An Approach for “Problem” Kids That Actually Works
Photo Courtesy of Anne Menke/Trunk Archive

An Approach for “Problem” Kids That Actually Works

Joe Newman, the author of Raising Lions, knows how to deal with disobedient and willful kids—because he was one. After navigating through the first two decades of his life, which he credits to a very understanding mom who helped him pass school by transcribing his papers as he paced the living room and talked them out, he decided he needed to work with the children that nobody else could reach and became a Crisis Interventionist Specialist. He had an incredible knack for walking kids back—even those who had spent their lives with labels of being disordered. Intrigued, we asked Joe to work with a friend of goop, to get a first-hand understanding of his method. His is a systems-based approach: He works with everyone who plays a pivotal role—the kid, the family, the school, the child’s aids—to streamline communication and consequences. As he explains, children are master researchers, and their perception is typically not wrong—it’s just not necessarily aligned. And so he brings everyone to a place of mutual understanding and clarity. A few months after beginning to work with Joe, our friends found themselves in a dramatically different situation—with a much more positive outcome for their son.

A Q&A with Joe Newman

You describe yourself as a child as being the kid whose arrival at the playground would cause the other moms to gather their children and leave—why did traditional approaches fail to turn you around?

I was a textbook case of what would later be called A.D.H.D. (they actually studied me at John Hopkins University and the N.I.H.). I was constantly moving, with my hands into everything, aggressive, willful, impulsive, and extremely precocious (my kindergarten measured my IQ at 163). So there was a lot of high-energy, willful, and exploratory behavior.

Traditional approaches tend to fall into two camps: talking about behavior and consequences for behavior, neither of which worked.

Talking didn’t work because it incorrectly assumed my problem behaviors came from a lack of understanding. I was a little researcher and if something worked to get my way I didn’t care if it was “good” or “bad.” Also, many of my behaviors were impulsive so they had nothing to do with not understanding.

Consequences didn’t work because they were typically paired with judgment and negation of my autonomy. And since I was extremely willful I preferred showing you I had power over getting, or losing, some thing, even your approval.

My father used to tell a story about me at two years old. I was fascinated with the electrical sockets, constantly trying to touch them and open them up. He tried telling me not to, then tried explaining, and eventually turned to corporal punishment. As he describes it I put my finger on the socket and he said, “No” and he gave my hand a slap. Then I did it again, and again a “No!” and a slap on my hand. Then I just looked at him and with tears welling up in my eyes I did it again. He said I repeated this maybe ten times and with tears streaming down my face I just stared at him and did it again and again and again. Eventually, my hand was bright red until he couldn’t take it anymore so he picked me up and carried me to my room.

What was the genesis for your own method?

After dropping out of college, traveling, and working more than thirty different jobs before I was 28 I felt like I needed to find something meaningful to do with my life. I did five days of intensive prayer and meditation (chanting) at the end of which I realized there were millions of children who are going through the difficulties I went through in school, thinking they are somehow broken and disordered. I’d realized by this point I was neither. And I instantly knew I needed to go into schools, find these children, and teach them something different.

The next day I walked into the local elementary school and said, “I want to work with the kids that drive your teachers crazy—the ones no one knows what to do with.” Six months later I was working as the Crisis Intervention Specialist at a summer camp for children who’d been thrown out of every other camp and school in the country.

A year and a half later I was doing the basics of the Raising Lions method. It was purely intuitive. I was giving those kids exactly what I’d needed. To this day, my 7-year-old self sits very close to the surface of my consciousness. It’s that boy who created the method. It just took the adult me 25 more years to learn how to describe it to other people.

Can you explain what a lion is, and why culture today is creating so many of them? Can you also explain why strong-willed and precocious children are at such high-risk for going down the wrong path?

A lion is wonderful thing; a child determined to come to their own conclusions, to test and question everything. They’re willful, determined, and demanding to be recognized. Today we give our children more choices, more respect, more information, more power than ever before. And we start doing this when they’re infants and toddlers. Consequently, children become more aware of and concerned with their own power and autonomy at a very early age. Our parenting, our teaching, and our culture are mass-producing lions.

This can be a good thing if we’re prepared for it, and a dangerous thing if we’re not. Developmentally, children need to internalize a balance between recognition of self and others. These two sets of needs, self and others, create an essential tension within the growing psyche of the child and give rise to self-discipline, intimacy, emotional regulation, deferred gratification, and a host of other psychological tools and abilities.

Lions like conflict and they learn from it. So we need to be able to handle conflict with them in a way that doesn’t judge it or think that it’s simply a matter of not understanding.

Children who are lions require a new, more evolved approach to bring them into this mutual recognition. And this approach requires adults to take a fresh look at their own issues and assumptions.

They force us to evolve our core beliefs about parenting, conflict, communication, learning, respect, and love.

Can you explain what the transition between omnipotence to interdependence is, and why it creates such a crisis for so many children and parents? What are some tips for “meeting your child’s hand”?

In the beginning a child sees the parent as a kind of benevolent extension of themselves, there is no separation (Oneness).

Around the end of the first year there is an awakening that occurs when the child realizes that their parent(s) are separate and make decisions independently of them. This creates anxiety and begins the stage of Omnipotence.

Omnipotence used to be called the “terrible twos,” when a child is primarily concerned with having their needs, wants, feelings, and demands recognized even if it means negating and dominating those around them. They’re exercising newly discovered power but there’s also an anxiety-driven impulse to control and dominate those around them because they don’t know if anyone else has power like they do. It’s a dynamic time when a child is transitioning from knowing only their own needs, to internalizing a balance between their needs and the needs of others.

The reason this has become such a crisis for parents and children is that we’re raising children who are more powerful and astute then ever before (Lions). Combine this with the trend in parenting that tries to change behavior and avoid conflict primarily through discussions and explanations. However, conflict is necessary! It’s the way children learn, it’s their research tool. Words only have real meaning after they’ve seen the outcome of conflict. So there’s a kind of perfect storm that’s causing a huge delay in children transitioning out of Omnipotence and into the stage of Mutual Recognition (Interdependence). This is why the terrible twos have become more like the terrible twos, threes, fours, fives, and beyond.

“Meet the hand” is a metaphor to explain how to give a child what they need when developing through omnipotence. The child’s boundary testing can be understood as a hand reaching up to ask a question. The question is “I have power. Do you have power?”

Old school parenting would press the hand down, telling the child “I have power but you do not.” Modern parenting leaves it alone, giving the answer “You have power, but I do not.” Meeting the hand means to respond to the child in a way that answers the question with: “Yes, you have power, and so do I.”

My simple break protocol is a good way of “meeting the hand.” Your child throws a toy across the room and you say, “I need you to leave your toys and sit here for a short break.” And when the child refuses, “I can’t make you take the short break, that’s up to you. But if you don’t take the short break that means you’ll need to take the long break. I’m not mad at you but you’ve got to make a decision.” Then after a few moments, “In five seconds you’ll need to take the long break 5…4…3…2…1…” and following through as needed. In the above you’re recognizing their power without negating them, but they must also recognize your need.
You can watch this in action here.

You primarily work with kids who have significant behavior disorders—A.D.H.D., oppositional defiance, autism. Why do you believe that the idea that brain chemistry generates the behavior is so limiting? And why do you take a familial/systems approach?

Focusing on brain chemistry takes away hope and agency from parents. Brain chemistry is talked about as if it’s some inevitable genetic expression, like eye color or Sickle Cell disease—and this is completely false. Brain chemistry is constantly changing and extremely flexible. It’s shaped by experiences and feedback loops.

New research shows that genetic expression is strongly influenced by environment and experience. And every experience you have alters brain chemistry. If you walk out the front door today and a dog jumps out and bites you, tomorrow you’ll have very different feelings (anxiety) and behavior when you go to walk out the door—that’s brain chemistry.

Many conventional approaches are trying to medicate away the anxiety as a first step of treatment.

A familial/systems approach suggests before we start giving medications to ease your anxiety about leaving the house, let’s make sure the dog is locked up. I don’t have an issue with medication, but first we should address the deeper, more malleable causes of the problem. I show parents and teachers how to understand the system of interaction they’re part of and to change their role, then the child changes.

In today’s culture, most of us are conditioned to believe that we should speak to our children rationally—and explain why we’re doing something. Why do you think an informational response to bad behavior can backfire, and what should we do instead?

It’s important to speak to our children rationally, just don’t expect them to make THEIR decisions based on YOUR rationale. Your children are going to do their own research and come to their own conclusions. And if their observations contradict your rationale, most are going to go with their own research. This is part of what it means to be a Lion.

When a parent is giving too much information it’s typically because there’s a contradiction between what they say and what’s actually happening.

If every time they’re going out they need to tell their child to put away the toys and put on their shoes 10 times before they do it they say, “Why don’t you do this the first time I ask you!” But the child’s research shows that there’s no adverse effect from ignoring you the first 8 or 9 times you ask—so who’s the rational one?

Why do you think it’s important to let consequences teach, instead of telling kids what they should be feeling, or how they should respond after bad behavior?  

When you let consequences teach you’re expressing a higher expectation and faith in your child. The belief you communicate is, “You got this. You can figure things out.” And this accords with the newest research that shows children are constantly observing what’s happening around them, learning, and revising their models about how the world works. Letting consequences teach builds proactive learners.  

Giving children information about things they can figure out, or already know, is condescending and steals from them the opportunity to learn and act with autonomy. The belief you communicate is “I’m afraid you can’t figure this out and you can’t survive the frustration that’s part of the learning process.” And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Our culture fills parents with fear and anxiety about all that can go wrong with childhood, with all the ways a child isn’t whole and might be broken. So much of the over explaining and lack of faith in our child’s abilities to tolerate and learn from difficulty is a projection of this fear and anxiety. If the children ARE our future, why are we rushing to give them our old solutions?

Children are naturally rational and compassionate. So when they are behaving in ways that contradict this we need to re-examine our assumptions and the system of interactions that led them to these conclusions.

Similarly, you explain that kids with problematic behaviors become accustomed to getting attention for bad behavior, and it can become a defining characteristic—causing them to identify with the dark side, i.e., Darth Vader. How can you turn this around?

Children with problem behaviors are working by a different set of rules. Say a child comes into preschool and tries to find his place in the social order there. At first he tries to follow the teacher’s rules and make friends. But he’s impulsive and very physical so the other children are intimidated and choose other friends. The teacher tries to reign in his impulsive behavior by telling him what he’s doing wrong and correcting him. He feels isolated and angry. Gradually he realizes his more extreme behaviors get a lot of attention. All of a sudden he’s not invisible, he’s important and powerful. He’s discovered a place in the social order. Rather than being the pleaser and the hero (Luke Skywalker), he’s the powerful and independent villain (Darth Vader).   

You’ve got to know Darth Vader’s rules if you’re going to turn him around. Darth likes power and feeds on your disapproval. Any moral judgments reinforce his feelings of separateness.  

You’ll need to give short, immediate consequences while recognizing his autonomy and actively removing any judgment of his choices. Your tone through all of this is like a compassionate coach. Letting short consequences frustrate him rather than your negative judgment about his choices. You’ll use a gentle, empathetic tone while being strict and reasonable.  

This process takes away the fuel for the Darth identity and opens a path to a new place in the social order. 

As a child, Joe Newman, M.A.O.M., was defiant, difficult to control, physically aggressive and unable to sit still. He developed the Raising Lions Method to engage other children deemed too difficult to control. Today he trains and consults parents, teachers and school administrators to raise and teach healthy, respectful children. He lives in Santa Monica, California.