“Nobody’s ever talked positively about my child”

Jeanie enrolled in one of my eight-week parent coaching programs because she and her son had “reached a new level of struggle.” 10-year-old Corey had always been difficult. When his parents asked him to do something, he would argue, insisting that he shouldn’t have to do it, or else he would “negotiate,” promising to do it later or promising to do it if he got something in return. “He’s never been an easy kid,” Jeanie said. “But now he’s outright defiant. His anger has gotten worse, too.”

One of the things that concerned Jeanie was the fact that Corey wasn’t like the other kids she knew. “My friends’ kids aren’t like this,” she told me. “I have an 8-year-old daughter, and she and Corey are like day and night. That tells me I’m not just a bad parent!”

After asking questions that helped me to get a good sense of Corey’s behavior at school, with friends, and with grownups besides his parents, my next step was to assure Jeanie that Corey’s “difference” was normal. “Corey’s at or above all the developmental milestones,” I said. “Yes, he can be overbearing with his friends; he doesn’t always listen to his teachers; but it doesn’t sound like there’s anything ‘wrong’ – he’s just very strong-willed. You say he’s been tested for ADHD, but defiance, or an outright refusal to listen, isn’t actually a sign of ADHD. I work with a lot of families with kids like Corey.”

I then explained that different kids behave differently based just on their temperament. “You know how it is,” I said. “People have different personalities. Some people are introverted. Some are extroverted. Some people are laid-back and easygoing. Some are high-strung and controlling! Corey says No to you and he hates it when you say No to him because he has a high need for control. That’s a temperament trait,” I said. “But the good news is, Corey’s temperament is also a huge strength. Corey wants what he wants, right? That’s a good thing! Corey knows his own mind. I’ll bet anything he’s a leader, not a follower! And he’s not afraid to fight for what he wants. Corey is strong-willed, and a strong will is a strength.”

Jeanie was a little surprised and very relieved to hear about the strengths inherent in Corey’s problem behavior. And I could see tears in her eyes when she said, “Nobody I’ve ever talked to ever said anything positive about Corey.”

“I know,” I said. “People mostly think there’s something wrong with oppositional kids. And it’s important that you really appreciate the positive aspects of Corey’s problem behavior, not just so you’ll understand him, but because this will help you to parent more effectively. We are going to solve the problems, but I want you to be very intentional about seeing his strengths, because that’s going to ease your anxiety. It’s going to ease your frustration, and it will make it a lot easier for you to be patient and positive with him, and that’s going to be part of the solution.”

Over the course of the next seven weeks I showed Jeanie what to do when Corey was defiant or disrespectful, and I also showed the family how to solve problems together, so Corey had a say in the outcome. And in the beginning, he struggled with some of the changes! I was teaching his mom how to set limits despite his defiance, and at first this was very frustrating for him. For the first two weeks he was angrier than usual as his old strategies for maintaining control stopped working – but Jeanie and I had planned for this “push-back,” and she knew how to respond to it. And the third week, as Jeanie got really consistent with the strategies I was showing her, Corey’s resistance decreased. He was much more accepting of his parents’ leadership, he was listening most of the time, and he fought a lot less as he saw that his parents were no longer going to engage in the conflict.

By the end of the eight-week program, Jeanie – and Corey – had solved all of the problems that had brought the family to me initially. “His personality hasn’t changed,” Jeanie said. “He’s still the same kid, he still gets frustrated. But his behavior is so much better, and now I know what works with him. Thank you for helping me to understand him better. I like being with him again!

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