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Why The Skill Deficit Argument Is Leaving Parents Feeling Defeated

Updated: Mar 24

There's a prevailing parenting narrative asserting that skill deficits are the primary cause of ongoing negative behaviors. As a school counselor dedicating significant time to teaching skills in the classroom and counseling sessions, I can affirm that there's some merit to this argument, but it has a major shortfall.

stressed parent

Does your child know how to take deep breaths, kindly ask for attention, or use positive self-talk? If you're reading this, you probably answered 'yes' to these questions (at least when they're calm), much like I can say, "yes, hundreds of kids I work with know and can use various coping and problem-solving skills." However, intellectually grasping a concept doesn't guarantee its integration into one's life, where it's actively employed to overcome current challenges. Thus, we urgently need to revise the skill deficit narrative to prevent parents from pinning their hopes solely on skills to correct their child's behavior, only to feel defeated when positive changes don't materialize.

A good starting point:

Current narrative: skills = more positive behaviors

New narrative: skills + boundaries + time = more positive behaviors

The crux is that kids internalize behaviors through their interactions with others. Concepts become reality when kids consistently encounter boundaries set by significant people in their lives, prompting them to adapt positively (such as using skills) or face consequences for repeating negative behaviors. Consider this example:

A child knows how to take deep breaths to calm down. However, when the child gets upset and yells, his parent doesn't insist on or strongly encourage using the skill, rendering it irrelevant.

Parent 1: "I hear you're mad... It's okay to be mad... try calming down... come on, [insert name]... I know you can do it."


Parent 2: "I hear you're mad... it's okay to be mad... take a deep breath and then I will listen to you... you can take a deep breath or speak to me with a lower volume... but I will choose to walk away if you keep screaming at me... that's a great choice!"

Parent 1 empathizes effectively, which is crucial for relationship longevity, signaling emotional availability and trustworthiness. However, they fail to establish clear boundaries, leaving the child without necessary correction for positive change.

Conversely, Parent 2 combines connection and correction through empathy and boundaries, indicating emotional availability and expectations regarding behavior to access their time and attention. Many idealistic parents might view this as ‘cruel’ or ‘manipulative’ since the child isn’t choosing to use the skill on their own.  I encourage you to ignore this sentiment as long as you are acting in good faith and to reread the paragraph about Parent 1 if you need additional reassurance. Children always require external guidance from their parents before internalizing and independently acting on positive behaviors, qualities, and principles.

Which parent do you relate to, Parent 1 or Parent 2? Share your thoughts to contribute your experiences and help others learn.

Zack Kasabo is a certified school counselor who has been working with extremely challenging behaviors for over eight years outside of Philadelphia, PA.  He is the owner of Kasabo Behavior Management which is a coaching service that specializes in helping parents confidently manage their child’s challenging behavior in 8 weeks or less.

You can schedule your free consult today to learn more by going to: 

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