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Defusing the Explosive Child

An inflexible, easily frustrated and explosive child makes life very difficult for both the child and those around him. It has a dramatic effect on family life and can make parenting an exhausting and sometimes painful experience.

Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, offers a unique way of conceptualizing why some children are easily frustrated and explosive, while outlining effective techniques for dealing with the problem. We have used his approach in our practice and found it helpful.

Greene suggests that these children do not have a problem with motivation, so using a behavioral approach with rewards and consequences is not useful. Instead, he assumes children want to behave well, and if they could be less inflexible and explosive, they would. He does not view their actions as under their conscious control. Nor are the child’s actions aimed at manipulating or coercing a parent to get his or her own way. Once they have calmed down, these children typically feel remorseful and ashamed of their raging behavior.

The problem is that easily frustrated and explosive children, for a variety of reasons, do not have the neurological maturity and skill sets to handle frustration. These children quickly become overwhelmed by their frustration, and then they behave irrationally. In this agitated state, they can’t call upon their experiences from the past that enable them to handle their emotions and calm down on their own.

So punishments or consequences don’t solve the problem or prevent it from happening again in the future. Instead, Greene focuses on early intervention to prevent meltdowns. This involves both the parent and child becoming aware of the events that precede an inflexible and explosive episode.

With Greene’s approach, parents learn to anticipate situations that will be frustrating for their child and are selective about what frustrations they choose for him to deal with. By recognizing warning signs and intervening when your child first starts to become frustrated, parents can help him maintain a more rational and coherent mindset and create an opportunity to think through and discuss potential solutions.

Parents can create what Greene calls a “user-friendly environment,” where their child’s deficits in the area of flexibility and frustration tolerance are less of a handicap. A “user-friendly environment” is one where the adults who interact with the child have an in-depth, accurate understanding of the unique difficulties including specific factors that fuel inflexibility and explosiveness. This typically necessitates having a neuropsychological evaluation done to establish a clear profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Diagnoses may include sensory integration disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders, autism spectrum disorders, auditory processing disorders, anxiety disorders or other conditions.

In a user-friendly environment, the adults (including teachers) try to identify in advance specific situations that routinely lead to inflexible-explosive episodes. Common examples of problematic situations are: sudden changes in plans or routines; transitioning from one activity to another (time to get off video games and get ready for dinner); Ritalin wearing off; feeling hungry or tired; certain sounds; or particular articles of clothing. Some situations may need to be avoided altogether. Initially the top priority is to decrease the number of meltdowns and respond to your child before he is caught up in a completely incoherent state.

In a user-friendly environment, parents read the early warning signs and take quick action. Early intervention gives parents a chance to use empathy and logical persuasion while their child is still thinking rationally. Ignoring behavior does not work well. Instead the parent works to help the child develop a “road map” to get out of a frustrated state of mind.

A common concern we hear from parents is that if they create a user-friendly environment, their child will see them as a pushover and not in control. However our experience suggests these children clearly know who is boss if they are in a coherent state of mind.

Greene goes on to introduce “basket thinking”—a way for parents to prioritize behaviors that need intervention from those that do not. He writes about baskets A, B and C. Basket A represents behaviors that, for safety reasons, you cannot ignore and will endure a meltdown to enforce. Basket C is full of behaviors you will not be concerned with (initially Basket C has a lot of behaviors in it). Basket B is the most important basket and where most of the work occurs. In Basket B are behaviors you feel are a high priority but not worth enduring a meltdown. With Basket B behaviors, you help your child think, communicate, negotiate and compromise, without going into a meltdown. You help your child learn to hang in there when frustrated, generate new ideas, think things through, and learned to listen to another’s point of view.

If you have an inflexible, easily frustrated and explosive child, there is help. We recommend this approach and find it works very well. If you need some additional support, find a therapist who is willing to work with you and your family.