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What to Try When Time-Outs Don't Work: Collaborative Problem Solving

Gina Heumann is the author of Love Never Quits – Surviving & Thriving After Infertility, Adoption, and Reactive Attachment Disorder.

If you’re dealing with a challenging child, you may find that traditional disciplinary tactics are not working for you. You try time-outs, sticker charts, marble jars—all kinds of techniques that seem to work on other people’s children. Yet they make no difference in your home. What is a parent to do?

I suffered from this same problem for many years. My son was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder—a rare and serious condition associated with early childhood trauma. He was inflexible, angry, frustrated, and even violent most of the time. For years, it was considered a “parenting problem” to those who came in contact with us. Teachers, pediatricians, therapists, friends, and even family suggested their favorite techniques or sent us to parenting classes.

Love and Logic didn’t work. Magic 1-2-3 didn’t work. Checklists, post-its, threats, bribes—didn’t work. How on Earth are we supposed to get through to this kid? We stopped short of testing out the recommendations for corporal punishment, thinking that spanking an angry, violent child would most likely only teach him that it’s okay to hit.


My Challenging Child

Unlike most children, mine would NOT respond to the word “no” easily. It wasn’t just a failure to comply, but thrashing around, flailing his arms and legs in an attempt to hurt me, or trashing his room. Property destruction was a common theme in our house, and we fully took advantage of the warranty plans on TV’s, computers, and other electronic equipment.

When we offered consequences, such as, “Clean your room, or you’ll lose electronics”, he’d just respond with, “Just go ahead and take them because I’m not doing it!” Well, that’s not helpful. He could have spent his whole life in time-out. Sure he got consequences, but he really didn’t ever learn anything from it. The whole point of these parenting techniques is to teach them lessons, right?

We reached rock bottom in middle school, when his behavioral issues spread from the privacy of our home to the classroom. Now I was the parent of the “bad kid,” and as he got bigger, he was seen as more of a threat. He was eventually kicked out of the local public school and sent somewhere else. We were fortunate to have an alternative school in our district that was free and included bus service. Here, we learned a valuable lesson: Kids do well if they CAN.

Kids Do Well If They CAN!

That simple sentence made a world of difference in my viewpoint. My son was frustrated, angry, and violent… not because he enjoyed being that way, but because he didn’t have the skills needed to do the tasks we expected him to do. Think of it as a learning disability, but instead of having trouble reading, he’s having trouble with executive function issues; compliance. Shifting my mindset from “he’s manipulating me” to “he needs help learning these skills” was an important one in changing behaviors.

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Our new school used a disciplinary technique called “Collaborative Problem Solving” (CPS) and offered a class to help us learn this technique at home. The idea was to engage in a series of questions to determine WHY they aren’t complying with our requests and then figure out, collaboratively, how to help them develop these lacking skills we’ve identified.

This doesn’t mean we give up on expectations. We can still set limits and we’re not making excuses for our children. We’re investigating reasons why these expectations are not being met and coming up with a mutually beneficial solution. Any time you’re trying to solve a problem, you generally resort to one of three options – make the person do what you want them to do, collaborate and solve the problem together, or drop the expectation. The middle option is what we focus on with CPS.

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

The CPS Plans

  • Plan A
    This is what most parents use to impose their will. We tell them what to do, how to do it, and set clear expectations of what happens if they don’t comply. If you have a neurotypical kid, this works great… but it doesn’t promote problem solving.
  • Plan C
    Now, a lot of parents/teachers/coaches decide that Plan A isn’t working, so they just drop their expectations of that child. Forget it. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re giving in. We’re just prioritizing for now and putting this issue on the back burner until we are better able to deal with it.
  • Plan B
    Plan B is the heart of the CPS technique and involves three simple steps:
  1. Identify the child’s reasons for noncompliance and reassure them that you won’t be forcing your will to make them meet this expectation.
  2. Identify your concern with why this expectation is necessary.
  3. Brainstorm solutions together to find a way to meet the expectation in a mutually beneficial manner. This technique helps strengthen relationships, build skills, and improve confidence.

A Better Solution

Collaborative Problem Solving is a great way to help challenging children develop skills needed to help them grow. I’m still practicing and improving my CPS techniques at home and find that it helps him with frustration tolerance, flexibility, and is slowly building skills needed to succeed. I now have hopes that he’ll grow up to be a productive adult someday.

If time-outs aren’t working for you, I urge you to learn about CPS and try to implement this revolutionary technique in your home and school!

Learn more about CPS here:


Larry Slawson from North Carolina on July 31, 2019:

Interesting article. Very informative! Thank you for sharing!

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