. In sum, challenging boys are advocators, they advocate for justice and for the rights of the weak.

Challenging boys also think outside of the box. They are creative and insightful and do not accept conventional explanations of things. Challenging boys often question why and come up with their own answers and their own way of doing things. In short, challenging boys are also innovators.

Civil rights activist and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright, and businessman Steve Jobs were all challenging boys. Our society needs advocators and innovators to challenge our conventions, our prejudices and our status quo. We are all better off because of the life’s work of these and other challenging boys.

The mothers and fathers of Justice Marshall, the Wright brothers, and Steven Jobs, however, may very well have struggled with similar issues to those you have with your son.  In reflecting on his boyhood, Steven Jobs reports, “I was pretty bored at school and turned into a little terror.” These creative, insightful, activist men would have been thought of as “challenging” boys.  As boys, they did not cow-tow to expectation or accept conventional explanations.

But knowing that we might be raising the next Marshall, Jobs, or Wright does little to solve the problem of day-to-day stand-offs with our children. As a parent, there are decisions that have to be made, things that have to be done, places that have to be gotten to, and rules that have to be followed. It makes life pretty difficult for a parent, when you have so much to take care of, and your authority is being questioned at seemingly every turn.

After years of frustration, many parents understandably find it difficult to see their challenging boy’s personal qualities as strengths. Instead of sensitive and empathic, we experience our sons to be easily hurt and angry. Instead of energetic, driven, and persistent, he is stubborn or hyperactive. 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.

How does it come about that a boy with such vast potential comes to be experienced as having such big problems? The answer lies in the fact that many well-intentioned parental instincts lead us to act in ways that bring out the worst from challenging boys rather than building on their many strengths. This is not the fault of the parents; rather, it reflects the culture we all live in. Our society unwittingly undermines our chances at helping our challenging sons.

Over the course of a boy’s development, a negative pattern is established in which our well-intentioned parental actions lead to negative responses from our sons: anger, opposition, and inflexibility. These negative responses, in turn, create a negative view of the boy in the parent’s mind: “he’s stubborn, manipulative, mistrustful.” This negative parental view then leads to parental actions that result in even more negative responses from the boy. The negative image of the boy in the parents’ mind is then further reinforced. The cycle continues and deepens with each negative interaction.  The likelihood of helping our sons channel their energy in creative, productive and healthy ways is further diminished.

This blog is about transformation. Transforming the way you relate to your son and transforming the way he connects to you and the important people in his world.  In subsequent blogs, I will discuss how to reverse this negative feedback loop and instead, create a positive cycle for you and your family.  By showing you how to establish the cooperation you need to manage your family, I will help relieve your understandable frustration, and increase your confidence and calm as you parent your spirited son.

The Universal Need for Parental Acceptance

Child development is so complex that there are practically no certainties. There are experienced, well-meaning, well-credentialed experts lined up on all sides of almost every major issue in parenting. This uncertainty and confusion of conflicting expert opinion can leave a parent bewildered. We can thank anthropologist Ronald Rohner, Ph.D. and his colleagues for identifying one of the few universal truths in child development. After more than two thousand studies conducted over almost five decades across many cultures, Dr. Rohner has concluded that children everywhere have a basic need for acceptance and affirmation from their parents and other important care givers. Children who feel rejected have more behavioral problems, have lower self-esteem, are more pessimistic, are more anxious and depressed, are are more likely to have drug and alcohol problems. Rohner’s bold summary of the research evidence is “parental acceptance-rejection by itself is universally a powerful predictor of psychological and behavioral adjustment.”

You might ask, “what are the best ways to show your acceptance to your child?” I’ve listed five powerful ways of expressing acceptance below.

1. Be affectionate.

Being physically affectionate with our children is one of the most powerful ways that we can show our acceptance. Especially with younger children, cuddles, kisses, having them sit on your lap, and comforting them are clear displays of affection and acceptance. With older children, while it is important to respect their increasing sense of physical boundaries, regular hugs and kisses still carry a lot of weight. Our words can also communicate affection, as in saying “I love you,” giving a complement, or praising a child on an accomplishment.

2. Always be on your child’s side.

This might seem confusing at first. Does always being on a child’s side mean that we have to believe everything your child says or approve of every action they engage in? No, of course not. Being on your child’s side means being his or her advocate. If your child is in trouble at school, being on his or her side might mean not immediately accepting the school’s story as accurate or representing the whole truth. You will give your child the opportunity to tell his or her side to you first. If your child has done something wrong, you stand by your child and support him or her as they face the consequences of their mistake. You also advocate by working to make sure that the consequence is appropriate for the infraction and not excessive.

James Garbarino, internationally recognized expert on child development and professor of psychology at Loyola University of Chicago, has the following perspective on always being on your child’s side. He says that it is extremely important to consistently communicate to your child the following “no matter what you have felt, no matter what you have done, and no matter what has been done to you, I will never stop loving you.” Garbarino points out that communicating this message to your child not only conveys acceptance, but it also helps enormously with the challenge of supervising your child. Once children enter their teenage years, we cannot supervise all of their activities. To provide adequate supervision you need to trust that your child will tell you what they have been up to. Conveying to your child that you will not stop loving them no matter what they have felt, done, or had done to them, you vastly increase your chance that your child will confide in you.

3. Whenever possible give your child your full attention.

Our children crave our attention. One of the most common causes of bad behavior is not giving our children our full attention. Children want our fully focused attention so much that they prefer negative attention to no attention at all. Children aren’t consciously saying to themselves, “he’s ignoring me, so I’ll misbehave and he’ll get angry and start paying attention to me.” They do it instinctively and the fact that misbehavior is so often ‘rewarded’ with intensely focuses parental attention leads them to keep doing it.

It is a fact of life for most parents that there are a lot of demands on a parent’s attention between work, household responsibilities, and other concerns. It is important, however, to provide our children with some time each day when we put down our phones, leave the dishes for later, turn off the TV and are fully present to play with our child and listen fully to what he or she has to say.

4. Accept your child’s feelings.

According to Haim Ginott, child psychologist and author of or inspiration for my three favorite parenting books of all time (see my blog post on 10 best parenting books of all time), parents should never reject their child’s feelings. Human beings are emotional creatures. Feelings of anger, fear, sadness, greed, and other “negative” emotions are part of our human nature. In Between Parent & Child Ginott says, “while we are not free to choose the emotions that arise in us, we are free to choose how and when to express them, provided we know what they are.” While we can find our child’s behavior to be unacceptable at times, his or her feelings should never be. One of our most important jobs as parents is to help our children learn to recognize what they are feeling and to help them learn appropriate ways of expressing and managing those feelings. Rejecting a child’s feelings not only interfere with the child feeling accepted, but the rejection of feelings trains the child not to be aware of what he or she feels.

It is also important not to make light of our child’s distress when he or she is upset about a seemingly insignificant situation. According to Ginott, “a child’s feelings must be taken seriously even though the situation itself is not very serious.”

5. Avoid criticism.

In my power of positive parenting blog post, I discussed Gottman’s Magic Ratio and the importance of positive parenting. To sum it up briefly, Gottman has found that in the most stable marriages spouses have roughly five positive interactions for every negative interaction. This 5 to 1 ratio he calls the magic ratio. Positive parenting applies this ratio to the parent-child relationship. One of the main negative interactions to be avoided is criticism.

Avoiding criticism does not mean having no complaints about your child’s behavior. A complaint is specific and focused on a behavior. A complaint says, “I am angry/unhappy/distressed about this thing that you did.” A complaint, unlike criticism, does not build a case against your child. A case puts together several situations that occurred at different times and says ‘you have a pattern of doing this or that undesirable thing.’ Another way of saying this is that a complaint, unlike criticism, does not generalize. Criticism says “you always” or “you never.” A complaint focuses just on one situation or thing. A complaint focuses on the behavior, as Dr. Ginott suggests we do. “It upset me that you did this or that.” Criticism attacks the person. “You are lazy/manipulative/rude.” A complaint further does not blame, nor does it speculate on motives.

Sticker Charts/Reward Charts/Behavior Charts: The Five Most Common Mistakes Parents Make When Using Reward Charts


Reward charts (also sometimes called “sticker charts” or “behavior charts”) are frequently employed by parents to deal with their young children’s undesirable behaviors. When administered properly, a reward chart is a powerful parenting tool. However, in too many cases, reward charts fail because of a few common errors. Below I have listed common mistakes that parents can make in setting up a reward chart. Dr. Alan Kazdin’s book The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child is an excellent resource for how to set up an effective reward chart program.


Mistake 1: The focus is on eliminating negative behaviors rather than focusing on increasing positive behaviors.


Take, for example, an eight year-old boy who exhibits explosive temper tantrums. A sticker chart in which the boy gets points for going the whole day (or even part of the day) without tantrum is less likely to be effective than one in which the child gets points for engaging in a positive behavior that is incompatible with a temper tantrum. Let’s say, in our example, a tantrum is most likely to occur when the boy needs to leave for school. A chart could be made in which the boy gets points for getting dressed for school on his own and on time. There are two key benefits to having the chart focus on the presence of a desired behavior rather than on the absence of a negative one: 1. When you focus on stopping an undesirable behavior, you don’t know what behavior will come in its place. Maybe it will be a desired behavior like brushing his teeth, but maybe it will be another undesirable behavior like getting into a fight with his brother. 2. It is much easier for a child to succeed if he can focus on doing something to achieve a reward, than it is if he has to succeed by stopping himself from doing something (like not having a tantrum).


Mistake 2: The initial goals are too big.


If the initial goal of the reward chart is, for example, to end all tantrums, it is almost certainly going to fail. First, most children have at least an occasional tantrum, so the goal of ending all tantrums is virtually impossible to achieve. When parents set goals for their kids’ behavior that does not accurately reflect what a child is capable of given his/her developmental age, everyone involved is going to be frustrated and the reward chart abandoned. Second, because selecting modest initial goals helps increase the likelihood of achieving the goals, it creates conditions in which success on the smaller goals builds a momentum of success with which to tackle larger goals. In the example above, the parents’ knowledge of what are common triggers of tantrums allows them to select a specific trigger to focus their initial reward chart on.


Mistake 3: Keeping up with the chart places too big an “administrative” demand on parent.


Parents of challenging boys often feel completely spent. The idea of adding another administrative demand to their already busy exhausting lives can seem overwhelming. It is crucial, therefore, that a reward chart be constructed so that the parents feel able to follow through on it. Too many reward charts fail because parents lose their motivation to keep up with it. It is easy to lose motivation with a reward chart. Behavior change does not occur overnight. It takes some time. Behavior change does not occur linearly. One day may be great followed by a day where the problematic behavior returns. One important way to make a chart less of a demand on the parents and easier to follow through on is to make it simple. In the example above, the parents only need to chart whether their son gets dressed for school on his own and one practice session during the day (see below). A second way to make the chart less demanding is to have days off. In our example, the parents and son will take the weekend off. Dr. Kazdin says that a reward chart can be effective even if it is used only one or two days per week. It is better to administer your reward chart consistently only a couple of days per week than to use it every day but be inconsistent on some days.


Mistake 4: Rewards are too hard or too easy to get.


The selection of rewards is an important part of building an effective reward chart program. Rewards need to be small, but desirable to the child. They need to be priced, especially initially, low enough so that a successful day yields enough points to enable a child to buy a reward. As the program builds momentum, more desirable rewards that require some saving of points can be added in. Rewards that are priced to require more than a few days of point savings should not be used because they weaken the link between the desired behavior and the reward. However, Dr. Kazdin does recommend having a big reward for the program. All points earned in the program (even those that are spent on smaller rewards are counted) are totaled towards reaching the big reward. The big reward should be priced so that it can be earned in a minimum of two weeks (with perfect completion of the chart), but more likely it will take a little longer because, as I mentioned above, behavior change is not linear.


Mistake 5: The child is not given chances to be rewarded for “practicing.”


Most parents do not include opportunities for practice in their reward charts. Dr. Kazdin stresses that rewarded practice is a key ingredient in a successful reward chart program. In the example above, at some point in the day after school, the boy would have the opportunity to “practice” getting ready for school. This practice might involve his changing into his pajamas with a parent’s help and then he is left to put his day clothes back on. If this practice is completed successfully then he gets points. Again, keeping in mind the need to keep administrative demands on the parents low, the chart for the boy in the example might include an opportunity to earn two points for one successful practice per day and two points for actually getting ready for school.


Cultivating Positive Parenting

Carl Rogers was one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century and his work, along with that of Abraham Maslow, formed the basis for the creation of today’s Positive Psychology movement. In 1957, Rogers described what he believed were the necessary and sufficient conditions for positive personality development to occur. Fifty years later they are still fresh and important observations and worth reading by any parent.

Condition 1: Parent and child need to be in contact with each other.

This first condition refers to the need that all children, especially young children, have for their parent’s full and undivided attention. “Hey mom, hey dad, look at me …look what I can do” we frequently hear our children say. In our busy lives it is so easy to get distracted by keeping on top of our very full to do lists that we don’t give our children our full attention. Parents do need time for themselves, they do need to attend to work and the demands of running the house, and they do need to pay attention to each other and siblings. Fortunately with our full attention, a little goes a long way. Just ten to fifteen minutes a day of being fully present with your child engaged in some kind of play that is meaningful to the child can yield great benefits. Being fully present with our children also gives a lot back to us. It helps us reconnect with the child in us and helps us to feel more joy, spontaneity, and creativity. On the negative side, a lack of this type of parental contact can contribute to bad behavior from the child. Children want our full attention so much that they prefer our full negative attention to no attention at all. When they are obnoxious or tantruming we snap to and pay attention, but in a way that leaves everyone feeling badly.

Condition 2: Genuineness

In Rogers’ words, genuineness (he also called it “congruence”) means that the parent “within the [parent-child] relationship … is freely and deeply himself, with his actual experience accurately represented by his awareness of himself. It is the opposite of presenting a façade, either knowingly or unknowingly.” You can see from the definition of genuineness, that it is an ideal to be strived for. As Rogers says “it is not necessary (nor is it possible) that the [parent] be a paragon who exhibits this degree of integration, of wholeness, in every aspect of life” or in every interaction with his or her child. It is important that the parent strive to maintain this attitude as often as possible when he or she is in relational contact with his or her child. Rogers is further careful to point out that this includes the parent “being himself even in ways which are not regarded as ideal.” For example, a parent’s experience in a moment with his or her child may be “I wish I was at work instead of here with my child” or “I am so angry I feel like hitting this child” or “I can’t take anymore of this neediness.” Of course these are not feelings to be acted on, or communicated to your child. However, in Rogers’s view, it is important the parent not deny the presence of these feelings. It is when we deny the presence of a feeling, that we are at the greatest risk of putting it into unconstructive action.

To the extent that the parent is genuine and does not need to deny any aspect of his or her experience, he or she will likewise not feel a need to deny aspect of his child’s experience. He will not need to impose his denial on his child, nor will he require that his child deny himself and his experience for the child’s sake. One of the ways that we harm our children is that we require that they, for the sake of our own unresolved psychological issues, deny themselves in order to protect us. Similarly, Deepak Chopra has argued that we most often reach for punishments and limits around our own denied and unresolved feelings.

Condition 3: Unconditional Positive Regard

The third condition is that the parent should hold the child in “unconditional positive regard.” Rogers defined unconditional positive regard as

experiencing a warm acceptance of each aspect of the [child’s] experience as being a part of that child. … It means that there are no conditions of acceptance. … It involves as much feeling of acceptance for the [child’s] expression of negative, “bad,” painful, fearful, defensive, abnormal feelings as for his expression of “good,” positive, mature, confident, social feelings … It means caring for the [child], but not in a possessive way or in a way as simply to satisfy the [parent’s] own needs. It means a caring for the [child] as a separate person, with permission to have his own feelings, his own experiences

Like genuineness, unconditional positive regard is to be strived for, but is present more in degrees. It is the foundation of all relationships that lead to growth. It frees the other person and demands that the other person please him or herself and not us. We give our prizing freely.

Condition 4: Empathy

Rogers’s next condition is empathy. It is important for the parent to have as clear a sense as possible of what the child is experiencing. That is, to have

an accurate, empathic understanding of the [child’s] awareness of his own experience. To sense the [child’s] world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the “as if” quality. … To sense the [child’s] anger, fear, or confusion as if it were your own, yet without your own anger, fear, or confusion getting bound up in it.

This isn’t always easy to do. Having empathy for a child can be difficult because children think differently from how adults do. Also, finding out what a child is experiencing is difficult because children generally do not liked to be asked too many questions about their experiences. They feel interrogated. Generally you must start with how you might feel, if you were the in child’s shoes and check it by saying something to the child out of that understanding and see how the child responds. The child’s response gives you your feedback. Having an empathic understanding of the other person aids in communication greatly. It helps you know how to present yourself and your ideas to the other so that you are most likely to be understood. The sincere effort to come to a clear understanding of the other person, so long as it is not experienced as intrusive, is a very positive, caring act that is usually improves the mood of the other person. The work of forming an empathic understanding and then reflecting it back to the child is very orienting to the child. He or she feels that you understand, that you care, that you don’t judge, and that you accept his or her feelings.

Another aspect of communicating empathy is emotional tone. For the child to feel that you are with him or her, the right emotional tone needs to be present. Harvey Karp demonstrates this powerfully in his Happiest Toddler DVD. He soothes the tantruming toddler by getting in the feeling and repeating it over and over. This is very calming to the child who now doesn’t feel that he or she needs to ramp up his or her display of feeling further to be heard. He or she no longer feels alone in the feeling and can calm down.

The Power of Positive Parenting: Gottman’s Magic Ratio

Marriage and family researcher, John Gottman, has observed that spouses in happy, stable marriages engage in positive expressions of feelings and actions towards each other about five times as often as they engage in negative expressions. He has labeled this 5 to 1 ratio as the “Magic Ratio.” Gottman has found that couples who do not maintain a 5 to 1 ratio, even if they engage in more positive expressions of feelings than negative ones, are at risk of heading down the slippery slope towards breaking up. Consistent positive expressions of love, respect and affection keep love nurtured. When conflicts do arise in these positive “5 to 1” marriages, there is a reservoir of good will which sustains the couple through the difficult work of resolving the conflict and prevents things from escalating to a destructive level.

Gottman’s magic ratio is a valuable rule of thumb for parents to apply in their relationships with their children. Children develop best and parent-child relationships are most harmonious when parents engage in the expression of positive feelings towards their children about five times as often as they engage in negative expressions such as correction and criticism. Parent-child relationships which are consistently positive form the basis for the development of confidence, healthy self-esteem, and resilience. Relationships that are not experienced by children as clearly positive can lead to anxiety, communication difficulties, and problems with discipline.

Children form their sense of self, especially early on in life, primarily from how their parents interact with them. When parents’ words, feelings and actions consistently convey to the child positive messages, such as “you are good, you are loved, you are wanted,” the child absorbs those feelings and develops an internal voice that consistently says, “I am good, I am loveable, I am wanted.” A positive sense of self buffers a child against many of the risks and dangers of being a child in this complicated time. There is no need for self-destructive behavior. Self-destructive behavior grows out of a belief that one does not deserve to be well taken care of and out of anger directed at oneself for being unworthy. Eating disorders, obesity, risky sexual behaviors, abuse of alcohol and drugs, underperforming at school can all be minimized when the need for self punishment and self destructiveness aren’t present.

Consistent positivity also encourages a child to internalize an optimistic worldview. Feeling that ones parents are consistently on ones side gives children the courage to go out into the world and do new things, to strive to do well, and to not let anxiety stop them from going after what they want. Optimists are more popular, more confident, have more professional success, and are less vulnerable to experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression than are pessimists. Optimists expect good experiences to occur across all parts of life. Setbacks are not internalized and are much more easily bounced back from.

Consistent positivity also promotes good, close feelings in the relationship between parent and child. Negative emotional expressions from parents not only encourage the development of a negative self image in the child, but also a negative image of the parent. The child of a less positive parent is less likely to turn to the parent for support and comfort and the parent’s critical words are ignored because the parent is seen as a consistent source of negative noise. Positivity, paradoxically, creates circumstances in which parents’ words (even the occasional necessary critical ones) are taken more seriously. In effect the child thinks “my parent is always on my side and wouldn’t say this thing if it wasn’t real and important.” As a result, a 5 to 1 positive to negative ratio helps create the conditions where kids are more likely to be cooperative and more likely to listen and respond when a parent does have a complaint.

An important factor in maintaining a 5 to 1 magic ratio in your relationships with your spouse and children is remembering that an expression of feeling or an action only count as positive if they are experienced by the other person as positive. Just because something seems positive to you, or would feel positive to you, it doesn’t mean that your kids will or should experience it similarly. Finding the right ingredients for the positive side of the ratio takes some study. Observe your kids reactions to your words and actions. Ask your friends what they do for their kids. Don’t over look what seem like small things. Sometimes simply remaining calm and not overreacting can have incredible effects.

Something that surprises many people about maintaining the positive 5 to 1 ratio is that what you think about your kids matters, even if you don’t ever say it. If you believe that your kids are lazy, selfish, irresponsible, etc., even if you never call them any of these things, it will have a damaging impact on your positive to negative ratio. What we think influences what we see. If we think our child is lazy, we can’t help but selectively notice the times he or she acts in a lazy way and notice fewer of the times that he or she is industrious. What we think about our child also influences how we act. If we think our child is irresponsible, even if we never say so directly, we might subtly express that lack of trust by not giving our child opportunities to be responsible. So, even if you don’t verbalize your negative view of your child, the message gets through loud and clear through these subtle cues.

It takes effort to maintain a healthy, growth promoting balance of 5 to 1 positive to negative. In our busy lives the pull is actually towards a ratio of less than 5 to 1. The things we feel our children need to be corrected on grab our attention and demand to be addressed. They will be addressed regardless of how little time there is. The positive things do not demand attention in the same way. Steven Covey talks about how a value centered life requires effort on fostering the non-urgent but essentially important activities of life. Urgent important things – such as the problem of the moment (a sibling fight, a bad grade) – get our attention because they demand it. Many parent child relationships, in fact, get into destructive patterns because the parents aren’t paying enough attention to the positive things that their children are doing and thereby create a circumstance where their children must engage in negative behaviors to get their parents attention. Focusing on the positive five times for every problem or complaint that is addressed takes intention, attention and effort. It needs to become a healthy habit, like exercise and eating right.

Positive interactions to increase:

Paying Attention to Your Child (especially when he or she is doing something positive):

Be empathic (but hold firm to limits).

Be respectful and accepting of all feelings.

Maintain a positive view of your child.

Always be on your child’s side.

Negative behaviors to decrease.

Eliminate Criticism (use precise complaints that focus on behaviors rather than criticisms of the child’s character).

Get rid of blame.

Minimize sarcasm, never express contempt.