Collaborative Problem Solving for Challenging, Easily Frustrated and Explosive Kids

Frustrated and explosive kids

As adults, we all like our ideas listened to, acknowledged and validated. On the flip side, as adults, we often fail to appreciate that children and teens feel the same way. Recognizing that even children as young as four years old appreciate validation and the opportunity to express their ideas, can help us not only to teach children and teens to problem solve, but can also create harmony and easier home lives.

With this concept in mind, Dr. J. Stuart Abalon and Dr. Ross Greene established The Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) Institute (2002) in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. Following this,  Dr Abalon of has through his research, further developed and promoted the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach to handling tricky situations with children and teens. Dr Abalon’s approach is particularly useful for children and teens whom we traditionally think of as “explosive.” The CPS approach has been clinically proven to help children, teens and their parents to problem solve by enabling the child or teen to generate and verbally express their solutions to problems that are being experienced at home, at school or at play. The approach has been found to be effective for children and teens with a wide range of emotional, social and behavioural challenges in many different settings including the family home. Using this approach can go a long way toward creating a happy home with less tension and is proven to teach the important skill of collaboration.

Kids do well if they can

Dr. Abalon maintains that “kids do well if they can,” in other words, when we provide the tools and skills, kids can do well. This idea is very different from  the more traditional view that kids do well when they want to. All kids want to be good and want to be perceived as good, but some struggle more than others because they lack the problem solving skills they need to enable them to be “good.”

Let kids generate their own solutions

The basic premise of the approach is to allow kids to generate their own solutions to problems experienced at home or in other settings. The adult will begin a conversation in a non judgemental non accusatory way by stating something like, “I’ve noticed that……what’s up with that?” It is then important to wait for a response without interrupting. It is also important to reassure the child or teen that they are “not in trouble.” The adult would follow by stating the issue (again – non accusatory, impartial; just state the issue), and then ask the child or teen how they feel, or what they think about the issue. Waiting patiently at this point is quite critical and it could take some time. It is also very important to use active listening to let the child or teen know that you are listening to their perspective attentively.

Once the adult has a very clear idea of the child or teen’s perspective, they can ask  the child or teen if they have any suggestions to improve the situation. This could take some time too and any ideas generated by the child or teen should be listened to, appreciated and validated. The method has three parts called plan A, plan B and plan C, it is strengths based  and has been scientifically proven to have actual neurological benefits. It is generally not used during a highly charged or  explosive situation but proactively when the child or teen is more able to be receptive and involved in a collaborative discussion.  Although the method does take some practice to perfect, parents who learn to use this method effectively will be doing their children and teens a great service by teaching them how to problem solve without exploding or exhibiting other undesirable behaviour.

Adopt the collaborative method to solve problems

The collaborative problem solving method does take some time and practice to perfect but it is well worth the effort. Moms and dads using CPS are often surprised at how this method begins to change the way they themselves problem solve in all areas of their lives. A great resource to find out more about how to implement CPS is found on Dr Stuart Abalon’s website

Two books on the subject are The Explosive Child by Ross Greene; a helpful book for parenting “easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children,” and Lost at School, another book by Dr. Greene which describes why behaviourally challenged school kids are struggling and ”falling through the cracks.” Both these books are well worth reading if you are parenting a challenging, easily frustrated or explosive child or teen.

Delphine is a dedicated child and adolescent mental health professional with a strong family support aptitude. She holds a masters degree in child and adolescent mental health and multiple professional development including CPS Tier I & II and cognitive behavioural therapy for children and teens.

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