Want Less Stress with Your Socially Challenged Teen? Learn To See the Little Wins

Help your Socially Challenged Teen

As parents of a socially challenged teen, we often look for big change and big wins. We want to hear that our teenager is “getting it” and that they are really willing to change, however, to help your socially challenged teen, recognize and appreciate that change happens with little wins, little shifts and small successes. The road to change is not paved with momentous events as in a hallmark movie and waiting for these events will only result in disappointment.  For example, if your teen is working on flexibility, they might not display frequent, regular flexibility.  Instead, they might adopt small wins around flexibility, such as changing where they sit. If they do it 3 times – it’s a small win!

For the Teen Who has Social Skills Challenges, Encouragement is the Key

Socially Challenged TeenHelp your socially challenged teen by noting and celebrating milestones or small wins. For example, when your teen overcomes their fear and invites a friend over, you can say, “You put yourself on the field, you caught the ball, you tried harder at something that’s hard for you. Those are three things to celebrate.”

To help you empathize with your teen, recall something that was hard for you. How hard was it to make progress and earn small wins? How about when only one wall was painted and there were three more to finish. Or when you started running and a half mile was so painful but eventually you worked up to a mile, then two then three?

Being a teenager is so hard, and part of that journey is learning how to communicate, self-advocate, and get along with people. This is no simple task.  The more we see the little wins, the more likely we will hit the big ones.

5 Social Behaviors That Indicate Small Wins:

  1. Nodding or a Shrugging

When your teen hesitates to respond or if you are broaching a tough topic, they may simply shrug or nod. Recognize that a shrug is actually an answer and that they are communicating with you. Being tongue tied or not being able to express thoughts via words can make parents think our teen does not hear us or is ignoring us. Don’t forget to look for the small wins and be sure to keep communication open – the better we partner, the more our child will want to communicate with us.

Looking for help on how to broach tough topics? Check out my video, Starting the Coaching Conversation

  1. Recognizing Social Cues

As your child’s coach, your goal is to help your child understand the unspoken rules of social behavior, learn how to watch for cues from other people, and work on adjusting their behavior. When you ask and listen to your teen, you learn about their experiences. Cheer the small successes as the stepping stones to bigger ones. Work with your child to develop the game plan – the playbook – and the overarching goal: for your child to make friends more easily and “go along and get along” with others.

  1. Self-Discovery

An aha is simply a moment of self-discovery. We’ve all had epiphanies in our lives. No one can have an aha for someone else; it’s an inside job. Recognize that every aha is progress – a small win. Their aha will look different than your aha, and that is OK. Don’t correct or lecture them on how they should be because this will shut down the conversation, their process of reflection, and the opening for the next aha.

Even the smallest aha is a bold expression of your teen’s  executive function bringing a picture into focus. Executive function connects the dots, and every aha is a dot in the picture. Whether your child is five years old or fifteen, she’s going to have these realizations when she’s ready, developmentally and emotionally. Coaching isn’t about ordering up the aha or telling your child what it should be. Coaching creates the space and time for her to discover this insight herself, which is the most powerful source of learning a child can have.

  1. Trying

Very few people if any move from trying to full on change. There are stages of change and the first starts with the awareness of one’s role and struggles in the social world. This awareness and noticing her own behavior. So if your child begins to express greater self awareness and seems willing to change- that is a win !!

  1. Practice

When we talk about the social behaviors that everyone needs to have, we’re referring to more than isolated performances of a skill. We’re talking about habits of “being”. In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, author Charles Duhigg suggests that a habit takes 18 to 254 days or an average of 66 days to develop.

Science tells us that the longer we hold on to perceptions and habits of thought, the more deeply imbedded they become. The brain’s circuitry— the networks of neurons and the paths they create—becomes stronger with use and weaker with less use. The brain actively prunes away the lesser used connections in favor of the more heavily used ones. In this way, your child’s story about his behavior becomes the self-talk, the inner voice that encourages or discourages him. Studies also show that in the brain, negative self- perception intensifies our reaction to negative thoughts and experiences and weakens the impact of positive ones. That’s how self-talk becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy: I just don’t fit in. I’m too stupid. I don’t . . . I’m not . . . I’ ll never. It becomes harder and harder to dig out of that self-talk rut and the behaviors that only dig the rut deeper.

For that reason, the sooner we address these stories that hold children back, the less entrenched those narratives are and the sooner we can help our kids change the story and the self-talk. Step-by-step, with incremental successes—small wins—your child builds the skills and strengthens the brain’s circuitry for positive social behavior.

Work with your teen to practice making chit chat, reaching out to others, making eye contact, holding back in a group chat or trying new things, takes time to become a habit. Partner with your teen to help him develop socially. Don’t pressure or rush the learning process. Most of all, show confidence in your child’s capacity to learn and grow.

Deeper Dive

Video: Starting the Coaching Conversation

Are you looking for help on how to broach tough topics? This video is a real-world conversation so parents can hear what a coaching conversation sounds like and how the conversation brings to light the child’s realizations and also helps the parent understand their perspective and the stories that get in the way of the child moving forward. As featured in Why Will No One Play With Me? these stories are essential for your child to address in order to understand the social world and move forward.

DO This At Home!

For scripts, tools, advice and actionable exercises on helping children develop social skills, check out Why Will No One Play with Me? and How to SEL

Is Your Kid A Hot Mess? 10 Ways to Help Keep Their Emotions In Check So You Get A Little Peace

As we turn the corner from the height of the pandemic and into summer, many parents are struggling with concerns about their child’s emotional state. Carrying a 500 pound backpack, seeing people they had forgotten, realizing new relationships have formed during hybrid or shut down schooling or even just trying to use social skills they have not used in a while can be tough. Not to mention all the struggles that go into childhood and being a teenager.  As you hear the stories of other kids who seemed to have climb Mount Everest during the pandemic while getting straight A’s, you might feel very alone. But fear not, many kids are a mess right now. And your kid struggling does not mean she will struggle forever.

Your kid is a hot mess right now.

At the end of this school year, so many kids and teenagers are bombarded with demands and the feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out). If your kid seems unmotivated, it’s because they probably are. Perhaps some students have surfaced energized, but for the majority, going back to school is about connecting again. Low energy combined with stress may create an environment where they come home snarky and grumpy. Don’t despair, they might just need a little support to guide them out of this “Hot Mess”.

10 Strategies to Keep Kids’ Emotions in Check:

  1. Truly Listen – Ask and listen. Don’t apply pressure nor assume you know the reasons for your child’s behavior. Don’t jump in with advice. Imagine a world in which your boss or partner constantly told you “the reason you are a mess is because you don’t plan ahead.” It would not be well received. Getting your child to feel comfortable talking to you requires waiting, listening, and showing confidence that they have the capacity to learn and grow. If you push your agenda, you will likely get nowhere. By truly hearing your child’s perspective, you allow her to hold a mirror up to her views about friendship and to evaluate them. This takes time, but it will deliver better results.
  2. Give your kid space- Everything does not have to be solved in the moment. Allow your teen to walk away. If they won’t take the time and space to use strategies to manage their emotions, then you will need to breath deeply and give yourself space.
  3. Don’t interrogate- Reflect, clarify and be curious – but don’t interrogate. Make the conversations short and allow them to answer one or two questions. Paraphrasing what your child says and then repeating it back to him shows empathy and helps clarify your child’s concerns. For example, she might declare, “You always want so much from me and you don’t get how hard school is now.” Reflect back: “What I hear you saying is school is much harder than when I went and you feel like everyone wants so much from you.” By summarizing and repeating his statements, you allow your child to clarify, share more information, and to tell his interpretation of the statement. This curiosity invites him to be comfortable opening up to you.
  4. Check in on sleep, nutrition- and other factors that contribute to the meltdown. No one does as well when they can’t sleep.
  5. Create a plan to help for when they are stressed– In the heat of the moment or when your teenager is in fight, flight or freeze mode, it’s very hard for them to problem solve. Don’t judge them when they are in this aroused state. Reflect back your child’s emotional state by saying, “I notice you’re stressed right now.” When they are in a more relaxed state, work with them to create a routine and strategies they can enact to manage their heightened emotions.
  6. Don’t offer advice, offer help– You probably recognize the cycles that lead your teen to become stressed such as searching for shoes and lunch just before the bus comes. You probably also recognize that your advice is rejected. My advice is to help find the shoes during the moments of panic and when your kid is calm, broach solutions. Start by saying, “I notice this time of year is hard and you seem stressed, what can I do to help? How can we could work together to help you feel better and get some things running smoothly?”
  7. Sneak calming strategies – Calming strategies are often rejected by kids, especially older kids. But they may incorporate your strategies if they are not too obvious. Warm blankets, a zen time to think and listen to music, low lights, soothing voices, etc. help distract the thalamus can be built into the fabric of life. No one needs to hear, “Boy, you are a hot mess – use my strategies.”
  8. Support them having time and space to reduce stress- When you notice that your child is anxious or spiraling, support their desire to go for a run or listen to music by washing their clothes or packing their soccer bag. Help them manage their emotions rather than continuing the spiral of tears, meltdowns and drama.
  9. Create a Pattern Interrupt– Use action-oriented emotional coping strategies in class and at home with children of any age. A pattern interrupt can shift the cycle rather than allowing your kid to spin into distress. Doing jumping jacks, shaking arms, dancing, running around the room, walking up and down the stairs, getting into nature, and touching toes help shift the internal chemistry to allow for us to manage emotions. Exercise has been shown to reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels and to increase dopamine levels and release endorphins.
  10. Name it to Tame it– Prompt your kid to pinpoint their emotions and check in with themselves. Ask her to determine how intense these emotions feel, and then have a plan and pick strategies ahead of time to use when her reaction has reached a 7, 8, 9 or 10. Stop the runaway cycle early and regain control so the thinking brain can resume.

Be sure to set reasonable expectations: don’t push too much fun over school work or visa versa. Balance is the key as we return to in person society. More importantly than academic success, your support will help you kid feel safe, comfortable and secure – the key ingredients to a happy future.

DO This At Home!

For scripts, tools, advice and actionable exercises on helping children develop social skills, check out Why Will No One Play with Me? and How to SEL

Deeper Dive

7 Ways to Help Your Kid’s Rusty Social Skills Now That the Pandemic Is Winding Down

Empathy During COVID

How Can I Get My Kid To Listen & Do What He’s Told Without A Constant Battle Of Wills?

Many of us struggle when our child does not take “good advice” or barely turns to look at us when we speak. You know that part of the problem getting out the door or completing chores and other tasks is that your child does not listen. But when you suggest this is something she needs to work on- she ignores you, or the discussion ends in a melt down. And asking for simple things like putting shoes away so grandma does not trip seems to devolve into a battle.

Social Emotional Learning

If you are struggling to get your child to listen, it may be because of something you hadn’t thought of.

Is It Stubbornness or Something Else?

Many parents feel that their child is purposely not listening to them. Are they are getting a payoff for being stubborn or selfish? This is a very common thought, albeit, a possible misconception. Sure, your child may occasionally be stubborn or selfish, but more often, it is the result of a lack of skills. Research shows that it is brain-based “executive function” skills that hold him back—not willfulness or laziness.

Executive Function Lag


If you want to get your kid to listen, you may need to consider her skills.  Executive function is the brain’s hub of skills such as memory, organization, planning, self-regulation and the ability to modify our behavior in response to others. When these skills lag, advice about pushing through, trying harder and just making it happen do not apply. In fact, such blaming and shaming only make matters worse.

How to Interpret Your Child’s Behavior

The idea that a child “would if he could” is an important distinction. In this lens of looking at your child’s behavior, you can remind yourself that his skills are not strong enough to curb the impulse.  Once your child begins to develop the executive function skills necessary—whether it’s a small step in getting homework done or managing big emotions—his successes will motivate him to do more. Rather than assume your child isn’t trying, or isn’t trying hard enough, look for the small wins.

Consider What Really Listening Looks Like

Listening means showing interest in the other person’s feelings and opinions, being curious and offering a shoulder to relieve their suffering. Neutralize the conversation by using reflective listening. This simply means recapping what they said and translating it back to ensure th message was delivered correctly. This works in person and virtually.

Modeling Goes a Long Way

As you speak with your family, make eye contact and check your body language and facial expressions.  Schedule your activities around family dinners.  When you interact with your child, try to avoid interrupting or simply be listening for your chance to jump in to speak your opinion.

Reflective Listening

Identify what your child if feeling by using reflective listening. Inquire how they would rather handle directions and the things you need them to do? Collaborate. There may be a voice in your head that says you never needed this kind of communication, but being more collaborative can help lower all the tensions in the house. Also consider what are your expectations around “doing what he is told?” Would it be ok if he set a time to take out the garbage? This is not easy but having a more neutral conversation, talking about the problem and asking for her perspective can help everyone communicate better.

Practice Listening as a Family

Share with the whole family that you feel like all of your listening skills have gotten rusty. As a game, bring out a timer and ask each family member – don’t single one child out – to listen for one hour. Encourage everyone to look each other in the eye when they talk, and model the same behavior.  Keep it fun , incentivize it with a small prize or privilege do everyone keeps practicing.

Work Together

Acknowledge that your child has areas in which he needs skill development. Support him in managing his emotions by helping him pause and read the room, transition slowly between activities and create routines. Collaborate on strategies you both think will help. Until they learn to do more on their own, they will continue to need you not just for academics but for social emotional learning too.

For scripts, tools, advice and actionable exercises on helping children develop social skills, check out Why Will No One Play with Me?

Deeper Dive:

Learn more about Social Skills Development

Watch video on building Social Skills 

Social Withdrawal Concerns

“I don’t want to go out” or “No, You can’t see your friends” can be a sign that you are socially withdrawing out of more than just an abundance of precaution. You may be self-isolating out of fear.

Even before COVID19 and social distancing, many of the children and adults I hear from and work with struggled with loneliness and with real intimacy and connection.

Are You Self-Isolating Out of Fear?

Do you find that even if you feel like connecting, that you stop yourself?

Do you decline invitations in person or virtually, eat and spend most of your day alone and find the thought of being social too daunting? If so, it is critical to figure out why. Many people trying to be safe and responsible or who have trouble connecting to begin with find it hard to reach out. How do I do this? What can I say? As time goes on it gets harder. And life becomes less about the joy that connection brings us as social animals and more about drudgery, duties, and tasks. My concern is that long term isolation can lead to depression, addiction, anxiety, mood swings, self-harm,  and that people want to hear from you. And if you struggle, then so many of us professionals, books and resources are here and want to help you. Connection and reaching out is hard right now. It’s easy to slip off our radar and for many it’s easier to stay in their cocoon. Reaching out to connect feels hard. (Please scroll below for suggested resources)

If you fear that you have lost the ability to engage in meaningful conversations with others or will be subjected to the virus every time you leave the house, it is important to face the fear. Fear is normal.  Take small steps, small bites to reach out, to join even a virtual gathering by video.

Humans are Social Creatures

Our human brains are wired for connection so social isolation can become a healthy hazzard. We rely on each other, exchange knowledge and share community. Socially isolating means you are cut off from Human C – What Dr. Hallowell calls, the Other Vitamin C – Human Connection. Lack of human connection removes you from the resources you need, and can land you in a fatigue that is hard to extract yourself from.

Signs of Social Withdrawal

  1. Not calling anyone or answering your phone
  2. Not engaging with others even when invited
  3. Staying indoors all day and night
  4. Justifying working from home as a reason to hide indoors
  5. Shooting quick texts and emails rather than having a live conversation
  6. Becoming critical or even angry at others’ beliefs, behaviors, sanitary measures, etc.
  7. Refusing to allow children or family members to socialize in-person
  8. Increased anger, depression, guilt, boredom

Healthy Social Suggestions:

  1. Don’t keep your thoughts inside. Discuss your concerns with a trusted family member, friend or professional
  2. Take a chance and start a conversation with someone new.
  3. Join a social app, Meetup, chat, etc. to share your thoughts and communicate with like-minded people
  4. Try to avoid the news or discussions that center solely around COVID-19
  5. Get outside! Look at the sky, breath fresh air, take a walk
  6. Practice meditation or yoga to develop deep thinking and focus
  7. Try to figure out why you are reclusive without judging


Connection is a Verb

Encourage Social Skills Development

Keep the Social in Social Distancing

My Child Can’t Make Friends & Keep Them – What is Wrong With Her?

By Caroline Maguire, M.Ed. PCC

Your child has worked all year preparing for a school play, after the play he leaves without speaking to another person. You watch your child pester her friends and brag until the kids visibly shrink away.   And as you watch you think why my child can’t make friends.

You are ashamed but you feel anger, shame and deep frustration with your child. You have endless talks with her but she just doesn’t get it.


No One Should Struggle To Make a Friend

Parents are often concerned about how ADHD impacts schooling and homework, but making a friend is frequently what is on the child’s mind. When I told that eight-year-old that sat in my office that day that there was a possibility that if he learned how to change his approach he could make more friends, he beamed! And that is when I set out to make sure that no child would ever be left to struggle alone to make a friend. Thus the Play Better Plan and subsequently, my book, Why Will No One Play With Me was born.

As much as you love your child, you know that he cannot spend every Saturday night with you for rest of his childhood. Of course you see the flaws and you also know him best—the funny, lovable kid that you wish everybody knew. Unfortunately, that is not what other kids see.

You have painfully watched your child struggle over the years. Maybe your kindergartener can’t sit still in school or he is too loud and the other kids are put off. Or your fourth-grade child can’t look other kids in the eye. Maybe it’s your eight-year-old that doesn’t transition well and has a meltdown every time you ask her to leave a play date and this discourages the parents from inviting her back.

Why is it so hard to make a friend? I’m sure you’ve talked to him about his behavior, begged and bribed him to be better, but odds are, none of these tactics have worked. Your child wants to get along. He wants to make a friend. He just doesn’t know how.

Social Skills Don’t Always Come Naturally

Child development experts describe children who have a hard time understanding social cues and managing their behavior as having social skills deficits, or weaknesses. It is hard for them to read social cues accurately or understand the unspoken rules of social relationships or play. It is hard for them to adapt their behavior in response to other kids or as a play situation changes. Without those skills, it is hard to make a friend.


Your Child’s “Hub” Is Unevenly Developed

Social skills weaknesses are caused by a wide variety of factors, but the most common is that the brain’s network of executive functions is unevenly developed. Executive function is the hub of skills such as attention, memory, organization, planning, and other cognitive or critical-thinking skills, self-regulation, metacognition (the big-picture, birds-eye view), and the ability to modify our behavior in response to others to achieve a goal.

These are the basic skills every child needs to function well in the social world. In a nutshell, if a child’s executive function social skills are weak, then he has a harder time understanding and managing social interactions. These problems show up in:

·       what children pay attention to in a social setting

·       what they notice about their friends’ needs and reactions

·       how they respond to disappointment or manage other emotions

·       how they think about friendship

·       how they react to new or shifting social situations


Play is the first and most natural thing all kids do. It’s that basis for learning. Social behavior is best learned by playing with others. But when your child does not naturally understand how to make friends- then she needs direct instruction and coaching to make friends.  Here is where they learn how their behavior affects others; they practice seeing other points of view and learn how to get along and make a friend.

The Play Paradox- Play Less Equals Less Social Skills

Today, children don’t get as many spontaneous social interactions. This loss of free playtime has impacted the child’s ability to learn these lessons naturally through “practice time.” For those with executive function challenges, the impact is greater.

As the gap widens, these children often become socially isolated. Usually those with the greatest needs are those getting the least opportunity creating a huge challenge for the child and parent.

The good news is that social skills can be developed just like any other skill. Scientists have discovered that when children with social challenges engage in skill-building activities on a consistent basis, they can learn to interact effectively with other in a social setting.

No matter how hopeless you feel today, your child’s friendship challenges are far from insurmountable. With your help and guidance, your child can build social awareness, improve executive function skills, and learn how to make and keep friends.

How Will Coaching Help My Child?

As a parent, you are on the frontlines trying to help you child with social dilemmas, but until now, haven’t had the resources to properly manage the challenges. Coaching is the process of teaching and practicing social skills with your child. You are helping them with the basic skills they need to make a friend.

Think about sports for a minute. A child has a coach to help with basketball skills and the rules of the game. The coach demonstrates and models the drills that need to be done, observes the players and gives feedback and encouragement.

If They Could, They Would.

Children with social skills weaknesses need help learning those basic skills to participate socially so they aren’t doing something wrong and getting pulled off to the bench.

When your child seem oblivious to the feelings of others or to the way his behavior affects how they treat him, it might seem logical to lecture longer or louder until he gets it. If that has not been working for you and you would like to see different results, the shift is easier than you think.

Coaching your child to better social skills is not complicated or hard. You can do this! As a parent who is always on the frontlines with your child, you have an advantage over anyone else as a consulting coach. It’s those teachable on-the-spot moments that make a parent’s coaching so valuable.




Your Child Will No Longer Be Alone

You have already been putting forth huge efforts to improve your child’s social status, but nothing has brought about any lasting change. With basic coaching techniques, all of that changes. “Coach” at the end of the day is just another word for parent with a game plan.


My new book, Why Will No One Play With Me? will teach parents how to coach their child through any social problem. Be sure to take my new checklist to determine if your child needs social skills help at carolinemaguireauthor.com.

Pause Saves The Day!

On the day of my daughter Lucy’s dance recital, my whole family was a wreck. Lucy woke up at 4 am and graciously woke up the rest of the household with her. Her anxiety had reached peak levels, and she bounced into our bedroom at full speed, shaking us awake with her high energy.

I tried everything I could think of to calm her and help her back sleep, but nothing was working. By 9 am, I was begging her to nap. I knew we were in trouble. I could foresee the day ahead: there’d be lots of tantrums. Every little unfulfilled request would end in tears. The dance recital was going to be a disaster.

Lucy is the kind of child who loves dancing, but she finds her weekly class “boring.”  She is consistently inconsistent in the way she treats practicing routines, and she struggles with focus. My husband and I tried an experiment this year; we kept Lucy in a class with younger children instead of moving her up a level with the rest of her classmates. The next level up was attended by mostly eight-year-olds, and I knew a six-year-old with ADHD couldn’t pretend to be eight. We wanted to see if this decision would create a more even playing field. So far, it had seemed to work.

But now, it was recital day—the big test of this experiment. Usually, Lucy loved recital day. She would come alive, ignited by the anticipation of having an audience. However, this morning, an unmistakable sense of doom permeated the house. Would Lucy have the confidence she needed to perform? Or would she cave in to her anxiety?

I continued to try to create peace for her as the day progressed. We snuggled and listened to a book on tape, ate her favorite healthy snacks, and talked about what she loved about dancing. She seemed to be doing better, but as we were preparing to leave for the performance, Lucy became absolutely frantic.

Then, I remembered a simple tool that I use with some of my ADHD clients. I retrieved a laminated copy of the simple PAUSE button pictured below, a concept developed by my good friend and colleague, David Giwerc (Founder of the ADD Coach Academy).

I handed the PAUSE button to Lucy. I explained how she needed to pause, calm her breathing, and re-connect to her prefrontal cortex, the part of her brain that regulates behavior and utilizes logical thought analyses to help her make good decisions. I told her that if she felt like she was forgetting her steps, she could hit that pause button, and she would be able to calm down and remember her routine. We practiced pausing and breathing several times before we left.

After finding my seat in the audience, I prayed. Like every parent, I wanted my child to do her best, show off her hard work, and be happy with herself. I didn’t want her to be embarrassed in front of her other classmates, the ones who had moved on to the next level. Right before she went on stage, I saw her in the wings. There she stood in her tutu, her cheeks rosy with makeup. She closed her eyes and breathed. She paused. And then she came out and danced her little heart out. She nailed the routine, down to the last plié!

The PAUSE button has worked for many ADHD children, including Lucy. It is such a powerful tool that I couldn’t help sharing it with you on my blog today. PAUSE encourages children to STOP irregular behavior and access the prefrontal cortex, allowing them to utilize their logical thought processes before acting. The power of the PAUSE is that it connects children with their prefrontal cortex and allows them to rationally observe highly charged emotional situations. By pausing, children can accomplish the following tasks:

  • Breathe and connect to their prefrontal cortexes, allowing them to use their logical thought processes.

  • Calm down and get a hold of their emotions.

  • Boss their bodies and stop any physical movement that may be causing problems.

  • Think of solutions to their upsetting problems or situations.

If you plan on using PAUSE with your child, I’d suggest creating a visual cue or code word. The PAUSE button symbol seems to be very popular with kids, and I often print them out and laminate them for younger children, who like the physicality of “pushing” the PAUSE button. Older kids may prefer a code word or phrase, such as “Please take a moment to pause.” PAUSE allowed my daughter to process what was going on, analyze her emotions, and pinpoint her best response options before jumping on stage. Like Lucy, I know your children could benefit from PAUSE!

Raising the Consistently Inconsistent Kid

One day last summer, my daughter arrived for her swim meet in great spirits, as if she could tackle anything. She danced around with her friends, red-cheeked with excitement. When her group was called, she got up on the block, adjusted her goggles, and swam faster than any other six-year-old. She was in high gear, revved with self-confidence. And most importantly, she seemed to be very present. She was her best self.

But at her next swim meet the very next day, she was not interested in racing. It was raining outside, and she decided she wanted to watch Cake Boss and eat Chinese food. After I pried her away from the TV and loaded her into the car, I sensed doom. All the way to the meet, she kept telling me that the race would be canceled. When we arrived, she did not frolic with her friends as she had the day before. Her mood was ill-tempered and stormy. When I saw her take the block, I knew she was going to hold back. She finished the race, but she didn’t make very good time. Immediately afterward, she picked a fight with one of her friends, and I had to separate them.

If you are a parent of a child with ADHD, this scene probably sounds very familiar to you. For ten years, I have worked with hundreds of frustrated parents who have relayed similar experiences. Their children are erratic and inconsistent, and they don’t know how to improve or control their children’s behavior. Like these other parents, you probably understand how hard it is to raise an unpredictable child. One day your child is brilliant and confident, and the next day, your child is a raging ball of dark emotion. You never know which version of your child will be showing up to the party. Your child’s dramatic mood swings and undesirable behavior may also be causing to you to feel a wide range of emotions: anger, shame, confusion, guilt, or hopelessness. I’m here to tell you that these feelings are very common.

Many of my clients have been in the exact same position as you are right now. One thing I often tell parents of children with ADHD is this: from now on, expect the unexpected. Accept the fact that your child is going to be a consistently inconsistent child for a very long time. Go through a grieving process, if you have to, in order to move forward. Most likely, your child’s challenging behavior will arrive at the wrong moments—when you are least equipped to handle the drama. Try to come up with some coping strategies to calm yourself down when these challenging days inevitably arise.

After you have gained this knowledge and acceptance, you can begin the change process. Most inconsistent kids want to be good, but they don’t know how to be good. Ross Greene, a leading expert in child psychology, puts it this way: “Children exhibit challenging behavior when the demands being placed upon them outstrip the skills they have to respond adaptively to those demands.” In other words, when your child reacts explosively, your child lacks the skills needed to handle the situation. Inconsistent kids need help with building coping skills, seeing things from another’s perspective, and developing problem-solving strategies. These much-needed skills are called lagging skills.

One way you can identify your child’s lagging skills is by asking yourself the following question: “What is getting in the way of my child’s success?” Start by trying to figure out what the overall reasons are for your child’s inconsistency. Some kids freak out about timed events or tests. Some can’t handle peer pressure. Some don’t understand social boundaries. Some don’t know what to do when they make a mistake, and they fall apart and blow the rest of the race, recital, test, etc. Ross Greene’s lagging skills assessment can help you identify your child’s lagging skills.

Everyone is Working on Something

“My son will not sit in circle time,” one mother told me.

“The principal is constantly calling about my son’s behavior on the bus. What can I do? I am not even there,” another mother bemoaned.

“The teacher keeps calling me to complain about my daughter’s slow pace. When my daughter doesn’t get her class work done, the teacher keeps her in during recess to finish her work, and she has a meltdown every time,” another parent admitted.

Do any of these statements sound familiar to you? If so, you are not alone. Millions of parents across the U.S. receive phone calls from schools, teachers, coaches, and other parents regularly about their children’s irregular behavior. These types of well-intentioned calls can be very draining. Parents with challenging kids often hear too much about things their children do wrong. Sometimes, behavior is aggrandized and made to look like a larger problem than it needs to be. Society is very critical of kids today. Adults often expect kids to be adults, or they expect kids to change their behavior overnight.

If you are the parent of one of these unique kids, the negativity is probably starting to get to you. These criticisms may be making you feel stressed, frustrated, or even ashamed by your child’s behavior.  Even though, deep down, you understand that change and growth takes time, you wish you could do something that would make your child “fit in” now so you didn’t have to watch your child struggle with the pain of being different.

Remember, other parents throughout the country are going through the same ordeal. Every child develops at his or her own pace. At a BBQ this summer, a mother of a challenging child said that what kept her sane was to remember that “everyone is working on something.” She went on to explain that even the well-behaved straight-A student in her son’s class was working on not fighting with her brother on road trips. Her son’s teacher was working on reducing her credit card debt. Her son’s coach was working on eating healthier and losing weight. By reframing the criticism in this way, you can put your child’s issues into perspective. Yes, your child may be lacking some skills, either socially or academically, but you can work on developing those skills—just like everyone else. Everyone is working on something.

When the phone calls start rolling in, and you are feeling overwhelmed, you can also use these tips to help you keep calm.

  • After you receive a phone call, do not talk to your kid about it the minute the kid walks in the door. The conversation isn’t going to go well if you talk to them when you are still angry and frustrated. Instead, wait a few hours and broach the conversation when you are in a positive frame of mind.

  • Next, allow your child room to explain what happened. You could say, “I heard you had a rough day. What happened?” Your child’s perspective may help you understand the situation more fully.

  • Get your child excited about and involved in the problem-solving process. Change comes easier when your child sees the value in changing.

  • Look for small wins and improvements. Real change takes years. Remember to acknowledge and celebrate your child’s small successes.

  • Find a network of support. Find other parents who are going through similar travails and talk to them about your frustrations.

  • Communications with teachers, administrators, coaches, and other parents should be more about problem-solving and less about blaming. If you feel like the phone calls are all about blaming, try to turn the tables and involve the caller in the problem-solving process.

  • When talking to teachers or administrators over the phone, ask for insight into why this problem happened. Because you can’t be at school to regulate your child’s behavior, teachers need to step in and encourage change at school as well. To get teachers to partner with you, you can ask them open-ended questions, such as, “What skills do you think my child needs to develop?” and “What are you going to do at school to help my child develop those skills?” and “What can I do at home to help my child develop those skills?”

  • If you receive daily phone calls from one adult, you could also ask for a summary of your child’s behavior at the end of the week so you don’t have to face the constant negativity.

  • If the same problem keeps popping up, try to arrange a meeting with your child’s school team (the principal, the teacher, the school counselor, etc.) and come up with a long-term skill-building plan together, keeping in mind that your kid is not going to change by next week.

Above all, when you receive a disheartening phone call, remind yourself of the big-picture perspective. You are not the only parent receiving these phone calls. You are not the only parent working with your child on big issues like behavioral problems, social skills deficits, or low academic performance. Everyone is working on something.

The Giant Paddington Bear

My first real coaching experience was at age 13 with my cousin Aiden (not his real name). I was his nanny that summer. Aiden was 5 years old. His parents taught at a prestigious boarding school every day during the summer, and I was tasked with being his guardian. Despite my age, I felt like his protector rather than his playmate. I shepherded Aiden all over Surrey, England.

Aiden was bright, intuitive, and the largest 5-year-old on record. Because of his size and his hyperactivity, he created a kind of tilt-a-whirl effect wherever he went. When he bumped a shelf at a small shop, it would cause seismic shifts. When he completed an energetic canon ball into a pool, it created havoc with other swimmers. And when he played a little too enthusiastically, it upset other children. I wanted Aiden to be successful and not to be constantly in trouble. He was fun and had a great sense of humor.

But when he played, his impulsive behavior often got in the way. In addition, Aiden could not really control his body in the post office or in line at the bank. He needed to move at all times, and the compulsion presented a problem in certain settings.

When we visited London, Aiden saw a giant Paddington bear. And somehow I knew he would do anything for that bear. So I created my first reward program. I made a chart on poster board and placed it above his bed in the palatial Victorian mansion that housed the school. In order to win the bear, Aiden had to engage in specific behaviors for a set amount of time. We talked through these desired behaviors and rehearsed them. I even developed cues to remind him of his goals while we were out.

Aiden quickly began to flourish. He was eager for the check marks on the chart, willing to listen, and motivated to do better each time we went out. We discussed his progress daily while eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and fantasizing about the giant Paddington bear in London.

By the end of the summer, Aiden had earned that bear, and I had learned my first important coaching lesson: reward programs can change behavior. I am happy to report that Aiden is now a flourishing and successful young man.


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