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Psychologist: Don’t Try to Control Your Kids, Influence Them

  • Faiza Elmasry

FILE - A man walks with his children during unseasonably warm weather in Washington, Feb. 22, 2017.

To discipline their misbehaving children, parents may use techniques like giving a time out, taking away favorite activities, or spanking. But child psychologist Ross Greene says this controlling style of parenting is not effective. In his recent book, "Raising Human Beings," he explains why and makes a case for rethinking common approaches to disciplining children. He suggests a different approach, which he calls collaborative parenting.

Control vs. Influence

Throughout his career, Ross Greene has noticed that most parents try to control their kids. He doesn’t support that. He says parents don’t need to control, they need to influence their children.

And the way to do that, he says, is to create a collaborative partnership: parents should listen to their kids, take their concerns into account and help children benefit from their parents’ experiences and values.

“A lot of us were raised by parents who were more oriented toward power and control,” he notes. “If they start moving toward collaboration and influence, they feel like they’re losing control, but the reality is they didn’t have control in the first place.”

When parents try to control their kids, they use strategies that are oriented around power.

“[They are using] time out, adult imposed consequences, in schools [they use] detention, suspension, expulsion, hitting. That’s power," he observes, and points out why that doesn't work. "Number one, power doesn’t really solve the problems that are causing the behaviors that we’re using those strategies on in the first place. Number two, power causes kids to stop talking to us, to feel like we’re not listening. And those are not good outcomes, if we want to have a relationship with our kids, if we want to communicate with them and especially if we want to have influence and partner with them on solving the problems that are affecting their lives.”

Collaborative parenting

After 20 years as a child psychologist at Harvard, Greene left the academic life to set up Lives in Balance, a non-profit that focuses on kids with significant behavioral problems. That's where he developed his Collaborative and Proactive Solutions parenting model.

The more research he’s done over the years, the more convinced he’s become that this model is also effective in raising kids who have less challenging behavioral problems.

Rather than viewing certain behavior as bad, he counsels parents to see it as an indication that the child has trouble meeting expectations for a certain situation. With Greene’s model, parents can start helping the child get to the real problem behind the misbehavior.

“I find it more productive to focus on the unsolved problems than it is to focus on the behaviors that are caused by those problems,” he explains. “If all you do is focus on the behavior, you might improve the behavior a little bit, but the problems are still not getting solved.”

Step by step

The collaborative parenting model consists of three steps. Greene lays them out in his book, Raising Human Beings, Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child.

1. Empathy. “This is where we’re gathering information from the kid so us to achieve the clearest possible understanding on the unsolved problem or unmet expectation we’re talking with him about. Kids have information we very badly need. So often we adults think of solutions without even figuring out what is getting in the kid’s way in the first place. So the empathy step is crucial.”

2. Define Adult Concerns. In this step, the adult restates the expectation the child is having a difficulty meeting. Let’s say the kid is having difficulty doing his math homework, or waking up in the morning or showing respect to his teachers and classmates at school. Then the parents can express their concern about these unsolved problems by focusing on how they are affecting the child and/or others.The second step is where the adult shares his or her concern about the issue.

3. Invitation. “This is where the kid and the adult are collaborating on a solution, but a solution that has to meet a very important criteria. It has to address the concerns of both parties."

"A lot of the times the parents try to solve a problem with a kid, they try to do it in the heat of the moment, reactively," Greene says, adding, "That is completely unnecessary. One of the beautiful things about this model is that it takes us not only away from power and control; it also gets us out of the heat of the moment when both the kids and adults are at their worst, and helps us start solving these problems collaboratively and proactively. That’s a better way to go.”

A lifetime relationship

Adopting a collaborative and proactive parenting style, Greene says, offers an opportunity for parents to enhance communication, improve the relationship with their kids and prepare them for a lot of what lies ahead in the real world. It’s also a chance for parents to model the qualities and skills they want their kids to acquire.

“Skills like empathy, appreciating how one’s behavior is affecting other people, resolving disagreements without conflicts, and taking another person’s perspective, and honesty. We don’t want to wait until people are adults to start worry about those skills. We want to start teaching them as early as possible to our kids in the ways that we parent.”

Child psychologist Ross Greene says the best outcomes happen when parents realize that their role is more than dealing with their kids’ problem behavior. It’s about partnering with their children so they become the best adults they can be.

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