How To Stop Power Struggling With Inflexible Children

Rigidity

All or nothing, inflexible, and absolute thinking patterns and behaviors are common among children with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. These children often get stuck believing their opinions are facts and then dominate conversations, convincing others they are right. Because of their rigidity, they may refuse to end discussions, refuse to engage in specific activities, or refuse to follow instructions. These interactions provoke emotionally driven disagreements. When not prepared ahead of time, it is easy to fall into the trap of arguing against their irrational thinking. Below is a useful guide to escaping the “Chinese finger trap” like interactions.s-l300

Let Go of Your Control

  1. Understand Anxiety Rules. Be aware that rigid thinking and defiance are symptoms of anxiety versus purposeful insensitivity and opposition. It is inevitable that children with anxiety will attempt to control you, others, and their environment. Although not socially appropriate, this behavior helps anxious children eliminate their feelings of helplessness, while also securing their sense of safety.
  2. Don’t React. When a child challenges you, especially if the child is being defiant, disruptive, or verbally aggressive, it can test even the most experienced parent or professional. Defending yourself against their negative behaviors only traps you in an endless power struggle. This is why it will help to remind yourself ahead of time that inflexible children are coming from a place of fear and not hate. Similar to what you would tell your children when you notice yourself getting upset, stop and take a deep breath. Imagine an invisible bubble around you and their words ricocheting off the bubble.
  3. Lean In with Validation. The sure-fire way to get out of a Chinese finger trap is to push your fingers together to release the trap’s hold. Similarly, when working with an inflexible child, the more you fight against their argument, the more resistance they will give you and the situation. Because their attempt to control their situation is coming from fear, the key for them to let down their defenses and “loosen the finger trap” is for you to lean in and provide reassurance, comfort, and empathy for their concerns.
  4. Pick Your Battles. When safety is not a concern, decide what interactions are worth addressing in the moment. Even if it means opinions differ or someone is not being included, sometimes letting go of the outcome of being right is more valuable than carrying on an endless heated debate.
  5. Teach Social Consequences. During a moment of calm and when time and privacy permit, share your genuine observations of the children’s behaviors and your concerns for how they may be perceived by others. Show a Chinese Finger Trap and explain how the children’s inflexible thinking and controlling behaviors trap others into feeling uncomfortable around them. Discuss the natural consequences and your concerns for their friendships. Teach them that when they are more flexible, the finger trap loosens and others feel more comfortable and driven to wanting to their friend.
  6. Address the Anxiety. Provide a predictable environment with visual schedules and proactive commentary of what will happen at each stage of the day. Teach and practice coping strategies to manage transitions, new experiences. and social anxiety. Always remember that anxiety is a driving force to rigidity and the key to escaping the power struggle trap.

Building Bridges with Parents of Disruptive Children

Reach out to parents early on to share your interest and good intentions of working together. After speaking to a parent in person or over the phone, an online partnership might be a good next step. To promote parent reception and eliminate defensiveness, consider scheduled weekly or biweekly emails:

Bridge Building 101

building bridge

Review specific goal(s). Keep the email focused on the specific goal that is being worked on. This will help eliminate child blame and focus on strategies that are working or need tweaking. For example, instead of “I am emailing you about David’s anger problem,” try “I am emailing you today regarding our goal of anger management.”

Use language that demonstrates partnership, such as “us, we, our, let’s.” Although this may show a looseness of boundaries,  we want parents to understand we are equally invested in their child’s goals and progress; and this avoids blaming statements.  A helpful example of positive language is, “let’s  work on helping David with coping skills this week.”

Invite parent expertise. A newbie mistake is assuming parents are at fault for their child’s behaviors. Regularly ask the parent/s for their advice. Ask what has worked for their child before, what is working for the child at home, and what reasonable suggestions the school could try to help their child’s behavior. This will not only provide strategies you may not have considered before but helps to improve the parent’s feeling of value and connection.

Include positive behaviors and progress towards goals. Similar to children, parents need to feel encouraged and supported. Parents need to hear their children are moving in a positive direction and although there may be a temporary regression, reminders of the steps made forward are necessary to sustain hope. Although this may be a challenge, it will be a critical piece of gaining parent investment.

When sharing updates that include negative behaviors, avoid language that shows judgment or criticism. Simply state the facts. Instead of  “David lost control again and rudely threw his pencil. He can’t seem to control his anger,” try, “David struggled with impulse control today and threw his pencil.” Sticking to facts prevents emotional and finger-pointing responses.

Avoid reviewing the negative consequences to their child’s behaviors, such as “the teacher and the classmates are tired of his behavior.”  This will only promote shame and resistance. Instead, focus on the positive consequences that include the both of you working together. For example, “I plan to review coping skills with David this week. I will send home a list of the skills he prefers to practice at home.”

Offer help.  Even the best of parents feel helpless and inadequate. Instead of imposing recommendations, when appropriate, gently offer solutions. For example, “If you are interested, I have found some useful tips that may work at home, I would be happy to email you.” Other suggestions that help support the parent include collaborating with the student’s outside therapist and providing updates as needed.

Lastly, although parents can have a negative influence at times, we do not want to take for granted the positive influences they have on your student’s success. These emails may seem like a chore at first, but once you create a trusting connection with a parent, the fewer details need to be provided and most importantly, the alliance built aids in improved behaviors. Finally, when writing your email, always put yourself in the parent’s shoes and ask yourself, what would I want to read if this was my child?

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