Transcript: Helping Parents Cope With Challenging Behavior

This is a text transcript from The First Time Mum’s Chat podcast. The episode is called Helping Parents Cope With Challenging Behavior and you can click on the link to view the full episode page, listen to the episode and view the show notes.

Helen Thompson: In this week’s episode of First Time Mum’s Chat, I’m chatting with Sandra who has a background working with children, youth, and families in settings including day treatment, counseling, education, and therapeutic settings. Sandra’s life journey is a result of her brother’s mental health issues that sadly ended in his suicide at the age of 18.

Sandra has developed her Pillars for Success parenting program to find solutions for other families. You’ll hear Sandra talk about the three core reasons for challenging and defiant behavior, words that she refers to as the ‘C’ word, which when removed from your vocabulary, will remove the possibility of your child responding defensively or aggressively, why she uses outcomes instead of consequences and why this avoids taking you down the path that is likely to lead to negative interactions and negative outcomes.

And so, so much more…

Hi Sandra, and welcome to First Time Mum’s Chat. I’m looking forward to talking with you about how you help parents with challenging behavior.

Sandra Kwesell: I have worked in child development my entire career and I’ve worked every setting on planet earth from prison systems to preschools and everything in between and this is what I found out, principles of the Pillars for Success were developed as a result of experiences in all of these different settings.

I’ve also directed day treatment centers. I mean, you name it and I have done it and I fostered children in my home for close to 30 years and the children I fostered were children for whom no other placements were available because of the severity and complexity of their behaviors.

And I had one young man come into my home at the age of five. He had already been in 10 placements in two years. So what I have learned about human needs and human behavior is the following, that there are basically 3 core reasons for challenging and defiant behavior and I have never seen this model not apply whatever setting and whatever a family is dealing with. So the first is attention, there is nothing that a human being will not do to be acknowledged that they exist and by the way, if they can’t get your attention positively, they sure know how to get it other ways, don’t they?

The second one is basic survival. Every human being needs a place to sleep, food to eat, some sense of safety and again, there is nothing a human being will not do to have that sense of power and control over their lives. So it’s attention, basic survival and the third one really is focused on control and power. There is nothing a child won’t do, there’s nothing a human being won’t do, to have some sense of power and control over their lives and so the model is no longer to identify the behavior and then have consequences for it and the training goes into the subtleties of human behavior and human interaction.

So one of the things that I teach during the training is that there are certain words that have a negative charge to them. That just by using those words, you can stimulate a negative response on the part of the child. I refer to them as contaminated words and one of those words, I call it the ‘C’ word when I’m teaching my course, one of those words is consequences. So what I learned from working with all the children and all the settings, including in my home, is if you remove those negatively charged words, you also remove the possibility that a child will respond defensively or aggressively, to show that he or she has power and control, in spite of those words.

In the parenting courses that I teach, I tell them that I use the word outcomes instead of consequences. I have chosen a totally medium word that has no identity to people and so there are outcomes for behaviors in my world, not consequences and there are other commonly negatively charged words that will take you down a path that will just increase the possibility of negative interactions and negative outcomes. So now the goal, once you understand those three basic human needs, the goal is to teach the child how to fulfill those needs and support the child in fulfilling those needs in positive ways that include acceptable behavior and it’s phenomenal and the training breaks it down into the 9 pillars. So what I discovered again, and all the research and experience I’ve had is that pillar 1 is simply, children think differently from adults. Of course they do to you and I, they don’t to many hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of adults who interact with them, talk to them and decide to structure their life with them and have expectations of them, without realizing that children don’t even have the conceptual ability in their brain yet, partially because of brain development.

It takes time even after birth and also with the experiences in their lives, they haven’t had that many experience in their lives. And the third factor is you would combine that with those three basic needs and so pillar number 1 is just explaining to families how and in what way, without going into the science of it. I don’t know about you, but I have never met a frustrated parent who wants to have long lectures and tons of information thrown out their way. What they basically want to do is find some way to get those needs met. It’s unconscious, they’re not aware of it, and they will do whatever is necessary to do that. So now, here’s another negatively charged word, the ‘P’ word, punishment and so I explain to parents, even just using those words triggers a negative response from the child and we talk about all the different possibilities that could be used instead. So sometimes parents will say, well, you know, I don’t think that’s the case and I’ll say, well, okay, I hear you, try it this week and see what happens. Experiment with it. In other words, they have to believe it, they have to feel that it’s useful for them to be able to use it and apply it in a way that will create positive change.

Pillar number 2 is emotional age affects our feelings and behavior. So every human being has two ages. They have their chronological age and they have their emotional age and the two can be very different in very many different ways. You can have a 15 year old kid who’s feeling badly about him or herself, who’s feeling unrecognized and uncared for. You’re no longer talking about a 15 year old mentality, you’re talking about someone who has much younger needs that could have and hopefully would’ve been resolved and supported at a much younger age in their life. So the other is that how you are feeling emotionally has everything to do with how you respond to situations. Now, is this just about kids? No, it isn’t. So, the training also explains that everything that goes on between two people is always about an action, a reaction and an interaction. So now we’re not just talking about whether our kid is acting out, being bratty and driving us nuts, we’re talking about what was the action, how was the response given to that action, what was the response and what was going on between the two people. So it’s a model that is used no matter what circumstance comes up and during our discussion periods, and when parents give us all kinds of, you know, well, this is what happened at my house. We break it down, we talk about it, and we talk about how you could have responded within that model of action, reaction, interaction in a way that could have met the child’s needs, drawn boundaries around the inappropriate behavior and set clear behavioral boundaries for what’s expected. The other thing is when we talk about children are concrete thinkers, we also talk about the importance of speaking to them in concrete terms and how children, they don’t interpret, they don’t have dialogues and draw conclusions from them, they’re very concrete thinkers. So it’s extremely helpful for children when you speak to them in behavioral terms. You speak to them in brief words, three to five words, six words maximum and after that, and I tell parents, if there’s anything you doubt, please test it at home and let me know what kind of an outcome you have.

I’ll say to the parents and while you’re at it, when you’re all done, telling your child exactly what’s on your mind and giving him a peaceful parent lecture, ask your child, could you please tell me what I said to you and 9.9 times out of 10, they’ll look at you and go, I don’t know because they’re not listening. So a lot of this is common rules to common behavior that people don’t realize are having profound impacts on what’s going on in their lives with the children in their lives in interactions. If they could sit down with you and say, you know mom, I’ve just been really unhappy at school and I’m having trouble in math, and so when I come home and you ask me to do things, I’m just ready to cry because I’m worn out at the end of a school day. They don’t do that, they just simply react.

And so each one of these pillars goes into more explanation without putting a parent to sleep for listening. It’s opening up the door to considering all of what’s happening between a child and the adult in his or her life and it’s absolute. So for instance, let’s take the kid who was in my home at the age of five, who’d been in 12 placements in two years and I thought about this kid and I thought about this kid and I said, wow, he was abused in every which way in his biological home. In spite of all that. Scared to death to be pulled out to a strange setting and if there is one thing that this kid had control over, cuz he was also put in new placements, which was terrifying. Brand new people, houses everything, how scary! Yeah, exactly and if there’s one thing that this kid was able to do, it was to try to take care of himself in some way by constantly challenging, constantly trying to get control over and all of that.

Now at pillar five is adult responses can alter the child’s behavior, which is true. How we as adults act and react either prior to as we’re stating expectations or in response to the child’s behavior and then once the behavior starts to occur, whether it’s challenging or whatever, it’s amazing the profound effect on the outcome. A few years ago I did a training for a number of school districts. There were a couple of hundred people there and some individual agencies and I was talking about one of my kids who was 16 at the time, who happened to be there with my husband, he wanted to come see what one of my trainings looked like.

I said, okay, Zach, come on ahead and when I was teaching this crowd of people, this example. I said, for instance, I said, If a child starts to be defiant and to argue with you, I said most parents respond and try to correct the child’s inaccuracies and unfair expectations and all that. I said, do you know what I learned to do?

I told these parents, I said, I simply stop talking and Zach got up in front of this crowd of a couple of hundred people and said, it’s true, no matter what I do, I can’t get her to argue with me, so we never have any arguments and oh my gosh, I just sit there and I guess I just do what she asks me to do, cuz I can’t get her to argue with me.

So it’s amazing how some of the simplest concepts, in the care of psychiatrists, psychologists, and people in research, can come out sounding so sophisticated, and they’re so dizzifying, they’re just overwhelming and what I’ve done is I’ve translated that to everyday language and to easily understood explanations for why things happen but I’m always reminding people what happens between you and the kid you are interacting with, is always about an action. One of you presents something that’s a challenge for the other or for the two of you, a reaction and then how that response happens, how that occurs strongly affects the outcome, so it’s action, reaction and so the interaction between the two of you strongly decides what the outcome is going to be. So maybe you can’t control what your child presents, but you have 100% control over how you respond to it.

And then pillar number 6, is how we communicate changes our messages. Pillar number 7 is success equals avoiding arguments, not winning arguments, but avoiding them in the first place. And there are many techniques that we teach parents and caretakers how to avoid the arguments. And then the other is honoring the child has amazing results.

So pillar 7, win-win outcomes are possible. So we talk about what the differences between being proactive versus reactive, the concept of effective communication and what the rules are that are involved. What is effective communication? What you say is spoken calmly and positively. What you want the child to do is stated in behavioral terms, and it always includes choices. So you don’t say to the kid, I want you to clean up this mess in your room and when you can, you also include choices because then you’re empowering the child in how he’s going to participate, but you actually have the ultimate control because you’re the one who designed the choices.

So let’s say it’s the kid who trashes his room totally and there’s ants and bugs there because there’s just spoiled food and dirty underwear and everything else in there and you might just go into the room with the kid and say, so this needs to be different and here’s what I’m thinking. The dirty laundry has to go to the laundry room and then involving your child. What else do you think could help this room be more organized. Maybe the kid will say something and you’ll say, that’s a great idea and a lot of times what I do is I will jot things down. I’ll say, let me get a pencil and a paper so I can write this down, that was a great idea because you are just reaffirming for the child. Yes, that you value what he had to say and that you’re encouraging him to continue with these helpful thoughts and let’s say you make this long list together and you say, wow, that’s a lot.

What do you think if we pick three things out of here that we could start with? What would be the three, and let’s say he only has two and then you might say to the kid, well, is two what you think would be the best start? Okay, let’s start with two. It’s all about the basic human needs and emotional growth and development and how it impacts how we interact and talk with and problem solve with our children. When a child feels empowered, when any human being feels empowered, but in this case we’re talking about adults and children, when they feel empowered, they are much more likely to agree to do whatever the goals are, especially if they’re part of setting those goals.

So let’s say you had three important goals and the kid only has one. Instead of saying, well, no, I’m sorry, one’s not enough, we’re gonna have to take care of all three, I’d look at the kid and go, hey, you got us started, let’s start with that one and then let’s reevaluate and let’s find out, gee, maybe it’ll be time to have a snack because we’ll have worked so hard. Do you wanna do it yourself or would you like me to help you? Choices, choices, choices. So by the time you’re done, this kid feels totally empowered to do what you asked him to do and he doesn’t care if it ever gets done, but you do and you just set it up so that he’s in charge of it and then I always say to the kid, and once that’s done, how are we gonna celebrate, cuz that would be really something if you’re able to get that done and would you like my help and you just keep coming alongside the child, and maybe the kids just totally irritated and he says, no, I’m not gonna do it.

There’s lots of things I teach parents and, and all of this comes out of fancy psychology but who cares? What matters is that the results are something a parent understands that impacts the challenges that are faced in their relationships with their children and turns it into positive outcomes. So I might just look at the kid and say three words, okay, I hear you, now I hear you. Or the other one is, I’m listening. Now, you haven’t said, I agree, you haven’t said I like what you say or don’t, you have just simply acknowledged for the child, I’m listening and then sometimes what I’ll do, especially if a kid’s a little bit antsy and looks like he’s escalating, I’ll say, let me write that down because I wanna remember what you said is very important, and that’ll help us decide how we can plan in a way that works for you to get this room cleaned up. That’s just a random choice, it could be anything. It could be getting homework done, it could be taking a bath, it could be, you know, a hundred things, sharing a toy. So we talk about sharing. So one of the rules in my world is I don’t ever force a child to share. As a matter of fact, when I was in foster care, so Bobby had his toys, Joey had his toys, and then I had toys that I was willing to share and because these kids came from such frustrating backgrounds that included so much loss, really you’re gonna ask them to come and share. They may eventually decide to share, but why would that be a requirement? It doesn’t make sense.

So I would actually have extra toys that were my toys and I would tell them that. Hey, you know what, I have my own set of Legos and I’d be willing to share those, would you guys like to do that? So let’s say they start to share the Legos and uh oh, they’re fighting over this Lego or that, and I’ll say, well wait a sec, let me do this, let me divide the Legos in half and so Bobby, you’ll work with that half and Susie, this’ll be your half and then if you wanna trade or something, you could decide to trade but if you both don’t wanna trade, that’s okay. You can let me know since they’re my Legos and I’ll help you decide how we can do that or maybe we’ll decide to just put ’em away for now and do something different. So whatever is the complexity and they all go back to those three major reasons, attention, basic survival, and power and control. And I do my best to support those children to find solutions, to meet their needs and fulfill the requests that are gonna make them feel better too. So it’s just an entirely new way of looking at behavior and looking at the solutions to behavior and it’s amazing once you start filling those basic human needs, it’s absolutely amazing how the child begins to come around.

So there are all kinds of techniques that we can pull out of our experience as we learn how children, what their needs are, what our needs are because again, what happens between two people is never, never just about the behavior of one person. It is always about an action on one of them and either the child in this case or the adult, or a child in another child, a reaction how you respond to it has everything to do with the final interaction and how that will be resolved. So what I do in the Pillars for Success is I take everything out of its old molds and I put it in new molds like jello mold types molds, not moldy molds and I put it into a new system and then we talk about from the perspective of the Pillars for Success, how can we impact relationships between us, between our children, with each other, between our children, with other people and that’s it.

So anyway, the whole point is I have taken the three basic human needs, attention, basic survival, and control and power. I have connected those to the behaviors and the needs, not just of the child, how about the parents? Same thing. Those are three basic, universal human needs and then we talk about all the ways to give the child a sense of freedom and control and power, i.e, instead of saying, well, you don’t get any dessert after dinner until you take care of, you are inviting the child because of his basic need for control and power. Yeah.

So instead of doing it that way, I might come ahead and say, well, how about if we just work on one part and do you want me to help you with it? I’d be glad to help you with it and if you don’t want help, I’m perfectly fine with it.

But let’s just assume they’re giving you a lot of negative, I might say, gee, would it matter if I helped you? You tell me what you think I could do to be helpful. You are constantly empowering the child, but you have never once dismissed the expectation. You haven’t changed your expectation, you’re just doing it in a way to avoid that challenging and defiant behavior and it’s amazing how you can turn things around.

I used to have a child, the first child who came in placement actually, I was a director of a group home and I resigned from that job.

And when I did her social worker got in touch with me and asked me if I would take Jennifer in my home because she had so many serious failures in placements. And I thought about it, I’d never been in foster care and I thought, whoa, I never thought about it and I took Jennifer into my home and it’s amazing what a difference it made even between the group home where we were the treatment center and being in my own home, and I learned so much about human needs and human behaviors from that. So each parent needs to understand that they’re not failing, Not at all.

That every time something does not go according to plan that’s an opportunity to go back and think about the rules and tools of the pillars for success and to begin to put it in another group of thoughts that are understood in a different way. And there is never, and I mean, never been a time that we have not been able to find solutions to the most complex behaviors that children present.

So, and again, it’s never just the children, it’s an action on the part of either the child or the adult or another child, a reaction. How you respond to that action is results in the interaction. So it’s teaching the adults who are involved, the rules and tools of what this is about. And once they’re empowered with the rules and tools, even the most complex challenges become doable and become understandable because you’re beginning to have more experience in the models that we teach.

Helen Thompson: And that principle from what you’re saying, works both ways. It a, works from the parent’s side, b works from the child’s side, no matter how old they are, whether they’re a toddler, a, a five year old, or a teenager. Those principles work with all children and if you start when they’re young, all human beings, not all children, well then they’ll have more of an opportunity to understand.

Sandra Kwesell: On the other hand, if they don’t figure it out or don’t come in contact with the pillars for success, until the kids are older and in desperation they were searching for a parent training, it just means that they need to realize that they are also working toward undoing what has already become a set behavior, which is very doable, but it’s a different circumstance than eliminating the possibility that that behavior might become confirmed and repeated on the part of the child but again, we also understand that it’s not just about the children, it’s about the adults too. We all have our different developmental levels and we all have our emotional responses and the magic is understanding that so that you can step back and see what’s going on from an entirely different perspective it is not just about that bratty kid who’s driving you nuts. Not at all. It is very much about an action, a reaction, and an interaction.

Helen Thompson: No, I think that’s a very valued key, what you’ve just said. A lot of parents believe that it’s their fault and it’s not. it’s, as you say, it works all three ways.

Sandra Kwesell: And the other thing that I teach parents is you are not only parents and caretakers. I’ve taught staff learning, working in residential treatment centers. So it’s not always parents, but when you’re talking about the adults involved, we also talk about it’s not just the age of the child in any given situation, it’s also where are you at and your ability to look at that and to begin to analyze, because the less you try to defend yourself and So in other words, when I would work with staff and have staff trainings as a day treatment director, whatever, it was never a shameful thing for an adult to say, you know, this is what happened. And I didn’t look at ’em and say, well, no wonder it happened. I say, wow, that’s brilliant that you were able to identify that and now let’s take a look at the impact that’s having on the challenges that that child is presenting. Yeah. So everything is completely turned around. So it’s not about anybody’s fault, it’s about learning the rules, the tools, and the insights that go with what has just occurred.

And there is research done, and some of the research even goes up to the fact that it takes up to 200 consecutive days to change a behavior. So this idea of constantly slipping back requires a lot of patience because gradually you will be able to establish the predictable pattern as you sharpen your skills too of how to help those responses on the part of the child, whether to fulfill needs or to protect himself or whatever it is.

How to have those be more predictable and reinforced more, it’s a celebration. It really is a celebration to work with children and to work with families and staff and to have things very often do a 180, a complete reversal.

Helen Thompson: You’ve got a world of experience with that as I’ve picked up. I’ve learned and I’m beginning to do, those kind of things. I’ve worked in childcare since 1988, so I’ve got a world of experience, but we’re always learning.

Sandra Kwesell: Always learning. And this again, takes everything you’ve learned and everything that I had learned, but began to question and it erases all of those old combinations and has created a new set of combinations with a totally new way of understanding the meaning of what is occurring and when you look at it from a different perspective, it’s just amazing what you can achieve and help the child achieve. Yeah.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I think that’s so true cause I think a lot of parents find that hard. We don’t think about it, until somebody tells us.

Sandra Kwesell: It’s not that I’m a bad parent and I will tell parents that. It’s not that you did a bad job, it’s that you didn’t have the tools. I don’t even say you weren’t using the right tools. That’s like saying, you use broken tools, dumbbell. So I don’t even say it that way. I say it’s because the tools that you were so experienced with from the way you were raised weren’t always effective and so what I’ve done in my career is constantly tried those tools and new tools over and over and selected the ones that were most effective. Yeah, so it’s an entirely new perspective and it has an entirely new outcome and it’s very exciting.

Helen Thompson: So with your two books are they available on Amazon? How does somebody get in touch with you?

Sandra Kwesell: Yes, so they could go to and they could get in touch with me, there’s an access address on the website, but they could also just simply email me at and we could get it from there.

Helen Thompson: Okay thank you. Sandra certainly shared many great tips and insights during our chat, and you can learn much more about her Pillars for Success Parenting program by going to her website. I’ve included links to her website and social media in the episode show notes which can be accessed at