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Collaborative Problem Solving: Parenting Challenging Teens

Do you parent a challenging teen and it doesn't seem that rewards and punishments work? Consequences may bring about short term change but then the teen is back to the same old behavior. Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) may be the answer you're looking for.

CPS is an approach to parenting challenging teens that came out of Massachusetts General Hospital. Massachusetts General Hospital is the number one psychiatric hospital in the United States.

CPS is an approach that is supported by research and has been shown to be effective. This is an approach that is based in neuroscience and specifically for a child's and teens developing brain.

CPS also takes into account the teen's developmental stage in social and coping skill acquisition. It's important to remember that our teens are more like 'big kids' and less like 'little adults' in this regard. They are in the stage of their life where they are practicing social and coping skills that they will later use as adults. They have not mastered these skills yet in fact, they are in the stage of just starting to learn them.

CPS helps teens develop social skills of cognitive flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. It uses an approach that mirrors the teen's brain stage of development.

First Foundation Principle of CPS: Teens do Well if They Can

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Building a Strong Foundation for Connected Relationships

This morning when I woke up, I didn't think to myself:

"Self, today I want to cause as many arguments, break as many rules as possible, and be the most challenging person I can be."

You could say that may goals for daily functioning are a bit higher than this.

Teens are no different. They don't wake up each day with the goal of being challenging. With the goal of lying and manipulating. With the goal of seeing how they can further ruin their life relationships. Just like you and me, we don't start out wanting to do bad. Adults and teens do well if we can.

Much of this teen behavior likely springs from an internal state of unhappiness. And lucky for us, our teens are very insightful about what they are experiencing in their internal world and are awesome at talking with their parents about it. If your teens are like my teens -- not so much.

Your teen may be struggling with teen depression. This is a feeling that we adults may have experienced and learned how to manage it. For teens, it's usually when depression first starts to emerge so this is new for them.

Or, your teen may be experiencing teen anxiety. Again, we adults have felt this feeling over time and have had plenty of opportunities to learn how to cope with or manage this feeling. During the teen years is generally when anxiety first emerges. This is new for them.

Teen trauma, ADHD/ODD, PTSD, all these are new experiences for teens. Not only may they not have the skill to manage them, they may not have the words to adequately describe what they are feeling.

This is one reason teens do not talk about their inner experience. They can't describe and pinpoint what is going on internally or they think it will just go away when they become an adult. Often, they don't grown out of it but grow into it.

Second Foundational Principle of CPS: Skill not Will

We are all in a stage or lifelong learning and development. There are some skills that you and I as adults are still working on mastering. It may be the skill of budgeting. Maybe we are working on being more loving and kind. Possibly we ourselves are working on frustration tolerance.

As healthy adults, we recognize that we still have things to improve in ourselves. Each day when we wake up, though we may not have the skill mastered yet, we have the will to succeed and the will to keep at it.

Teens are no different. Remember, teens will do well if they can. If they can't do well, it may be due to not yet having learned the skill to do well. As mentioned above, you then throw in the complexity of teen depression, ADHD/ODD, teen anxiety, trauma, and PTSD, the deck is already stacked against them.

They are already in a developmental stage of just starting to learn life skills. Now they also need to learn complex emotional regulation skills.

Teens would do well if they could. It may be more skill related than will related. I don't know many teens that wake up with the goal of being unhappy, unsuccessful, and causing family conflict. I think they wake up wanting the opposite but simply do not know how. Some have even become hopeless as a result.

The 'How To' of Collaborative Problem Solving: Plans A, B, and C

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Practice the Plans With Consistency for Results

Collaborative Problem Solving has three plans that comprise the approach. Below are those plans and a discussion of each:

Plan A

Impose Adult Will

Plan B

Collaborative Problem Solving

Plan C

Planned and Strategic Ignoring

Yet with many things that are simple to understand, it may be more challenging in practice. Remember, this is not only a new skill for the teen to learn but also for you as the parents.

These plans will feel foreign and a little awkward at first. That's okay. You may not see that it changes things in the time that you would prefer. That's okay too, learning new skills takes repetition, practice, and consistency. There needs to be a degree of 'stick-to-it-tiveness' to this approach.

One mistake I see parents make is to give up on practicing CPS with their teen. Because it's not 'working' (or doesn't seem to be working) they give up and go back to the old way of doing things. If the old way was working so well, why were you looking for a new way? The answer often is because the old way feels more familiar and comfortable.

This is not an overnight fix. Your teen may not respond to CPS for some time. Your teen may (okay, 99.9% chance that they WILL learn to manipulate) CPS. That's okay. Give them credit for creative thinking then plug the hole in the plan that they used to manipulate and keep practicing.

Plan A: Impose Adult Will

Plan A is fairly simple to understand. This plan is the, "I'm the adult and you just need to do what I say" plan. This is the go to for many parents. This is also one area that will take a paradigm shift for some parents when moving to a CPS approach.

We know the difference between the adult way of thinking with all our years of wisdom and experience vs. the teen’s way of thinking. It makes sense to many of us that:

  1. We are older and wiser and we know what is best

  2. We are their parents and they just need to do what we ask

  3. By giving up control, I am letting my teen 'win' and get away with things

Yet, again, how it imposing adult will working for you? It may make us feel a sense of control over the situation. But, when we look at the teen's behavior, how much control have we really exerted to change things?

There are times when adult will needs to be imposed. If your teen is standing to close to the edge of a cliff, we are not going to collaborate on problem solving. We are going to impose our adult will and have them move away from the ledge.

If we have a teen who has asked to go to a party where there are drugs and alcohol and our teen struggles with these things, we need to say no.

If you have a teen who is constantly picking on a younger sibling, we may need to step in and impose adult will to protect the sibling.

Imposing adult will usually comes down to safety. If a teen will be in an unsafe situation, you will need to impose adult will. In CPS, Plan A is not the preferred plan of choice but is needed in some circumstances and is one of the strategies.

Plan C: Planned and Strategic Ignoring

You may have asked, "Hey, what about Plan B?". We will return to plan B as that is the meat of CPS. Helping to understand Plan A and Plan C first will help make Plan B make more sense.

Plan C is when you are in a situation that needs to be addressed but you know addressing it will make the situation worse at that moment. If this is the case, you strategically ignore the situation. The word 'strategically' is significant here.

Though we ignore the behavior to not make the situation worse in the moment, we also create a mental plan on how we will circle around later and address the behavior.

Example of a Plan C

Let's say you stay up late waiting in the dark for your teen to return home and they are long past their curfew. You're sitting in the living room while everyone is sleeping in the house.

Suddenly, you hear the lock on the door every slowly and near silently start to turn. You watch as the door every slowly starts to open. You watch as your teen turns around and ever slowly and silently closes the door.

Your teen turns around and you click on the lamp. BUSTED! It would be appropriate to tell your teen how much trouble he is in for once again breaking their curfew. You could go into great detail about how inconsiderate it is and it would be completely appropriate.

But, you also know your teen has a history of yelling in times like these. You don't want to wake the rest of the house. So, you strategically ignore the situation telling your teen that you will talk to them more about this in the morning.

This is an example of where you know addressing the situation in the moment will make things worse (waking up the house). You know your teen is home safe and will be there in the morning. Choosing to talk to your son in the morning is a strategic plan on how to, not let the behavior go, but hold him accountable at a better time.

Plan B: Collaborative Problem Solving

Plan B is the skill building component of Collaborative Problem Solving. The steps in a Plan B are:

  1. Empathy and Seek to Understand

  2. Seek to be Understood

  3. Collaborate on Solutions to the Problem

Below we will provide more detail and explanation behind these steps:

Step 1 Empathy: Seek to Understand

This can be a challenging step. There can be hurt feelings, frustration, and a desire to shake your teen to try and wake them up to reality. Yet, it is probably the most important step to start with.

The first step is to meet with your teen and seek to understand from their perspective and what they 'need'. This is not a time to counter argue, provide facts or evidence, but to simply listen to understand where they are coming from. It may not be rationale. It may not be true. But, when your teen feels that you totally understand where they are coming from, they are more likely to listen to you and where you are coming from.

If we can put aside our own emotions, not interrupt or interject, and listen to understand, your teen's more likely to listen when you talk. Asking clarifying questions with the intent to understand better is important. Think about it from your own life. When someone truly listens to understand your point of view, how likely are you to listen to understand theirs? It's a skill that can be built in both parents and teens.

Step 2: Seek to be Understood

Once your teen feels and acknowledges that you do understand what they are saying, it's your turn to present your side. This is a time where you can present what you need as a parent. Often, the theme of what is needed revolves around safety and wellbeing.

This is a time where the teen can practice the skill of listening to understand. Neither you nor the teen need to agree with each other's points of view. That's not what this step is about. It's simply to understand the other.

As adults this may be a bit easier as we have more practice in this area due to our years of experience. For a teen, this may be one of the first times they have practiced this skill.

Be patient and understanding that your teen may want to listen to understand, but that this is a new skill that is being developed. If you have truly listened to understand and your teen starts interrupting, you can politely remind them that you listened to them. You can ask the same from them and continue presenting what you need from the teen.

Once you believe your teen truly understands where you are coming from and your teen believe you truly understand where they are coming from, it's time for the next step.

Step 3: Collaborate on Solutions to the Problem

Often, teens are not involved in solving the problems and really not involved in deciding the consequences for their actions. This is the step where you can ask the teen what they believe the consequences need to be. It is also the step to identify a plan moving forward in how to help the teen get what they need in safe, healthy ways.

Knowing that both understand what the other needs, ask the teen their opinion on how to move forward. What do they think the consequences should be for breaking an established family rule? What is their solution to help them get what they need while at the same time respecting what the parent needs?

Together, you can shape this conversation so that a consequence can be created and a plan moving forward can be established.

Some Final Words of Wisdom Based on Experience

Just like learning any new skill, this will take time, effort, and consistency to be effective. The concept of CPS 'working' is sometimes not in the outcome in the beginning. CPS is working if you are practicing the skills no matter the outcome. Just like any skill that learned, the more you practice, the better you will become at it and you will start having better outcomes as a result.

Don't give up because you're not immediately getting the outcome you want. Keep practicing. Stay committed to the course. Over time, you and your teen will start learning the skills that will ultimately help strengthen your relationship.

Collaborative Problem Solving Resources

Below are two good resources for your Collaborative Problem Solving journey that can help you along the way:

Think Kids: Rethinking Challenging Kids

The Explosive Child: A New Approach For Understanding And Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children -- Ross W. Greene, Ph.D

Currently on for $11.29

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Katy Teen & Family Counseling specializes in teen therapy and family counseling. Our therapists have worked with struggling teens who want nothing more than to succeed but have struggled to do so. We can help teach the skills needed to bring hope, happiness, and connected family relationships.

We work with teens who experience teen depression, teen anxiety, panic attacks, ADHD/ODD, substance abuse, and other emotional and behavioral challenges. We also provide trauma therapy and PTSD treatment for teens. We provide a variety of teen therapy and family counseling approaches that are supported by research and found to be effective.

We also provide services to help student athletes, gifted teens, and academic teens through peak performance training. Neurofeedback provides a brain map of your teen's brain and identifies areas to enhance to increase academic athletic performance.

Katy Teen & Family Counseling Serving the Katy, Texas & Houston Area

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We Are Here to Help Your Teen and Family

If your teen may be struggling and you may be finding the family strained as a result, we can help. At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we have 33 years of combined experience in teen counseling and family therapy. Our office is conveniently located off of I-10 and Grand Parkway (we are behind the Academy Sports).

If you would like to start teen counseling or family therapy, you can follow these three simple steps:

  1. Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling

  2. Speak with one of our teen therapy and family counseling specialists

  3. Star your journey with an experienced guide who can help your teen and family succeed

Teen Counseling & Family Therapy Services at Katy Teen & Family Counseling

At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we provide a variety of research supported therapy approaches. Many of these teen counseling and family therapy approaches have been shown to be effective in the shortest amount of time. Below are the services that we provide:

Neurofeedback For:

Peak performance (optimal academic brain performance)

Peak performance (optimal athletic brain performance)

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR therapy) For:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) For:​

How to Begin Teen Therapy or Family Counseling

To begin teen therapy or family counseling, simply contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling through our website or by calling 346-202-4662. Our Owner and Lead Clinician answers each phone call to help match you with the right therapist for you teen and family.

About the Author

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Jason Drake is a Licensed Clinical Worker. He is a Specialist in Teen Therapy & Family Counseling. He has provided therapy to teens and families since 2003. Through his expertise, he helps teens who struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD/ADD, and PTSD. He works with talented teen athletes who have experience mental blocks. Gifted students have unique challenges that Jason understands well. Jason uses CBT, EMDR, Neurofeedback, FFT, and Motivational Interviewing. We only work with teens and families which allows us to focus on what teens and families of today need. Resolving the struggles of today can assure a more successful tomorrow. Proudly serving Katy, Tx and Houston.

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