Parenting Children with Challenging Behavior

Having trouble with your challenging child? Feeling like you’re at your wits’ end and not sure how to manage? Parenting Coach Dr. Sarah Keenan Jacobi can relate. She felt totally unprepared for parenting her strong willed toddler and as a result, embarked on a journey to better understand her child. Today, she’s a certified Parenting Coach who believes kids and parents do well if they can. With two exceptional and high-needs children, Sarah is uniquely qualified to offer the most empathetic and practical parenting coaching around.

Sarah took some time to chat with us about her journey to becoming a Parenting Coach, the most common parenting challenges, and gives practical advice for struggling parents.

ParentGood: It’s so great to speak with you. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a Parenting Coach?

Dr. Sarah Keenan Jacobi: I’m so excited to speak with you!  My path to parent coaching has been a bit untraditional.  I hold a PhD in Decision Science from Johns Hopkins. Before having children, my professional career involved helping environmental managers tackle difficult decisions. When my older daughter was born, I was unprepared for the enormous impact becoming a parent would have on me emotionally. I felt compelled to return to my professional career having put so much time and energy into it, yet at the same time, longed to be with my daughter.  I lived with this tension for many years.  As she got older and we had our second daughter, parenting required more of me. I was comfortable parenting an infant, but felt totally unprepared for parenting a strong willed toddler.  As time went on, our older daughter revealed herself to be a very spirited, emotionally intense, and high needs child. The confidence I felt mothering her as an infant quickly eroded when I was faced with her strong personality around the age of three. I felt like I had no roadmap. I was confused about how to raise her.  

My natural tendency was to seek information, advice, and support from as many sources as I could.  Just like with my PhD, over time, I became an expert in my child and was well-versed in many parenting approaches.  I also noticed that I really enjoyed sharing my knowledge and counseled many friends on parenting approaches for their own spirited children.  When I found myself ready to embrace my passion of helping other parents, I worked with an amazing coach who introduced me to parent coaching. In 2019, I became a PCI Certified Parent Coach®. My passion is helping parents with high needs kids, especially gifted children and children with ADHD and anxiety.  

Most of the work you do focuses around challenging behavior. How do you define ‘challenging behavior’ and what types of behavior does it include?

This is such an excellent question!  Challenging behavior, to me, can be defined from two perspectives.  First, we can think of the behavior from the child’s perspective: a challenging behavior is how a child expresses her/himself when having difficulty meeting an expectation. These behaviors can run the gamut from whining, complaining, and crying, all the way to hitting, biting, self-harm or worse. Challenging behaviors don’t exist in a vacuum.  They depend on the circumstances surrounding a demand placed on a child (or an adult for that matter).  We all are guilty of challenging behavior. For me, I struggle with patience when I’m hungry.  I have difficulty meeting my expectation of calm, loving communication with my family if I need to eat. Fortunately, my challenging behavior is more towards the whining/complaining end of the spectrum, with occasional yelling thrown in 🙂 The other way of defining a challenging behavior is by considering the caregiver’s perspective: a child’s behavior can be considered challenging if it causes the caregiver to act in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise. This means that challenging behaviors are really in the eyes of the beholder.  What gets on my nerves might be tolerable to you, or vice versa. For example, I may be able to tolerate my child whining (as long as I’m not hungry).  I may not like it, but it doesn’t cause me to act in a way I wouldn’t otherwise.  

What are some examples of the most common challenging behaviors parents face?

More than the behavior, I think it helps to focus on unsolved problems during which challenging behaviors occur.  If a child is displaying challenging behavior because they are having difficulty meeting an expectation, it can be helpful to think about which expectations are unmet and when. Some common unsolved problems are difficulty turning off screens, difficulty brushing teeth, difficulty going to sleep for a nap or at bedtime, difficulty going to school, difficulty playing independently, and difficulty eating what’s been served for a meal. The behaviors that occur for each child will look different.

What are some reasons children might start exhibiting such behaviors? Are there always underlying motivations or emotions?

I love this question because it really gets at what’s beneath the behavior. As Dr. Ross Greene (creator of the collaborative and proactive solutions model) says so simply, “Kids (and adults) do well if they can.” If a child is having difficulty meeting an expectation, something is getting in her/his way.  If we shift our perspective to seeing these challenging behaviors as communicating these difficulties, our approach shifts from motivating the child to WANT to do well, to teaching SKILLS the child is lacking.  If we have a child who is struggling to read, we don’t assume the child isn’t motivated to read and focus all our attention on creating incentives.  Instead, we recognize that the child is lacking certain skills to be able to read and we provide those supports to help the child gain the skills.  We can view challenging behaviors in much the same way.  These kids are lacking skills in flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving.  In addition, circumstances play an important role.  The level of stress a child is under will play a role in whether or not a demand placed on the child exceeds the child’s ability to respond adaptively to the request.  As Dr. Stuart Shanker, who developed Shaker Self-Reg®, defines it, stress comes in many forms from biological, emotional, cognitive, social, and prosocial.  Let’s talk about a real world example from my own life 🙂  

Just yesterday, my children and I met up with another family, all wearing masks, for the first time since quarantine began in mid-March.  My older daughter was working very hard to manage her emotions around this milestone.  She has anxiety and hasn’t been comfortable interacting with anyone, due to her fears around covid-19.  In addition, social interactions can be challenging for her. At one point, she got very upset and stormed off saying that the other children were jerks.  In this moment, she wasn’t able to meet the expectations of working through her challenges in a productive manner.  She was under acute emotional and social stress, and already struggles with frustration tolerance – a “perfect storm” for challenging behavior.  Whenever I can remind myself that a kid WOULD do well if she/he COULD do well, I can notice what’s getting in the child’s way and move from a place of frustration and annoyance to one of empathy and compassion.

How does raising a child who exhibits challenging behavior affect parents?

While much of parenting can be a joy, I imagine all parents feel overwhelmed and stressed by parenting from time to time.  I think the difference with parenting a challenging child is that 1) the feelings of overwhelm and stress occur more often, and to an even larger extent; and 2) much of the parenting advice being offered isn’t actually beneficial for parents of kids with challenging behavior.  So, these parents (myself included) feel more alienated.  My hope is that by empowering parents with an understanding of why challenging behaviors occur, and giving parents the appropriate tools to connect with their children and find collaborative, mutually satisfactory solutions, the feelings of overwhelm, stress and alienation will diminish.

And what about the kids? Surely being considered challenging has an effect on the child as well. How does such behavior impact a child’s self-esteem, well-being, social life, if at all?

This is a great question.  While this isn’t my area of expertise, I can surmise that yes, challenging behavior definitely impacts a child’s emotional wellbeing.  I would also strongly suggest that the traditional discipline that is used in most schools and homes also negatively impacts a behaviorally challenging child.  If a child isn’t able to meet the demands placed upon them, and the messages they are receiving from their caregivers and teachers is that they aren’t trying hard enough, the outcome is feelings of shame, inadequacy and unworthiness. In my own family, my daughters’ “stuff” their behaviors at school because they know that having a meltdown in school draws unwanted stares and attention.  Understanding that they have challenges with certain skills like flexibility and frustration tolerance has helped them to recognize when the demands placed on them exceed their ability to respond adaptively, and to advocate for themselves. My kids routinely ask for space when they are upset, remind my husband and I that they can’t answer questions when they are dysregulated, and that requests with too many steps are overwhelming.  When we acknowledge these lagging skills and find creative solutions to meet them where they are at, and still have our parental needs met, not only do things get accomplished, we build deep connection and mutual respect in the process.

If you could give one piece of advice to a parent currently dealing with challenging behavior, what would it be?

My advice would be to focus on what Dr. Greene calls the “lens change.”  The more you can truly accept that kids do well if they can, the more capable you will be at changing your intervention from one of motivating to one of collaborative problem solving. It sounds simple, but changing your perspective takes work to unlearn what we’ve been taught as parents for so long, namely that rewards and punishments are the gold standard in parenting approaches.  This hard work is worth it! By shifting the focus to teaching kids skills to work collaboratively, we are raising a generation of humans that have empathy, can articulate their needs and concerns, can listen to the needs and concerns of others, and find creative solutions to meet the needs of everyone.

How can working with a parenting coach help parents help their children to overcome challenging behavioural issues?

As a PCI Certified Parent Coach®, I work with parents to identify what they want most for their family, and facilitate the change process to reach that preferred future.  This involves identifying their values and focusing attention on what works well for their family.  In a practical sense, I work with parents to identify the range of unsolved problems that are leading to challenging behaviors.  Then, by considering what matters most for their family, we identify the top unsolved problems to tackle with the help of Dr. Greene’s collaborative and proactive solutions model.  Beyond these more concrete steps, the coaching process also helps parents to identify ways to care for themselves, because, perhaps paradoxically, by focusing on the parent’s wellness, the parent will have more to give to their children. Coaching also helps identify the parents’ lagging skills that may be contributing to the challenges of parenting, and provides accountability to the parent to make progress towards the parent’s goals.

A now for a break from the challenges. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not helping parents manage challenging behaviors?

I love spending time with my family outdoors, enjoying the picturesque natural world we are fortunate to live near. I also enjoy knitting, crocheting, sewing and other crafts. Before covid-19, I also loved the time I spent with my friends.

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