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Better Ways to Communicate With Your Children (Part 2 of 2)

Air Date 10/11/2017

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Michael Anderson and Dr. Timothy Johanson encourage parents to stop trying so hard to raise "perfect" kids by lecturing, reminding and warning them – which are often ineffective anyway. Our guests advise that parents should instead adopt a more hands-off approach that lets natural consequences teach their children. (Part 2 of 2)

Episode Transcript



Dr. Timothy Johanson:And we really encourage parents not to intervene and steal that and pull them along. The analogy of the ship I think is good. Are you going to be a rudder parent? Or are you going to tow this ship? Are you going to drag your child through the water to get them to move forward? Or are you going to be behind them steering them in the right direction? And there’s a big difference.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Some good thought from Dr. Timothy Johanson and he and his co-author Michael Anderson are back with us today on Focus on the Family. They’ll be talking about better ways to communicate with your child. And these gentlemen have written a book calledGIST: The Essence of Raising Life-Ready Kids. We’ve got that and a CD or download of the program today at our website. Your host is Focus on the Family president and author, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, we had a wonderful conversation last time with Michael and Tim and I’m looking forward to more of that today. If you missed it, you gotta get the download or, uh, go to the website, get the app, and listen that way. Wonderful parenting insights were provided. And of course, they’re returning, as we talked to them, uh, several months back, and it was a very popular program.

Parents want help because the - I think in part, the culture and our own, uh, inability to parent well is creating a need that we need to help build up your parenting ability. Don’t feel shy about that. Don’t feel embarrassed about that. It doesn’t come with a manual. Uh, you know, we’re taught how to be CPAs, and how to be doctors and how to be other things.

But parenting - it’s almost as if, hey, good luck with that. And we look in Scripture, we’re trying to find godly advice. You’re going to find it today. And we are excited about our guests.

John: And they are, Dr. Tim Johanson, a professor and pediatrician from Arizona, and Mike Anderson, a licensed psychologist from Minnesota. They have spent decades working with children and families, and have a passion to help parents - yes, Mom and Dad, even with your most challenging parenting circumstances.


Jim: Tim and Michael, welcome back to Focus on the Family.

Michael Anderson and Tim Johanson: Thank you.

Jim: It is always good to talk with you. You have really tapped into something with your book,GIST. It feelscounter intuitive, but to recap from last time - talking about backing away from some of those communication disasters. And I’m sure most parents have had that situation where you have gotten into a real argument, or discussion or firm talk, with that teenager, or maybe a child who’s a bit younger-- 8, 9-year-old who’s showing some self-determination and a little bit of strong will. And you’re going, whoa, where’s that coming from?

It’s refreshing to, uh, think of new ways to do this. And I would encourage all of you listening to open your heart, open your mind about how to do this more effectively. That’s the goal.

We talked last time about the ways we communicate with our children. And I thought you had some great tools there for parents to think differently about engaging. I learned many things the last time we talked. One area that we didn’t address is fear. You believe fear can become a huge barrier between parents and children. And in fact, you say we use self-protection strategies that I think mask that bad behavior to protect ourselves. So explain what you’re driving at there?

Michael: Well, a lot of things that we think are personality traits like rage, and other things like perfectionism are really ways that we try to protect our psyche. And - you know, years ago, I thought, well, here’s the first six. And then years later, I couldn’t add a seventh one to it. So I thought, well, these are the ones. There’s blame, and self-contempt, and perfectionism, and rage, and control and withdrawal.

Jim: Hm.

Michael: And almost everything, every kid that I see and every parent that’s scared about how their kid’s turning out or how they’re doing or how their marriage is going is implementing one of these self-protection strategies.

Jim: Say them again so we can hear them clearly.

Michael: Well, there’s withdrawal, rage, blame, perfectionism, self-contempt and power.

Jim: And how do we as parents discern between what can be normal teen behavior, for example, where there might be a little bit of withdrawal? It could be not unhealthy. Where is that line? How do we know when it’s becoming unhealthy in these areas?

Michael: Well, we believe in looking at a kid’s overall functioning level. And when it’s affect-- when any of those are affecting their overall functioning level, it’s an issue.

Somebody’s scared - a kid that doesn’t get invited when all of his friends are getting together, and they withdraw in their room. They’re scared that they’re on the outs with their peer group.

Jim: Yeah.

Michael: And we need to start looking at these things as - not that we need to do anything different, but we need to look at them as there’s fear going on here.

Jim: Well, it’s really helpful to read these. In fact, rage as an example, you said in the book - you said your child is essentially saying get away from my emotions when that child is raging. That was an epiphany for me. And when you as a parent can contextualize why these emotions are coming out of your child. It may give you a better understanding, a better empathy.Are there more nuggets like that with the other emotions that our children will express?

Timothy: I think each of the six forms of self-protection have kind of roots behind them. And if kids are overusing one of those, that’s where we have problems. And there’s consequences to overusing things like rage. If you ever use rage, you’re telling everybody to get away from me right now. You end up being kind of left alone. And ultimately, you’re going to be lonely.

People who are blamers, if that’s rooted in they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions, the consequences of blaming all the time is they never mature and grow up. And people look at them, like, you’re, you know, 28 going on eight.

Jim: Right.

Timothy: That type of thing.

Jim: And again, these are protection modalities that we’re talking about. They’re trying to protect something.

Timothy: They’re insecure. They live in a comparative culture. They don’t they don’t know what direction. They’re afraid of growing up.All of these--

Jim: All the responsibility.

Timothy: All of these things are daunting to most teenagers. And teenagers who say that they’re not afraid of growing up may not be telling the complete truth.

Michael: And we see the ones like rage and withdrawal as being a bigger concern. But perfectionism is a concern, too. And you see a kid that’s a valedictorian or something and they can’t live with making a mistake and that should be just as big a concern to a parent as something else.

Jim: I can remember, somebody gave some advice. You know, if you have that straight A student, you might want to let them know if they should get a B, that’s going to be OK. And I had that situation. And the biggest smile broke out on my one’s son’s face. It was like, it’s OK. It’s important to let some of that pressure out. They want - they naturally are high achievers. But you’ve got to allow them to know that failure within that right proper context ismaybe a healthy thing. So they’ll learn things through that failure, right?

Michael: I was speaking at a group of parents one time, and a mom raised her hand. And I was talking about working on one or two things at a time. And she raised her hand and she said, I don’t know what to work on with my daughter. And I said, tell me about it. And she said, well, she’s an A student, and she plays violin and she’s a head of her youth group. And she stopped talking and she started to tear up. And she said, my daughter knows nothing about failure. And I didn’t even have to answer her question. She answered it herself.

Jim: Right. And that’s that’s a difficult thing if your child has never experienced failure and had to struggle through that. That’s a good life lesson.

Michael: Yeah, it is.

Jim: And that’s so important.

John: Our guests today on Focus on the Family are Michael Anderson and Dr. Timothy Johanson. And their bookGIST: The Essence of Raising Life-Ready Kidsis available from us here at Focus on the Family.

We’re going to include, when you get a copy of that, a CD of our program from last year, which was one of our best-of programs. And from this two-day conversation, as well. So quite a bundle - stop over at to get that, or call 1-800-A-FAMILY, 800-232-6459.

And then can I ask a follow up on that, Michael, because I’m curious. What did you tell her? I mean, she came to that - that point of saying my child doesn’t know how to fail. But did you encourage her to put her into a circumstance where she could? Or what happens there?

Michael: I didn’t because she just - I saw the light bulb of comprehension go off in her brain. And so it wasn’t a setting, but it’s a very good question she could have asked. And I think it would have been a good conversation to say, you know, you’re doing wonderful in life. But the thing I’m concerned about is you can’t make it through life without failure or resilience. And I don’t think you’ve experienced that much.

John: So do you go off and seek an opportunity then? Or just have your eyes open for that?

Michael: Well, I think to have your eyes open, but if you could collectively go and say, let’s push you a little farther, you know. I mean, a kid that doesn’t fail in normal life might fail - experience failure at MIT or Harvard or something like that. So you can push them harder and get them into a community drama or a higher level of sports. And let them know that’s why you’re doing that - because they need to experience failure.

Timothy: This is an example that Mike talked about several years ago when we first started this whole manuscript, um, about really a high-performing, high-achieving kid who’s got straight A’s. And it’s clearly the perfectionism is coming out with anxiety and in issues like that. Michael tells a story about, uh, asking the parents to pay them $100 not to study for final exams.

Jim: (Laughter) That’scounter intuitive.

Timothy: That’scounter intuitive, but that’s what the kid needed to hear is - I will reward you for not overdoing this studying thing anymore.

Jim: You know, again, right now parents are shaking their heads because they may have that high-achieving child, and, uh, they’re doing well, but they’re missing - the parent is missing what you’re talking about.

Michael: Where that’s coming from.

Jim: Why is it so critical? I mean, we’ve hit it. But I want to hear it again. Why is it so critical for that 16 - 17-year-old girl, who’s doing well, is on honor roll every semester - why does she need to feel inadequate?

Michael: To understand that in my mind, you have to understand that both the high school dropout and the valedictorian can be shame based.

Jim: Hm.

Michael: And shame is really a silent killer in our culture. And what - the antidote to shame is living in the middle. I tell people that come to me that want to work on shame that every day, they need to tell themselves that they’re not as good a person as they think they are on the days they think they’re good, and they’re not as bad a person as they think they are on the days they think they’re bad.

And when we live in the middle, we can grace ourselves, and we can realize that we’re not going to go through a day or a week perfect. And we can forgive ourselves. And when we use perfectionism to self-protect, we get in what is called a positive shame cycle. And that’s a person that doesn’t feel shame because they’re working so hard to not tell the truth about themselves to themselves.

Jim: That is so powerful and so good.In the book, you have a section where you talk to parents about, uh, being careful with what they say. Now every parent just went ‘ouch’ because often we as parents will say things that are right out in the open, very quick and then you regret saying it. And so there’s grace for that situation. But to help us think differently, you mentioned a few of these phrases that we as parents commonly use. One was, just do your best. And you speak to the damage that that causes.To me that sounds like a very positive - just try your hardest, you know, do your best. Put your talents - why is that not a smart thing to say as a parent?

Michael: Just do your best is an OK thing to say to an athlete at halftime because, do your best - we can all do our best for a couple hours.

Jim: And we know what that means. Catch the ball. Throw the ball. Block the guy.

Michael: If you have a child that’s going into a big unit test at school, do your best on the test. But we can’t do our best for life. So the only two options left for us are to lie to ourselves that we did our best when we didn’t, or to feel like a failure because we didn’t do our best. So it’s an unhelpful thing to say to our kids.

Jim: What’s better? What do we say that’s more constructive?

Michael: A far more better thing to say is exactly what you want your child to do. If you have a child that’s taking basketball serious, instead of do your best, you say I want you to shoot 100 threes today in the backyard. Or I want you to do two math assignments. Or I want you to clean your room. Do your best is - a riddle is really what it is.

Jim: For the child. They can’t figure out what you mean.

Michael: And it is for us too because we think that we’re guiding our child when we’re actually steering ‘em off the road.

John: Is it because there are too many vague aspects to do your best?

Michael: Yes, yes. Doing your best means that I’ve done everything possible - every waking hour of the day to have the right outcome, which means if I ate junk food or watched TV, I didn’t do my best.

John: OK, so over the weekend, uh, recently, please vacuum the floor. Well, I did my best, and it was a pretty bad job, frankly. (Laughter) So should I say, well, that was your best, but not my best - go do it again?

Michael: Well, I - in that case I would think that that’s been part of the family’s vocabulary because a kid wouldn’t normally say that unless there was a payoff for that.

John: OK, you’re getting a little close. Let’s move on. (laughter)

Jim: Oh, you opened the door. We carry this all the way through, man!

Michael: So I would, you know, vacuuming or mowing the lawn, I think it’d be great to say I want you to mow the lawn today and I want you to give it the proper amount of time that it deserves.

Jim: Hm.

Michael: Instead of doing your best. We, you know, everybody that returns an email knows the point of diminishing returns. You’re not going to spend an hour on an email when it should take five minutes. And kids need to learn this. And that’s a more important thing for them to learn than doing their best.So - um...

John: I had the lawn mowing thing this weekend as well, so I’m really curious. What do you say then? I mean, the job isn’t done, well...

Timothy: I think you come back and be very precise about your expectations.

John: Okay.

Timothy: But, you need to buffer that with the age of the child and kind of what would be typical expectations. So my 9-year-old who I’m asking to start - um - vacuuming the basement once a week, if they do a B-minus job, I’m OK with that. I think a 15-year-old should probably be doing a B-plus job. And so, I think if they’re not doing the kind of job you want them to do, then I think you need to be very precise about what your expectations are.

Michael: John, I think it conveys a reasonableness to the kid to say, given the fact that we’re not having any company this week and you’re going to mow it again on Saturday, it wasn’t a great job, but it’s good enough for this. But that would not match the standard that we need if we’re having people over. And whenever we talk like that, our kids are thinking wow, I have a reasonable parent that knows the difference between different situations. And it helps them minimize resentment.

Timothy: ...I want to add a little bit to the law of diminishing returns, which Mike and I feel is such an important parenting thing to teach your kids to do, not their best, but to do what is needed to do the job very well and according to their abilities - um - and to teach them how to do that. You know, if you study 18 hours for a final and you get an A-minus and you study four hours for a final and get a B-plus and you’re not so anxious about everything and you’ve got a life on - imbalance, that’s what parents need to tell their kids and teach them.

Jim: As Christian parents, we see certain misbehaviors through a different lens. We call it sin. And that’s what we say as believers. And we’re greatly concerned as parents about our children’s spiritual compass, where they’re headed. We probably take a measurement, maybe 18 times a day, where their compass is set. Are they heading in the right direction?

But you believe parents can overreact and even misinterpret a child’s behavioral choices. You’ve touched on that. I do want to get that real specific answer here. What do you mean by that? Calm down. He’s not going to be anaxmurderer just because of this one incident.

Michael: Well, a completely different thing is happening in your child if they were to lie or shoplift or do something else or hit — they’re trying to figure out how life works. Now, if I were to lie or shoplift or something, I would have to take the integrity that I built and set it aside to pull off that behavior.

They’re not setting their integrity aside to do that. They want to know - OK, well, I’m being taught not to lie, but sometimes - uh - when mom’s on the phone with her sister she tells a little white lie and I’m going to experiment with does lying get me out of trouble? I didn’t do my homework for the last two days, and I got ambushed and I got asked by mom or dad. And I tell dad I did my homework. They’re experimenting to see if lies will pay off. And they’re not setting their integrity aside, they’re not losing their moral compass, they’re learning how life works.

Jim: What a different way to look at that and, probably, a little less pressure. But you still got to get them motivated in the right direction.

Michael: That’s right.

Jim: In that case, with that liar - if I could say it that way - and they’re testing it, you want to be careful to label your kids as well because that - that’s really a shame-based orientation, but if you’re seeing that behavior expressed, what’s an appropriate consequence in that kind of behavior?

John: Hm.

Michael: Well, I think two things. One is just how you approach it is to say I don’t think right now you’re telling me the truth. You don’t make a generalized comment about the person. Are you saying I’m a liar, the kid might ask? No, I’m saying that Friday probably didn’t happen the way you’re telling me. (Laughter) Because you don’t want to label the person — that gets into their psyche. But you can say I don’t think Friday happened the way I was told.

Jim: Hm.

Michael: And the best consequence for lying is if you’re patient - and all of this involves a certain amount of patience as a parent - but in a week or a couple of days the kid will say, I’d like to go to the mall and I’d like to go to a movie. And you say to them, I think that’s a great idea, I would love to see you do that, but right now I can’t trust that that’s what you’re going to do. So I can’t say yes because until trust is rebuilt, I don’t know for sure you’re going to do what you just said. And a lot of times it doesn’t take more than that.

Jim: And, really, the importance there is stick to it. Once you’ve declared it, don’t back down…

Timothy: You can’t back down. Right.

Jim: …Because that’s - that’s a bad situation then, then the child’s learning other things, how to manipulate you. Hey - uh - two or three things right here at the end. Resilience. Um, why is resilience so important?

Timothy: Well, there’s (laughter) I think it’s, probably, one of the top life skills kids need to learn.

Jim: What does it provide?

Timothy: Resilience - um - keeps your failures from becoming your defeat. I think that’s the most important thing...

Jim: So pressing ahead...?

Timothy: Pressing...

Jim: ...Fighting through...

Timothy: ...Getting up - uh - standing up again, trying again. Um, and this is something that parents need to really foster in their children and encourage them to do...

Jim: How do you do that? How do you encourage resilience? I mean, it sounds abstract. How do I help my child become resilient...?

Timothy: Well, it is - I think it is abstract. But I think it’s coming alongside your kid when they are not doing well or if they failed at something and say - um - you should try this again. I think you can do it.

Or like the example of the baseball where he’s not a very good batter, come alongside your kid and say let’s go to a batting cage and practice the next couple of weeks and see if that changes things for you.

Michael: Resilience has to move up the priority list for parents. I hear parents all the time talk more about their appearance of their kid or their achievements than they do their resilience.

Jim: Huh.

Michael: And we should be looking for every chance that a kid gets knocked down and gets back up. Because that’s probably the trait, ultimately, that will determine their effectiveness in life.

Jim: That’s powerful.

Michael: It’s the biggest thing in life. And, you know, if a kid is writing a book report on the computer and they lose it or they don’t remember where they saved it, say, you know, the fact that you got a B on your book report is fine, that didn’t impress me. But what really impressed me is how when you lost that book report, you went back and rewrote it.

And how you got rejected by the boy across the street and two days later you invited him over. If we watch for resilience, we’ll see it in our kids, and we’ll foster that and it’ll be right up there with achievements and appearance and other things that we value.

Jim: That is a good reminder.You also mentioned the joy of being average. (Laughter) OK. Everybody’s going what?! My kid’s on the honor roll, he’s not average.

Timothy: Well, there is an epidemic of exceptionality nowadays - uh - it seems.

Jim: (Laughter) I love that - the epidemic of exceptionality.

Timothy: And the truth is, just from a statistical standpoint, only about 2 or 3 percent of kids are gifted or exceptional at any one particular thing. But parents really want to gravitate to thinking their kid is special and gifted and exceptional.

Jim: So it’s more about the parent, perhaps, than the child.

Timothy: It is. It is. And Mike tells a story about - um - you know, during pregnancy, moms will go in and people will ask them how did your O.B. appointment, ultrasound go. And they’ll say really good, I’m just hoping for a real normal kid. And then by age 4, that’s gone.

Jim: (Laughter) Now we want exceptional...

Timothy: Now we want exceptional. I have a quick story about a young little boy about 2 weeks old brought in by his parents. First child and - um - kid checked out perfectly fine. And at the very end, the dad said I got a few more questions. What can I be doing now? And he came over and started running, you know, this kid’s bicycle legs. He said what can I do to really promote his athletic ability - 2 week old - promote his athletic ability and make sure that he’s going to be a good athlete? And what things can I do to visually stimulate him to make sure that he really is good academically? And I looked at the dad and I said the only thing I want you to do right now is fall in love with this little boy.

Jim: Hm.

Timothy: There will be time for all of that. Don’t worry what college he’s going to, if he’s going to varsity in basketball or whether he is going to be on the honor roll. Just fall in love.

Jim: Fall in love.

Michael: A sober thing to me that I like to think about is in our culture when being exceptional becomes expected, being normal becomes defective. And I think that’s what’s happened a lot, is we’re so hungry and so anxious for something to be gifted or exceptional-- I see teenagers all the time in my practice and one of the biggest insults that I could ever give a teenager is that they’re normal. That shouldn’t be. Almost 98 percent of us are normal.

Jim: Yeah.

Michael: And it was an unfair thing to create a culture for them to grow up in where being different or being exceptional is the only thing that’s celebrated.

Jim: Yeah.

Timothy: And that’s rooted in over-affirmation in our comparison culture.

Jim: Boy, these are such good things and such deep things and, you know, for us, as Christian parents, healthy things for us to get a better understanding at - on and to apply in our parenting journey, right? And you have both done such a wonderful job with your bookGIST: The Essence Of Raising Life-ReadyKids. And I just want to say thank you, as a dad — thank you for helping to equip me in a better way to deal with behavioral things that my boys go through. And you have done that. And I think you would echo that, John.

John: Oh, yeah. One-hundred percent. It’s always - always enriching to have these gentlemen at the table.

Jim: You know, for those who are in this space or you know somebody in this space, do the right thing. Man, call us, get a hold of us.We want to put this resource into your hands. And you have the full book available to you. And for a gift of any amount, we will send this to you as our way of saying thank you.

Why wait? I think in many ways, I’m just discouraged I didn’t hear this information several years ago when my boys were younger. I think I could have been even a better father to them. And if you’re in that space where you have young kids today, man, don’t wait. Don’t wait till they’re 17 and you’re panicking. Start today. And if you’re the grandparent who’s worried about what’s happening, there are ways that you can use these tools to convey to your adult children there might be a better way to go about this, even though I made a lot of mistakes with you. And what a wonderful way to start that discussion. So get a hold of us today and be part of the solution, the healing, not just for yourself, but when you purchase through Focus on the Family, those proceeds go right back to helping many more parents do a better job.

John: And the place to start is or call us 800-A-FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Now we have the book GIST and a CD copy of our two-day discussion for you, plus the previous program we had with our guests, so make that generous financial contribution and we’ll send that bundle to you as our way of saying thank you for supporting this family ministry.

We’re going to recommend as well that you check out the free Parenting Assessment at our website. It’s a simple survey-- takes just a few minutes to fill out and it’ll help you understand as a mom or a dad what’s working well and where you might see a little bit of improvement. You’ll learn more about it at

Jim: Michael and Timothy, again, thank you so very much for your hard work, for what you do day in and day out to help your clients and us through the broadcast and our relationship with you. Thank you so much for being here.

Michael: Thanks for having us.

Timothy: Thank you.


John: It’s been a challenging but encouraging conversation, to be sure. Now, coming up next time on Focus on the Family, it’ll be a thought-provoking look at racial challenges in our country.


Benjamin Watson: But when we look at incarceration rates, blacks and whites use illegal substances at the same rate-- but why is it that when blacks get arrested, they have longer prison sentences? These are things that we really have no answer for.

End of Teaser

John: A program you won’t want to miss. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. Join us next time as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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Michael Anderson

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Michael Anderson is a licensed psychologist with an active practice in the Twin Cities.He has worked in the field of social work and family psychology for 30 years, focusing on children, adolescents and their parents. In addition to parenting his own three children, Michael and his wife have been short term foster parents for 13 adolescents. Michael is a frequent speaker on the topics of mental health and parenting, and has consulted with school boards, teachers, coaching staffs and youth leaders in implementing the principles in his book (co-authored with Dr. Timothy Johanson), GIST: The Essence of Raising Life-Ready Kids.


Timothy Johanson

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Dr. Timothy Johanson is a board-certified pediatrician in Minneapolis and Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Arizona Pediatric Residency Program. He graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Medicine and completed his pediatric residency and chief residency at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Dr. Johanson is actively involved in teaching residents and medical students and has been awarded the Community Pediatrics Teacher of the Year award from the University of MN School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics. He has been the recipient of the "Best Doctor" award from Mpls.St. Paul Magazine, a yearly peer-voted honor. His passion for parenting drives his desire to help parents struggling with highly spirited and challenging children.