Thoughts About James Lehman’s Total Transformation Program

Thoughts About James Lehman’s
Total Transformation Program

This program has pluses and minuses. Consequently,  there are a lot of things I like about James Lehman’s Total Transformation Program, and a lot things I do not like about it. The following comments are based on a study of Lehman’s Total Transformation Program Workbook, without the benefit of having listened to the extensive audio or the video programs. Still, I think my comments are a relatively accurate and complete summary of Lehman’s concepts and his approach to parenting children with extremely difficult behaviors.

The comments which follow are a brief overview of a more in-depth analysis of the Total Transformation Program. If you would like a free copy of my more comprehensive critique, please click here.

Things I Like About the Total Transformation Program

First of all, I like the fact that Lehman presents parents with a coherent, well-designed, and extensive program for dealing with very assertive, obnoxious, and abusive (both physical and verbal) child behavior.
Second, I like the fact that he identifies faulty thinking on the part of the child as the real cause of disrespectful, obnoxious, and abusive behavior.
Third, Lehman presents the program in a structured set of lessons, each with practical and realistic explanations of obnoxious child behaviors and the faulty thinking that spawns that behavior, as well as explanations of ineffective parenting roles that tend to undercut parents’ influence and effectiveness in dealing with very difficult child behaviors.
Fourth, Lehman focuses on specific positive parenting roles.
Fifth, Lehman identifies (in lesson five) patterns of faulty thinking as the chief interference to effective problem solving and communication. He presents a very good series of 14 examples of faulty thinking, on both the child’s part and the parent’s part, which he says block problem solving and inhibit communication.
Sixth, he presents (in lesson six) discussion tools for dealing with children with disrespectful, obnoxious, or abusive behavior which he calls “the alternative response interview” to be used after the child acts out. The alternative response interview is composed of eight steps, with the accompanying questions and statements the parent should make, many of which are quite good (Workbook, pp. 94-97).
Lehman also presents (in lesson seven) “the trigger management process,” a model for parents to use to manage the child’s thoughts and perceptions that precede an episode of misbehavior, and to stop it before it starts (Workbook, pp. 107-113).
I discuss all these points in detail in my extensive critique of the Total Transformation Program. There’s lots to like here, and Lehman appears particularly well-suited to understanding obnoxious child (and especially adolescent) behavior and thinking. He draws on his own experience as a one-time abusive adolescent himself who spent more than six years in various jails and prisons.
Things I Don’t Like About the Total Transformation Program
First of all, it is clear to me that the Total Transformation Program contains a certain philosophy that is seriously lacking, and even misguided. Similar to my criticisms of Love and Logic, I see here a sophisticated approach to child behavior control by parents that I believe is based on a delusion (a delusion is a belief falsely held): namely, that parents can, and even should, control (“manage”) their child’s behavior. In short, the Total Transformation Program is what I would consider (as I consider Love and Logic) an essentially “Old School” approach to parenting.
While I like the program’s premise that faulty thinking–both on part of the child and on the part of the parent–leads to the development disrespectful, obnoxious, and abusive child behavior patterns, the program does not really help parents deal effectively with the child’s faulty thinking patterns, in spite of the fact that these patterns are so crucial in determining a child’s behavior. Lehman does help parents examine and modify their own faulty thinking patterns and the behavior that results from them.
However, he falls short when it comes to practical ways parents can deal with the child’s faulty thinking patterns. For the most part, Lehman recommends that parents really not focus on the child’s thinking, but rather on their behavior. This is typical of the Old School approach to parenting, and while it can be effective, there are far too many instances when this approach is not only ineffective, but even invites exactly what the parent does not want and is trying to change in the child.

For example, when speaking of using the “transformation tool” of consequences Lehman says,“Do not try to read the child’s mind for good or bad motives; simply deal with the behavior” (Workbook, p. 56). I like the idea of not trying read the child’s mind for motives. Parents can’t do that, simply because none of us are mind readers. Good advice there. However, telling parents to  “simply deal with the behavior,” when it is posited that the behavior springs from faulty thinking, seems short-sighted and perhaps even counterproductive. Why not teach parents how to deal with the faulty thinking? Dealing only with behavior is what Old School parenting does, and why it’s often ineffective.

“Getting children to follow the rules or to meet the expectations is a legitimate goal. It is important for parents to know what they are trying to accomplish and why, and to determine if compliance to a particular rule is developmentally appropriate for that particular child” (Workbook, p. 59). These ideas point to the delusion that underlies the program: namely, that parents can “get” their children to do anything, or in other words, to control their behavior.

Many of Lehman’s suggested parent behavior patterns are pure power-and-control tactics, designed to pressure kids into compliance, like “Don’t talk to me that way; I don’t like it” (Workbook, p. 95). For a more complete and satisfying description of misguided parental power-and-control tactics, and the damage they do, see my brief article “Invitations to Trouble” on this website.
When, in chapter six, Lehman advises parents to confront obnoxious behavior by “stating clearly what you saw going on, what you heard being said, and your knowledge of the facts, not feelings” (emphasis added), he makes a serious mistake. Feelings play a powerful role in motivating and determining behavior. Lehman almost totally dismisses them as motivators of child behavior that parents really do need to learn to deal with. While I agree with Lehman that thinking is what determines feeling responses to situations (for both children and adults), I could not disagree more with his idea that children’s feelings do not need to be dealt with (i.e., named, discussed, acknowledged or validated, and related to thoughts) by the parent.
In true Old School style, Lehman suggests that parents not only can and should control their children’s behavior (an impossibility), but they should also set the limits of that behavior and demand compliance. “Compliance should be measured in time and tasks. For example, the youth will not curse at his sister for six hours in order to earn back phone privileges” (Workbook, p. 96).
In my New School approach, the parent would not necessarily expect or demand compliance with a parent-imposed standard because this imposition or demand process is what ignites anger and resentment and resistance and “payback” in the child–inviting exactly what the parent does not want and is trying to change. Along with this goes the basic Old School assumption that somehow the parent can change the child’s behavior. A New School approach readily accepts a couple of very different starting points: namely, only the child can change the child’s behavior, and cooperation is far more valuable than obedience (compliance) when it comes to child behavior, self-control, and the basis for parental discipline.
The “trigger management process” that Lehman proposes in the final lesson (number seven) of the Total Transformation workbook is where his approach is most handicapped. I The program could be strengthened if it would go significantly further than it does in helping parents deal with their child’s “trigger thoughts” and their feelings, because it’s the child’s thoughts and feelings that motivate and determine the child’s behavior, not the parent’s thoughts.
Lesson seven presents parents with an eight-step model for “identifying and managing the trigger thoughts (of the child) before the feelings (of the child) become to intense” (Workbook, p. 110). These are the eight steps, listed on pages 110 and 111, some of which I think constitute a good start and contain some excellent recommendations, but others of which leave the parent hanging as to how to do them. (My comments are included in italics after each step.)
1. Diminish the potential. “The child should avoid situations where he is at a higher risk of acting on triggers that result in negative thoughts and feelings about himself.” (A good idea but clearly not the best solution. CA)
2. Manage the situation. “Teach the child to escape risky situations once he finds himself in one.” (A good idea, but clearly not the best solution. CA)
3. Identify the trigger thought. “Children are taught to identify the feelings that precede the negative behavior, but the thoughts and perceptions that precede the behavior (As in, ‘You were being unfair with the phone and so I got angry and broke the wall.’) are the actual triggers.” (I like this one a lot. CA)
4. Constructive self-talk. “The most effective way for the child to manage trigger thoughts is by learning to identify them, and then utilizing exercises such as talking to yourself constructively in order to manage them. “Is it worth it?” “What do I stand to lose?” “What do I stand to gain?” “I can’t change the past.” “What part am I playing in this?” “What can I do now that I’ve messed up?” (I really like this one, too. CA)
5. Simple plan. “When a child is in distress from anger, frustration or feelings of inadequacy, his problem-solving skills deteriorate rapidly. Plans for coping with these situations must be kept to a one- or two-step maximum. Pre-planning a menu of coping skills for specific situations is recommended. (What would those skills be? CA)
6. Communicate. “Let the people in control, such as parents, teachers, and supervisors, know ahead of time when the child will be implementing a coping skill or planned response, and what that coping skill or response will look like.” (I like this one, too. CA)
7. Implement. “Once a child decides what coping skill or plan he is going to utilize, teach him to do it immediately. The greater the time lag, the more negative his thoughts and feelings will become.” (I like this one, too. CA)
8. Move on. “It is important to move on after a coping skill or plan has been attempted. After evaluating whether the plan was successful or not in avoiding escalation, moving on by saying or doing something different prepares everybody fort the next challenge.” (I’m not sure what this means.CA)
Lehman suggests the following action steps (Workbook, pp. 111-113) for the parent to use in implementing the above recommendations, after stating that “Unacceptable behavior is most often caused by perceptions of powerlessness, unfairness and fear.”
1. List five people, places, or things that make your child feel powerless, resentful or inadequate.
2. Next, write two things he can do to avoid each of these situations as described in section A – Diminish the Potential.
3. Then, write out two ways he can escape each of these situations as described in Section B – Manage the Situation.
4. Next, recall a recent incident of unacceptable behavior. Now, go through sections C through H and write down a possible response for each section.
5. Use this process with your Alternative Response interview after your child acts out…By using this structured approach you will be able to better understand what is going on and begin to see the sometimes small steps toward progress. You are the teacher with the lesson plan for helping your child with this behavioral change. Be open and observant to the changes and supportive of the progress along the way.
I believe these are useful exercises for the parent to go through and to use in the Alternative Response interview. However, the way they are presented makes the parent the teacher with the lesson plan for helping the child with his behavioral change. Granted, the parent has a good plan. The problem here is that it’s the child’s thinking, not the parent’s, that will determine the child’s behavior.
As mentioned above, I like a lot of what Lehman suggests for parents dealing with their child’s disrespectful, obnoxious, and abuse behavior.  But the program is based on a fallacy, a delusion in thinking, that the parent is somehow supposed to be in control of the child’s behavior. This is impossible. (See my “Volcano Theory”  for a simple, straightforward explanation of why it is impossible.)
What’s largely missing in the Total Transformation Program is dialogue in which the parent and child co-create the assessment and the plan for future child behavior, and in which the parent and child reach some critical agreements. If the child isn’t involved in creating agreements with the parent about his behavior, and about what needs to be changed, the Alternative Response interview could backfire and result in the child’s feeling grilled, lectured, and ordered to change. In this way parents might be inviting what they don’t want by doing the child’s thinking for him, and then trying to impose their own solutions on him–even though the parent’s solutions are indeed good ones.
Lehman’s methods are obviously helpful to many parents, and worth trying, even though they are rooted in Old School beliefs and techniques. If the Total Transformation Program is not effective with some children, it might be helpful for parents to become familiar with a range of techniques and relationships skills that I call the New School approach to parenting. Everything posted on this site discusses the values and techniques of  the New School approach.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.