Conquering Behavior Challenges With Collaborative Problem Solving

By Timothy Gunn, Psy.D.

Think Kids

Some children just seem to have more behavioral challenges than average, in spite of excellent parenting. They might be chronically agitated, have low tolerance for frustration and minor schedule changes or frequently argue with or actively defy the adult authority figures in their lives. These children are often in trouble at school and other extracurricular activities, resulting in frequent phone calls to their exasperated parents.

To add insult to injury, these parents are keenly aware of the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) implications from other adults that their child’s behavior is linked to poor parenting. The parents are told they must be more consistent and structured in administering both praise and appropriate discipline.

The idea is that the child is simply unmotivated to behave appropriately, and that with the right rewards and/or punishments, the child’s behavior will change. Unfortunately, many parents have found this is not the case. Some children do not respond to these reward/punishment-based strategies and, in fact, attempting to apply them only seems to increase the amount of conflict in the home.

Thankfully, a newer strategy for working with such children has emerged in recent years. Typically referred to as Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS), this model, created by J. Stuart Ablon and Ross Greene, suggests a child with behavior problems is not unmotivated to behave appropriately, but is unable to behavior appropriately because of delays in the development of critical thinking skills. This is much the same as how a child with a reading disorder is not unmotivated to read, but simply lacks critical cognitive skills that allow her or him to do so.

Specifically, children with behavior challenges tend to be delayed in the development of executive functioning, language processing, emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility and social skills. Collaborative Problem Solving is designed to reduce conflict, satisfy the concerns of both the adult and the child and solve the immediate problem, all while teaching the child necessary thinking skills so he or she will be able to resolve problems independently in the future.

Parents using the CPS approach should discuss the child’s behavior problem directly with the child at a time when he or she is calm and outside of the actual environment where the behavior typically occurs. For example, a child’s tantrums about having to eat vegetables at dinner should be discussed sometime other than dinnertime – ideally at a time when the child is most calm and relaxed, perhaps just before bedtime, after a shower, while riding in the car or after reading a book. This helps remove the emotional sensitivity to the situation, making it more likely that parents and child will be able to have a rational conversation.

During the conversation, three equally important steps should take place.

  1. The parents need to gain understanding of the problem from the child’s perspective and express empathy for the child’s difficulty.
  2. The parents need to state their concern, distinguishing it very clearly from their solutions. For example, “My concern is that you have to eat your vegetables” is a solution, not a concern. “My concern is that you have some healthy foods in your diet” is much closer to an accurate concern, while, “My concern is that you have a healthy lifestyle” is even better.
  3. The child’s and parents’ concerns should be restated, and the parents should invite the child to think of mutually satisfactory solutions. The parent might say, for example, “I wonder if there is a way that we can make sure you make your own choices about what you eat and still have a healthy lifestyle. Can you think of any ideas?” As many ideas as possible should be discussed, but any solution that solves the problem in a mutually satisfactory way and is realistic could be implemented.

This process helps the child engage several areas of cognitive functioning, including the ability to think flexibly, to preemptively solve problems, to take the perspective of others and to generate multiple solutions to problems. Even if the child does not generate a workable solution, the parents have communicated to the child that they are interested in working together rather than simply imposing demands, that the child’s concerns are important and that the adults believe the child is capable of coming up with valuable ideas.

Research on parents who have implemented Collaborative Problem Solving has found that it significantly decreased the amount of conflict in the home and increased parents’ feelings of effectiveness and ability. Learn more about CPS by visiting or reading “Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach,” by Ross W. Greene and J. Stuart Ablon (The Guilford Press, 2005).

Dr. GunnTimothy Gunn, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist with several offices in the L.A. area. He provides assessment services for children and adults. Learn more at

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