At the playground recently, I watched a mom try to cajole her 6- or 7-year-old daughter into leaving behind some branches she had dragged to the car. When her patience ran out, she spoke firmly. “Sarah, you heard me. No sticks in the car. It’s time to go.” Her daughter exploded. Screaming in rage, she flung the branches at her, kicked the car door, burst into tears and ran off to the opposite side of the playground to sulk.

Why is it that some children cope reasonably well when limits are placed on their behavior while others erupt in emotional fireworks?  Recent findings in neuroscience have contributed to a new understanding of the cognitive make-up of “extra-challenging” children. According to Dr. Ross Greene, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, it is a mistake to think of kids like Sarah as willfully oppositional, manipulative or unmotivated to do better. Rather, they are children who lag behind their peers “in the development of crucial cognitive skills such as flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance and problem-solving.”

The intense reactions that set our teeth on edge are actually distress signals indicating that the child’s mental circuits are overloaded and unable to cope. All children feel this way occasionally—when they are tired, hungry or sick, for example. But children who consistently flare up in situations that require flexible thinking and adaptive behavior most likely do so because they have not yet developed the cognitive skill set that’s needed.  

Children who consistently flare up in situations that require flexible thinking and adaptive behavior most likely do so because they have not yet developed the cognitive skill set that’s needed.

Limits That Teach, Rather Than Punish

Conventional tactics for controlling children’s behavior, such as rules and punishments, sometimes work in the short term but ultimately backfire with extra-challenging kids because they don’t address their lagging cognitive skills. In order to develop the flexibility necessary to respect limits, extra-challenging children need more opportunities to participate in resolving  conflicts.

Clinicians such as Greene recommend collaborative problem solving as the most effective way to establish limits with extra-challenging children. Not only does this method help curb out-of-bounds behavior in the short term, it also fosters the long-term development of coping skills that will prepare the child for the challenges of life.

Choose Your Battles and Prepare for Them in Advance

When setting limits with (not for) your extra-challenging child, remember the three “P”s of Prevention:

  1. Stay Positive. Research shows that positive reinforcement works far better than punishment in modifying behavior.
  2. Be Proactive. Telling your child in advance what you expect will enable her to plan rather than just react. With practice, this shift will strengthen the brain functions governing self-regulation.
  3. Set Priorities. Focus your efforts on resolving no more than two or three problem situations at a time in order to build on successes and maintain the positive momentum.

Battle With the Problem, Not the Child

Patterns in your child’s behavior will help pinpoint the skills she lacks. What types of situations usually cause trouble? When she is asked to stop a pleasurable activity? When she is being rushed? When a sibling invades her space? Are there more specific triggers, such as being told to turn off the computer or TV?

Begin the conversation by letting your child know you are on her side and want to help. Empathize with her position. “I can see how much you enjoy that new computer game. No wonder you feel disappointed when your time is up.” State your own concerns clearly and in impersonal, nonjudgmental language: “I feel anxious when computer time goes on longer than we agreed because I worry that there won’t be enough time for the other things on your schedule.” Show that you want to solve the problem (rather than control the child) by asking for her input. “I’m not sure how to fix this situation. I’d love to hear your ideas.”

Close Your Mouth and Open Your Ears

Now is the time to listen—really listen—to your child’s perspective. When we take the time to hear and understand the child’s needs and desires and make a reasonable effort to accommodate them, we set a positive example for extra-challenging kids. We model the adaptability, respect and cooperation we would like to see them practice.

In most cases, the child’s perception of the problem holds the key to a lasting solution. Often, it is far simpler than you think. For example, the child who melts down when told to turn off the computer may have lost all track of time. She might need a visual clock, such as the Time Timer,  to mentally prepare to shut down. Or, it could be that completing one level of her favorite computer game takes longer than the time allowed. Through discussion, the child and parent might agree on a longer period of computer time in exchange for fewer days each week.

Collaboration on the Fly

What about situations you can’t plan for in advance? Collaborative problem solving can be done, even in the thick of the struggle. The mother I observed at the playground might have helped her son to keep his intense feelings under control by first empathizing with him and asking for more information. (“Wow! You found a lot of sticks. What do you plan to do with them?”) If he wanted to build a fort, she could have expressed her concerns and asked for his ideas. (“A fort would be cool. They’re too dirty to go in the car. Where else would they be safe till you’re ready to build?”) Together, they might have found an out-of-the-way spot to stash his building materials and then had an enthusiastic discussion of ideas for the structure as they left the playground.

Whatever the problem, a collaborative approach can help parent and child find a solution that works for both, while also providing the training and practice extra-challenging kids need to adapt their behavior to the needs of the situation.

Robyn Des Roches is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program, which offers classes and workshops on topics such as anger management and parenting extra-challenging children.