Lagging skills and unsolved problems are at the heart of many kids’ problems, according to Dr. Ross Greene, nationally recognized psychologist who spoke at the Clune auditorium under the auspices of the Wilton Public Schools, SPED*NET, Wilton Youth Council and Wilton Youth Services. His presentation, held on Columbus Day, was before a very full auditorium of parents and teachers notwithstanding the three-day weekend.

Greene’s key premise is that while underlying psychological problems should be addressed with medication if necessary, more often than not the most effective method is to really listen to kids and teach their parents and teachers how better to interact with them based on that intentional listening.

The wrong way in almost all circumstances, he maintains, is the authoritarian response to a kid’s failure to do something or doing something the kid shouldn’t: “Do (don’t do) that because I said so!” In matters of life and death like running into the street, authoritarian intervention is necessary, but in most other settings it merely reinforces the underlying problem. He sums this issue up by saying, “Our kids are over-directed, over-corrected, and over-punished.”

Thus, Greene strongly urges — with very convincing illustrations from his practice — that authoritarian responses are counterproductive. They simply exacerbate problems without solving anything. Instead, he recommends an approach in the following form: Parent to child, “I see that you are having difficulty with these kinds of math problems. What’s up?” or “I see you’re not taking your shower. What’s up?”

He says that identification of something that you observe that is an issue without labelling it as such yet being very specific in its identification and using the open-ended “what’s up?” that invites dialogue can lead to surprising results even in children as young as four years old. The use of this technique requires active listening and prompting by the adult with a view to information gathering, with both the adult and the child voicing their concerns and looking for collaborative solutions — some of which, in his experience, can turn out to be very creative.

Part of the information-gathering process includes what Greene terms “reflective listening” — a concept long in existence in crisis-intervention settings like hotlines, he says. Reflective listening involves repeating back to the child what the adult has heard: “So I heard you say that you don’t like to take showers now because it hurts. In what way does it hurt?” As this parent-child dialogue moves forward, it turns out that the newly installed shower head is on a very harsh spray setting. In this example, the solution becomes an easy one of nozzle adjustment once the underlying problem has been correctly identified.

Greene also encourages parents to be strategic in their approach to issues they identify for their children, preparing a list and then deciding which items on the list are most important to address first. He recommends working on only a couple of unsolved problems at any one time.

Greene speaks of some kids who have serious unsolved problems as “black-and-white thinkers in a gray world.” For them, nuances and compromises are hard to understand. By contrast, other kids are lacking in the ability to engage in hindsight — using the brain’s ability to reflect on past events. They will do something they shouldn’t have and then immediately realize, too late, that they shouldn’t have done it. Other kids are lacking in forethought: the ability to project solutions into the future. For these kids, the process of acquiring skills that are second nature to many of us is a great challenge that leads to enormous frustration in the child and precipitates a host of unsolved problems. Untangling the mass of those problems when they have long gone unaddressed can be very difficult, but Greene says his same interactive techniques can work in these settings too if one is strategic in listing the issues but then addresses only several at a time and, as to each, really enters into listening dialogue with the child, followed by creative consideration of solutions developed jointly with the child.

In an increasing confrontational world, Greene’s techniques offer promise for working to improve adult-with-adult interactions as well as adult-with-child interactions. The dialogue that Greene recommends requires honestly hearing out the person’s perspective and then dialoguing together, with that dialogue being is as much a part of the resolution as the actual specific solution itself. The heart of what Greene’s techniques are about is fostering empathy, and the world surely needs more of that at all levels right now.