I Refuse to ‘Punish’ My Son Anymore

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The early weeks of the pandemic marked a low point for my relationship with my son, who was almost 8 years old then. His school was abruptly closed, first for three weeks, then for the rest of the year. I worked from home and my husband was an essential worker who had to continue going to his workplace, so the burden of continuing some semblance of education for my son fell entirely on me. My son’s teacher offered no remote instruction — only packets of busy work. Many days, my son refused to do any school work, and keeping him focused on even a 15-minute exercise was a huge challenge.

As it happens, we were in the middle of having him assessed for ADHD when the pandemic hit, and about a month later we got the official diagnosis and began to try out medication. With stimulants, I noticed a big change in his ability to focus and a reduction in hyperactive and impulsive behavior — still, I continued to see what I perceived to be defiant, disrespectful behavior, which would sometimes lead to heated fights.

I posted a cry for help in a Facebook parents group and several comments name-checked The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene. First published in 1998, the book lays out a parenting method called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) that rejects the ubiquitous behaviorist approach, i.e., consequences and rewards, for handling problematic behavior.

Instead of attributing intention to kids’ problematic behavior (“he’s deliberately provoking me”), CPS’s mantra is “kids do well if they can.” The goal is to solve the underlying problems that produce outbursts and other “explosive” behavior. So even describing a child’s behavior as “defiant,” as I just did, is challenged — Greene believes the behavior is not intentional, but rather a response to an expectation the child can’t meet.

In The Explosive Child, Greene discusses three approaches to problematic behavior: Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Plan A is essentially the “top-down” approach in which a parent imposes their expectations onto their child, and uses rewards and consequences when the child meets or fails to meet an expectation. The problem is that Plan A relies on extrinsic motivation, which doesn’t address the underlying problem. Furthermore, as Greene writes, “The paradox is that the kids least capable of handling Plan A — the behaviorally challenging ones — are the ones most likely to get it.” In other words, neurodiverse kids tend to be over-punished.

Plan B is at the heart of CPS: It involves a conversation between parent and child to dig down into the reasons they’re struggling to meet an expectation. Both parent and child air their concerns and ultimately come up with a solution collaboratively. Instead of punishing the behavior that’s a symptom of an unsolved problem, Plan B asks parents to practice empathy to investigate it. Plan B isn’t something that can be used in the heat of the moment. It’s a conversation that has to take place when all parties are calm and able to engage with each other.

This is where Plan C comes in — it entails setting aside or dropping an expectation that a child can’t meet, at least temporarily, to focus on more pressing problems. Removing expectations is often the first step in restoring trust among parent and child. Parents who use CPS use a combination of Plan B and Plan C. It’s impossible to tackle all problems at once and Plan C takes the pressure off while the parent prioritizes which problems to Plan B first; most importantly, Plan C serves as a non-punitive alternative to punitive Plan A.

I was curious about how Greene came up with this method. When I spoke to him for this piece, he said he’d been trained to believe concerning behavior was about poor motivation or inept parenting practices. However, he found both of those arguments faulty. First, “a lot of the parents I was working with had other children in their home who were well-behaved,” he said. So inept parenting didn’t seem to answer the question of why some kids displayed “explosive” behavior. Second, he saw a “dramatic transformation” in behavior among kids diagnosed with ADHD once they went on stimulant medication. Now, stimulant medication doesn’t improve motivation — it helps kids control their hyperactivity, impulsivity, and/or inattention. In other words, as Greene put it, medication “knocks out some of the factors that were making it difficult for kids to meet expectations. And then once they were able to meet them, they didn’t look unmotivated at all anymore.”

Greene said research at the time was beginning to show that it was lagging skills, not motivation, that explained some kids’ inability to deal with frustrations. Given that CPS and the research Greene relied on to develop his approach have been around for over two decades, I wondered why the punitive mindset is still so popular among parents, teachers, and even mental health professionals.

One theory is that CPS is complex — it isn’t a quick fix for problematic behavior. It took months for me to really start implementing it with my son. When we started seeing a therapist about my son’s behavior in summer 2020, he recommended a book that doubled down on punitive approaches — the opposite of CPS. I tried it out as suggested and found, as I had in the past, that consequences and rewards had a very short shelf life in terms of motivating my son to comply. The book also advised me to physically restrain my child during an outburst, which was a complete disaster. I abandoned the punitive method and stopped speaking to that therapist.

CPS requires a “lens change,” a complete rethinking of the way I was parented. Although I didn’t face corporal punishment as a child, I was expected to meet adults’ expectations without any thought given to whether they worked for me, and because I was mostly able to comply, I never considered what it might be like to be or have a neurodiverse kid who couldn’t.

CPS, in contrast, asks parents to become curious about our expectations and assumptions about our kids’ ability to meet them. I began realizing that I set high expectations for my son that he’s often not able to meet. I expected him to sit at the table and eat without fidgeting or getting up, or watch a movie seated the whole time. However, people with ADHD commonly need to engage in stimming to help them focus on what they’re doing; instead of distracting them, it helps them maintain focus. Once I understood this, I dropped my unrealistic expectations.

I used to believe my son was trying to push my buttons by using “disrespectful” language. Now that I know impulsivity is a classic symptom of ADHD and that he’s not fully able to control his outbursts, it’s easier to ignore them. One thing I’ve noticed is that he often apologizes immediately after an outburst, something he never did on his own when we were using Plan A.

Like me, Ally found herself struggling with her 5-year-old son when the pandemic started. (Ally, who is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and whose real name isn’t Ally, requested a pseudonym because she doesn’t feel her son can consent to being written about, and he has a lot of shame around his emotional dysregulation.) Plan A never had lasting effects for her son’s behavior, she says: “Punishment only escalated him and made things harder for everyone.” She too found the lens change difficult to internalize, noting how hard it was to not get triggered when her son would yell or throw something at her. Nonetheless, she feels Plan C, in addition to medication and therapy, helped rebuild her relationship with her son. Eliminating her imposition of punishment “allowed the initial healing to happen” and built trust between them, she added.

Ally gave an example of using CPS proactively to solve a problem. Her son was always negotiating more screen time, like asking, “If I go jump outside on the trampoline for one minute, can I have one more minute of screen time?” Rogers felt exhausted by the constant negotiation, so she suggested they have a Plan B conversation. “A year ago, he would’ve been angry and just stormed off,” she said. “Instead he took me seriously. He knew that I actually wanted to come up with a plan. So the trust was there.” She relayed her concern about not wanting to negotiate screen time every day, but also not wanting him “to turn into a zombie.” She wanted limitations and he wanted screen time.

She came into the conversation with a mindset of “nothing is off the table.” They went through a few options that didn’t work for all parties: her son wrote down “no limits on screen time,” and she suggested, “for every X number of minutes of chores, he gets X number of minutes of screen time.” Ultimately they decided her son could have a set amount every day, and when it’s done, it’s done. “That approach really works because the lack of certainty is really hard for him,” she said. If he feels confident in what the boundaries are, “then he really doesn’t push that much.”

Robin Berl, from Jessup, Maryland, has been successfully using CPS for several years. Her 9-year-old began displaying behavioral problems right after beginning kindergarten. Berl has a background in early childhood education, and she too struggled with the lens change, particularly with letting go of expectations about what was “developmentally appropriate” for her child. Eventually, she understood the better questions were: “What does my kid need? How do my expectations meet this person where they are and how do I adjust my expectations?”

Berl stressed that everything in her household involves a conversation with all members: “We don’t have any unilateral rules that one person makes for everybody else … the rule has to work for everybody.” This approach can present challenges when they’re not at home. “In public is where more of the explosions happen because we’ve done so much scaffolding at home. We have all of these invisible supports that we’ve just built into our lives.” For example, her older daughter has sensory processing issues and doesn’t feel comfortable going to the bathroom in public. This may seem like a lot of contorting by parents to cater to the needs of their kids, but the alternative is dealing with the fallout of a top-down approach that might irrevocably damage the parent-child relationship, especially if the kids are neurodiverse.

As encouraging as it is to know CPS is gaining popularity among parents, things get trickier when our kids have to respond to different rules outside the house, particularly at school, where Plan A still predominates in terms of handling behavioral problems. Greene always recognized that “no matter how many books I published and no matter how many talks I gave, more was needed to heighten awareness about how we were treating kids and spread these ideas.” He founded a nonprofit organization, Lives in the Balance (LITB), in 2009, and one of their goals is to train school administrators and mental-health professionals in CPS.

Middle-school assistant principal Dr. Valerie Calvert, in Jefferson County, Colorado, first began using CPS, around two decades ago. She’s still implementing it in her current role with individual students and parents who are open to it. Calvert’s school uses restorative practices, which seems like it would fit well with CPS, but she stressed the difficulty in changing the mindset around behavior among educators: “People are pretty stuck in the mindset of, a kid does something, you give them a consequence.” Even though research shows this approach doesn’t tend to change behavior, she added, many believe a harsher consequence will do the trick.

Teachers are also resistant to CPS, Calvert continued, because they think they need to set an example. “It’s all about perception that we’ve taken care of it, that we’re keeping everybody safe and that the kid got some kind of consequence that everybody knows they got,” she said. This mindset, of course, feeds into the vicious cycle of consequences and reinforces the notion that students are being willfully defiant instead of not having the skills to meet an expectation. That said, Calvert feels restorative conferences, both those between students and between a student and a teacher, have made a difference — at least, like CPS, they allow students to voice their perspectives instead of only going on the teacher’s word. So although she hasn’t yet been able to implement it at the school-wide level, she’s seeing fewer discipline referrals, and feels she’s slowly changing the mindset of other adults.

Cayley Edmonds is a licensed professional counselor and one of the hundreds of certified CPS providers. She works in a pediatric psychiatric wing in Decatur, Alabama, in addition to having an after-hours private practice working with individual families. Like most institutions, Edmonds’s hospital used a “token economy” system that rewarded compliant behavior by pediatric patients with points. For many years she recognized the system was problematic — it was inconsistently applied and highly subjective. The kids with the most severe behavioral issues weren’t able to earn their points and would explode when they couldn’t get prizes. Edmonds was desperate for an alternative. One day, around 2016, she Googled, “Why is the points system not working?” One of the first results that came up was a journal article by Greene that spoke about a pediatric unit where CPS was implemented and in which the staff saw a notable decrease in the use of restraint and seclusion of patients.

The turning point for Edmonds was a particularly difficult patient in 2018 who was at the hospital much longer than normal, for months, and was having multiple outbursts per day. The staff was burned out. “Everything we tried, which was focused on motivation, didn’t work, because he didn’t have the cognitive skills.” She went to her director to request the funds for a CPS training, and the hospital paid for 10 to 12 counselors to complete it. Edmonds ultimately decided to go further and become a certified provider of CPS.

The staff in Edmond’s unit was able to do away with the points system and shift their philosophy toward patients “to one that’s more individualized, that’s less focused on modifying behavior or doling out consequences” and that’s more “trauma-informed,” she said. This customized approach is key to CPS. As Greene told me, “There’s no other way to go than meeting kids where they’re at.”

Although I’ve seen the benefits of CPS in my own household, I know my son will have to deal with authority figures who still believe in punitive methods. There’s an added layer of worry for me because my son is mixed-race, and I know Black and brown kids are disproportionately punished. Last summer at one of his day camps, he frequently complained about a strict counselor who gave timeouts to kids who weren’t following instruction, which, for kids with ADHD who get bored easily, only exacerbates the problem. I went to the camp director to ask her to speak to the counselor about being more relaxed with the kids, especially on their summer break, but I had little control over making what I believe would have been a positive change. Beyond authority figures, I sometimes feel like I’m being judged by other parents when I say I don’t use consequences for my son anymore. I’ve heard other CPS parents say the same, or report that their kids’ schools or therapists contradict their own use of a non-punitive method.

In my view, there are still far too many adults who believe kids are choosing to misbehave, and not that they lack the skills to meet expectations. For many kids like my son, taking a unilateral, prescribed approach will backfire. If you add in the stresses of the pandemic, when kids have been burdened with so much anxiety  and isolation, and the reports of behavioral problems in school have increased, it’s obvious that we need a new approach that doesn’t just double down on punitive practices. As Greene put it, “We are accustomed to thinking that all things are possible if a kid is motivated enough. And that’s not true. All things are not possible.”

This is a lesson I’ve learned over and over in the past two years — whether it’s negotiating what to do when my son refuses to go to soccer practice, a commitment I expect him to follow through on, or getting to the bottom of why screen time limits are so hard for him to adhere to. I haven’t dropped all my expectations but I’ve given up unilaterally imposing them onto my son. I apologize to him when I believe I’ve been too harsh — and sometimes he says, “No, you were right” — modeling the ability to reflect on your actions instead of defensively doubling down. I wouldn’t say it’s “smooth sailing” in my household, but I no longer think of my son as an adversary, which led to him internalizing the message that he was a “bad kid.” I now know that “meeting kids where they’re at,” a message Greene often returns to, is the first step in solving problematic behavior.

I Refuse to ‘Punish’ My Son Anymore