Hello, friends, and welcome to part 3 of our collaborative parenting series, all about applying collaborative problem solving to your parenting.
We’ve already talked about why you need to try collaborative parenting (especially if you or some of your family members are ADHD or autistic), and we discussed the four perspective shifts you need to work through before you try to implement it.
Please make sure you read those posts before trying this form of collaborative problem solving out in your home!
So we’ve done all the prep work we need to do to give this collaborative parenting, collaborative problem solving approach a go. Today, we’re going to get into it.
How does collaborative parenting actually work?
First, you'll remember that collaborative parenting puts you, your child, and your parenting partners on the same team. You need to approach this with the understanding that you are on the same side as your child, not on the opposing one.
So, if we boil this all the way down, I’m going to tell you to:
- listen to your kids, and
- treat them like their opinion matters.
I know that sounds pithy, but hear me out: if you want your child’s respect and trust, you can’t treat your child as though their opinions and ideas are worth less than yours are.
Collaborative parenting is about communicating together, compromising so more of you are happier, and making decisions as a family. If you want children to be open to you and your influence, you need to show them what that looks like. Be open to them, too.
Through this bond of trust, the parent can create a more positive, mutually respectful relationship with their children, by demonstrating that the children matter to the parent, and that the parent will hear the children (even if they don’t agree with the children).
Think about how much it can mean to you when a good friend listens to you venting about your problems. Just being heard and not being dismissed can build trust so much. Children need to be heard too.
Second, part of your job as a parent is demonstrative – you are teaching your children how to do things by offering them yourself as an example. You can teach them to hear you by hearing them first. You can show them how to work with you by being willing to work with them first.
You are in this together, as a family. You will work together to solve everybody’s problems, without automatically putting the parents’ priorities first.
So, all that said, here are the steps to implementing collaborative parenting in your home!
If you have been using a different parenting style, especially if you've been using something more confrontational, you will need to commit to collaborative parenting 100%. It will take time for you to learn the rhythms of it, and much more time for you to get good at it.
And, it will take some time for your kids to learn to trust in it too. So the first step needs to be your wholehearted commitment, your willingness to give it time, and your understanding that no one is perfect at this right off the bat, and that's okay, as long as you're trying.
Think of learning to ride a bike. In the beginning, you fall off a lot, get super frustrated, and it's easy to assume it's never going to work. But the more you try, the better you get. Collaborative parenting is the same way.
Let's start off with a hypothetical situation:
You need to go to the grocery store and your 4 year-old won't put their shoes on. You've asked calmly several times and have been ignored (or yelled at).
You're starting to feel angry and frustrated that they're not doing what you asked, and worried that being late to the store will throw off your whole day. What should you do?
Slow Down and Stay Calm
Step away if you need to and take a couple of breaths. Notice what you're feeling (frustrated, worried, annoyed, etc). These feelings are yours and based in your priorities. Your priorities may not be the same as your child's. Remember, your child is doing their best in this situation, so try to get yourself calm and ready to approach them with an open mind.
Decide What's Important
Take a minute and think to yourself: right now, in this moment, what is more important: working on our parent-child relationship, or getting out the door right this second?
In the beginning of trying collaborative parenting, I strongly suggest that you put aside everything else and prioritize this reset of your parent-child relationship. It will make the entire process faster and more smooth for everyone involved.
The more time you put in in the beginning, the faster you'll learn the methods, the faster you'll rebuild trust with your child, and the faster you're likely to see results.
That said, there are certainly times when you really, truly, do not have the time to worry about your child's priorities. If not getting to the grocery store on time means you don't get to eat tonight, then by all means, choose the grocery store.
But if you have any flexibility at all, apply that to give you and your child more time to work through this. Maybe you can go to the store later. Maybe your friend or partner can go instead.
Think about a couple of options that might work before you even talk to a younger child, if you can. It will help calm you down, and it will help you have some other options to present to your child if you need to.
Hear the Child
Okay, so you're calmer, and you've decided to prioritize figuring out what's going on with your kiddo before you get going anywhere. Now, let's go back to your child and talk to them about it.
First, you need to get your child's attention. If they're calm, go to the same room as them, touch them on the shoulder if that's comfortable for them, and try to make sure they can hear you and are attending.
Different strategies work for different children, and you know your child best. What we want is a kiddo who is open to hearing you, not excessively stressed out, and not afraid of consequences.
If your child is too stressed, is melting down or shutting down, please give them some time and whatever comforts they need to settle out. You can put off this conversation until they are calm again.
This is part of the process of creating trust - we don't want them to feel like they were forced to talk when they weren't ready or able, or to feel judged for being unable to attend, as this is probably something that's not under their control.
Once they're focused on you and able to communicate, ask them what's going on in a neutral, calm voice. You might say something like, "Hey, I noticed you're not putting on your shoes today for the grocery store. Can you tell me what you're thinking?"
Give them some time to process the question. Especially in the beginning, if they're not used to you reacting to issues in a non-confrontational way, they may need to think through what they want to say, and spontaneous word generation can be really tough for kids with ADHD or autistic kids, especially when they're in a state of heightened arousal.
If they have a lot of trouble generating a response, or if they're not able to communicate in a nuanced fashion, go ahead and slowly offer some Yes or No questions, giving them lots of processing time. Stay neutral-positive. An example might be as basic as:
Adult: "Do you want to go to the grocery store?"
Adult: "Okay, thanks for answering me. Can we go right now?"
Adult: "Okay, we can't go right now. Is there something else we need to do first?"
Adult: "So, we don't need to do anything first, but we can't go to grocery store right now. I noticed you didn't put on your shoes. Is the problem something with your shoes?"
Adult: "That's helpful. Do you not want to wear your shoes?"
Child: "No, don't want to."
Adult: "You don't want to wear your shoes, but you do want to go to the grocery store. What should we do to solve this problem?"
This is obviously a verbal example, but you can absolutely adapt it to any communication system. Keeping your questions direct, short, and clear really helps here. Sometimes figuring out what's going on is a super slow process in the beginning, but you'll both get faster at it the more you practice, so don't be dissuaded if it's very slow, or even if your approach doesn't work at all the first time out.
Give yourself and your child time to adjust to this new method.
So you narrowed down the problem to the best of both of your abilities! Good job! Now, you and your child will want to brainstorm together to work out how to solve the problem. Let your child offer ideas as often as you do. Some of their ideas will obviously not work out for whatever reason, but you will probably be surprised at how often their ideas are totally workable.
A lot of kids, especially ADHD and autistic kids, have out-of-the-box thinking styles - please encourage them! They also have out-of-the-box problems and sometimes some creativity in problem-solving can go a long way.
Make a list together of all the ways you could solve the problem, and then have a calm, measured discussion about what you should do to achieve the goal. Take breaks if you need to. Definitely let your kid take breaks if they need to. Remember what you decided your priority was, and remember that you don't have anywhere else you need to be right now.
Solve the Problem
Now, initially, your child may not used to being a collaborator with you, and it might take some time to get used to the role. I recommend trying to let your child feel a "win" the first few times out if at all possible. That might mean you go to the grocery store with two different shoes, or slippers, or even just socks the first time.
This doesn't mean you will have to let your kid go to the store in socks every time. Initially, you are just trying to show your child that you will listen to them, and that you understand their concerns are valid. Once you get that across to them consistently, over time, they will become more willing to hear your side, as well, and you will become more able to set boundaries that are consistent.
If your child is used to yelling, time outs, or other punishments, it's likely they're also used to you being inconsistent in delivering those punishments. If you can be consistent with collaborative parenting, your child will start to learn that boundaries are boundaries. And, if you're explaining the boundary the same way every time, your child will start to internalized that those boundaries are for their own benefit.
(If you can't explain your boundaries, please reconsider why they're there in the first place. None of this "I'm the parent, and I said so!" stuff, please - if you have a boundary, it should be benefiting the family in some way, and you should be able to explain why it exists, even to a young child.)
Collaborative parenting is an amazing system, and it has improved our family dynamic so much in such a relatively short time. But it takes patience, time, and consistency to work. You will make mistakes, you will lose your temper and yell, your kid will have an exceptionally bad day - these things happen.
The main thing is to notice your mistake and work to correct it as soon as you can. Apologize to your kid. Ask what you and they could have done instead, and promise to try to do better next time. Remember you're all in it together. Good luck!
Have more questions about collaborative parenting? Leave them in a comment below!