In the Trenches

In this section, Dr. Greene posts answers to a sampling of the questions he's received from parents and teachers related to challenging episodes kids in general and his Collaborative & Proactive Solutions approach specifically. The content changes from time to time, so you'll want to check back regularly. If you'd like to submit a question, just click here.

Parent: I'm trying desperately to implement Dr. Greene's model in my home after years of trying to impose my will. As you might expect, it is not going smoothly. At this point the blow ups are as bad as ever: physical and verbal aggression, damage to property, all happening multiple times a week. Any suggestions on how to minimize the damage while trying to establish Plan B habits? I used to give long groundings from electronics and friends, but found that was minimally effective. I've resorted to giving no additional consequences, but it feels like I have even less control now. I fear for the impact that this is having on my other child. I really struggle with "allowing" my child to treat us the way he does. I'm not accustomed to tolerating people being physically and verbally aggressive towards me.

I'm trying to focus on the unsolved problem of him getting school work done. I believe he lacks the skills to complete hours of homework after meeting expectations all day at school. For kids who have the skills to stay on top of their homework, the demands aren’t unreasonable. But for my son, it starts really adding up. He wants to have fun and play. I want those things for him too. Yet the reality is that school work is a priority. I can't fathom the idea of letting him play video games and socialize when I know he has mounting late assignments. We've tried letting him have time to do those things first, but then when it comes time to do the work there is usually a meltdown. He does better when it is the other way around, the work is required first and then the play. However, getting the work done is usually very painful and more often lately it doesn't get fully completed.

Thoughts? I want to make the approach work. I wish I had an expert telling me at all times what to do!

Dr. Greene: You’ve asked several very important questions. With regard to minimizing the damage while you’re trying to establish Plan B habits, the model provides two options: more Plan C (meaning dropping low-priority unsolved problems) and less Plan A (meaning far less imposition of adult will). In using Plan B, you’re not allowing your son to treat you badly (even though it might feel that way sometimes)...rather, you’re putting your energy into solving the problems that are precipitating challenging episodes (and causing your son to treat you badly). The challenging episodes (and bad treatment) should end once those problems are solved.

Some things seem pretty clear about the high-priority unsolved problem of homework. Plan A -- imposing your will -- isn't getting the job done. Plan A doesn't clarify why the homework demands are so unreasonable for your son, hasn't solved the problem (the homework still isn't being completed reliably) and only sets in motion your son's worst behavior. Plan C -- dropping the homework expectation completely so your son can just have fun and play -- also wouldn't clarify what it is about the homework that is so hard for your son and wouldn't solve the problem, but would reduce the likelihood of your son's worst behavior. With Plan B, you're gathering information from your son so as to truly understand what’s making homework completion so difficult for him, making sure your concern is entered into consideration, and coming up with a solution that addresses his concerns and yours (and therefore solving the problem durably). Naturally, I think Plan B is going to be your best long-term strategy, even though it could take a while before you have a viable solution in place. I don't think Plan B is going to take anywhere near the amount of time Plan A has consumed.

If this answer doesn’t get you all the way there, feel free to call in to my weekly, web-based radio program for parents, which would permit me to gather more information and provide you with more explicit guidance. Recorded versions of earlier programs can be found in that section of this website.


Parent: I have a 9-year old daughter who has multiple diagnoses and issues. She struggles with generalized anxiety disorder and sensory integration disorder and was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum as a young child. We have tried everything to help her with her explosive episodes with absolutely no improvement whatsoever over the long-term. I am reading your book Lost at School and I truly believe that the approach that you describe is exactly what we are looking for. The problem is that, when I try to do Plan B, she refuses to speak to me and screams, "I don't want to talk about it!" I have tried to talk to her at a later time, when she is not "in crisis" but she seems to talk in code and will talk about things surrounding the issue but it's hard to get to the actual thing that is causing the difficulty. So we never seem to have success with the "What's up?" stage of the Empathy step because she flatly refuses to talk about it. What can I do to get her to communicate with me?

I see so much of her in so many of the case studies in your book. I've also read another book entitled What Your Explosive Child is Trying to Tell You, but I find that approach too heavy on rewards and punishments. To be honest, that book describes exactly what we've tried to do over the years and none of it has been helpful. If anything, those approaches have exacerbated her difficulties. She is becoming more and more explosive at home and at school and I'm not sure what to do. The teachers call me to come and pick her up from school early because they can't handle her but I am just getting back into the work force again and I can't be available to work if they're going to continually call me to pick her up. Help!

Dr. Greene: Many parents with whom I've worked have had experiences similar to yours. First, they've found that rewarding and punishing hasn't led to a productive outcome with their behaviorally challenging child. And second, they've found that the Empathy step of Plan B can be a little rocky, especially as it relates to gathering information from their child about an unsolved problem. There are a variety of possibilities to consider when a child is having difficulty providing us with information in the Empathy step. Here are some: - the “neutral observation” part of the Empathy step may not have been very neutral and may have sounded too much like Plan A - the unsolved problem you're trying to work on may be too vague, so your daughter isn't exactly sure what you're trying to gather information about - you may be using Plan B emergently rather than proactively; thus, you're trying to gather information when your daughter is already heated up - your daughter may think you're mad at her and may need some reassurance that you're not - your daughter may be having difficulty communicating her concerns due to lagging language-processing skills

Perhaps one or more of these possibilities applies? The fact that your daughter is also having difficulties at school indicates that there are multiple environments in which the demands being placed on her exceed her capacity to respond adaptively (and further suggesting that there are quite a few unsolved problems to be addressed).

As I suggested to the parent above, do feel free to call in to my weekly web-based radio program for parents. It airs live every Monday at 11 am Eastern would give me an opportunity to more easily gather the information I'd need to help you more specifically.


Parent: My 9-year old son has been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). We are trying Plan B in our home, however your way of understanding children and collaboratively solving problems isn't practiced in our local schools. It is very much Plan A and I'm concerned about not only my own son's developmental/academic progress, but also the other children in the same boat. There is a lot of demanding respect, adhering to the rules, following directions, etc., but no one’s trying to identify my son’s concerns. At the principal/administrative level, it's almost worse. My son's reputation is that he's the troublemaker. He doesn't feel he can go to an authority figure about his concerns. Please help me! I want to advocate for him and for this process. It's worth it!! Thank You!

Dr. Greene: You're describing an all-too-familiar scenario. That's why I wrote the book Lost at School. The question is whether there’s a way for you to diplomatically introduce my approach to the key players at your son’s school. You might want to think about which person at the school would be most receptive to the information. His teacher? The school principal? The guidance counselor or school psychologist? You’re looking for someone who’s open-minded and can guide you on how to best advocate on your son’s behalf. You may need an educational consultant or mental health professional to assist. But I've also devoted several segments of my web-based radio program for parents to the can listen by clicking here. Do let me know if there are other ways in which I can be helpful.


Parent: My son is most definitely developmentally delayed behaviorally, but very smart. He has had signs of ADHD since he was 9 months old. We have chosen natural solutions with supplements, behavior modification, consistency, etc., but recently his behavior has shifted to frustration and aggression. Trust me...he knows what to do, but in a school setting is completely overwhelmed. We're scheduled to meet with his pediatrician...should we medicate or not?

Dr. Greene:I think it may not matter so much what label is applied to your son's difficulties but rather how his difficulties are understood. As you read in the article, I think the best way to understand kids' challenging behavior is through the prism of lagging skills and unsolved problems. I suspect the reason he’s feeling overwhelmed at school is because there are problems he’s not sure how to solve and demands for skills he’s lacking. Many kids who are hyperactive, impulsive, and/or inattentive do benefit enormously from medication, but that's a tough decision and one you'll want to discuss in some depth with your pediatrician. You’ll want to be sure to check out all the resources on this website, too. But you can always email back if you have additional questions!


Parent: I recently read your book, Lost at School and attended one of your recent lectures. I'm finding that Plan B is working well for certain specific incidents. But our major problem is that our son is overly physical with our daughter, often pushing, hitting or tackling her or just "smothering" her with love. Sometimes, like when she grabs a toy which he wants, there is an obvious trigger. But sometimes there isn't. He'll be seemingly in a great mood, she'll just walk by and he'll take her out, for example. I've tried asking him repeatedly why he hurts his sister and he can't think of an answer or will change the subject. Are my questions too broad? Is he too young to "get to" his own feelings about why the very presence of his sister is such a trigger for him? He seems to love her a lot, but he can't control himself around her, whereas at school, for example, he is controlling himself quite well (in marked improvement over last year). Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Dr. Greene: I've moved away from the word "trigger," for it implies that whatever is setting challenging behavior in motion occurred immediately prior to the event, and that’s often not the case. So I prefer "unsolved problems" instead...and the fact that your son is overly physical with your daughter sounds like a pretty specific unsolved problem to me. As I mentioned above, sometimes kids don’t provide the information we’re seeking in the Empathy step because we’ve been too vague (or broad) in inquiring. So you may want to inquire about a specific situation in which he’s overly physical with her rather than trying to gather information about being overly physical in general. That might make the information-gathering process more productive. I don't think you're interested in his feelings on the topic per se...rather, you're interested in gathering information about the conditions in which he's being overly physical and his perspective on why it happens...and then collaborating on a solution based on the information you gather. Be sure to let me know how it goes!


Parent: I attended one of your recent conferences and was anxious to restart using Plan B (have attempted in the past) as soon as I got home. We've been struggling with getting my 14-year old son up in the morning for school. Every morning was a battle. I had made assumptions about why he didn't want to get up. I knew he didn't like going to school. But I had never really “drilled” for more information. When I did, he told me one thing that makes getting up really hard for him is having to wait for the water to get hot in the shower. Never would have guessed that as part of the problem! Our solution to that problem was that I would come down to wake him up and on my way back upstairs I would start the shower for him. He could lay in bed for a couple more minutes while it warmed up and then get in. He still doesn't like getting up. He still doesn't really want to go to school, but he's now getting up because we solved one of the problems getting in his way. I'm really glad I listened to you and him. Chalk one up to Plan B! 

Dr. Greene: Your solution might not go over so well with folks who think you're just catering to your son’s needs (in which case they'd still be trying to solve the problem using Plan A). The wasted water might be concerning to some others (in which case they would have found a solution different than yours). As for me, I'm glad you and your son solved one aspect of the problem of going to school. Now we'll have to see if that original solution works durably. If not...back to Plan B to find out why (and possibly to work on other factors that are interfering with his getting to school).


Parent: I have an 8-year old son who I am positive has oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). I am reading your book, The Explosive Child, and your descriptions are my child. My question is can a child like this be out of control just at home with his parents and sibling only? He is a model child at school and is above average with his schoolwork, and behaves well with other non-immediate family members and friends, but completely loses control at home, everyday. I have had one therapist tell me that he should be this way across the board, wherever he is. Is it possible for this child to be able to control himself all day until he gets home and then consistently behave impulsively, aggressively, etc. only at home? We have many incidents on the weekends. Thank you for your help. We are desperate to help our family situation.

Dr. Greene: As you're seeing, that ODD diagnosis isn't helping you understand your son's challenging behavior or helping you identify the specific conditions under which that challenging behavior is occurring. But the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP) would accomplish both missions. You can find the ALSUP on this website in The Paperwork section. In your son's case, it sounds like there are some specific unsolved problems that kick in during the weekend that need to be addressed.

But your situation isn't unusual at all. If challenging behavior occurs, as I noted above, when the demands of the environment exceed a kid's capacity to respond adaptively, then it's not surprising at all that a child might be handling the demands of one situation (for example, school) reasonably well and handling the demands of another situation (for example, unstructured times during weekends) poorly. I'd encourage you to take the Walking Tour for Parents on this website to learn more about your son's challenging behavior and get some ideas for how to handle things. And do let me know how the unsolved problems that are coming into play during weekends end up getting solved.


Parent: Is it unusual to have one son be very stubborn and difficult and have a younger son be sweet and cooperative? They are only 17 months apart. The older boy is very difficult and sometimes refuses to go to school.

Dr. Greene: The combination you've described sounds pretty typical to me. The "difficult" son probably has lagging skills and unsolved problems (for example, going to school) that the "cooperative" son does not. I’d expect the older son to start looking a lot less difficult once those problems are solved and skills are taught.


Parent: I've just started reading your book and while all of this makes sense and I am inclined to attempt to do this I have a nagging question. Our daughter was recently tested for ADHD and other things. They tested for poor impulse control and other cognitive issues and all the testing came back negative. The doctors found no difficulties with impulse control, no cognitive issues, and no mental or physical problems. The findings and conclusion was that my child knows what to do and how to handle situations but is simply defiant and chooses when to do it and when not to. In cases like this is Plan B the proper approach?

Dr. Greene: Interesting question. I don't know your daughter, so it's hard for me to comment in a very specific way. But I can say that I've never come to the conclusion that a child was simply defiant and was choosing when and when not to meet behavioral expectations. Doing well is always preferable to not doing well. Sounds like you may have run into an evaluator who was wearing certain lenses. As with the parent above, I'd suggest you download the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP) from The Paperwork section of this website and decide for yourself if your daughter is lacking skills that would make it hard for her to meet the demands that are being placed upon her at home and school. And you may also wish to consider seeking an independent evaluation.

Parent: I have a question. Do behaviorally challenging children have parents who are unstable? Is it possible that the children have these issues from parents who didn’t properly teach their children the basic boundaries? In other words, aren't some kids just spoiled?

Dr. Greene: You’ve raised an interesting question. We can't escape the possibility that some kids have lingering issues based on the manner in which they were parented. But, as you read through any of the books I've written and explore this website, you'll find that my premise is that kids with behavioral challenges are lacking the skills -- flexibility, frustration tolerance, problem solving -- to behave in an adaptive fashion. Yes, parents are among those who teach kids about how to behave...but those lessons are taught by teachers, coaches, and others as well. So I don't find that the lessons haven’t been taught...I find that these kids are lacking the skills to perform the lessons they've already learned. And, almost all the parents of challenging kids I've worked with had other kids in their homes who were well-behaved. So, no, I don't think of behaviorally challenging kids as spoiled; and I think that when we treat them as if they're spoiled...and point at their parents as the cause of their difficulties...we do everyone a great disfavor and reduce the likelihood that things will improve. When we understand that challenging kids are lacking crucial cognitive skills and teach them and their parents (and other caregivers) how to solve the problems that are reliably and predictably precipitating their challenging episodes, I find they all do much better.


Parent: The Lives in the Balance website has been the answer that I have literally spent tens of hours searching for to help for my 15-year old son. His ALSUP assessment lights up the whole page. I have always felt that we were totally missing something. My belief in this is what has kept me searching. Your philosophy has been exactly what I have felt yet unable to clearly or effectively articulate to the rest of my family (my husband and two “normal” daughters, ages 19 and 21). Along with many others, my husband has viewed my son’s behavior as pure defiance and poor motivation. I know that my son is inherently a good kid who wants to succeed. I realize that this model will not give us all the answers and will be very hard work but it does provide us with a common lens and philosophy to grow from. I thank you so much.

Dr. Greene: I'm delighted that you're finding the website to be helpful, and I wish you the best of luck in getting things on track with your son.