The Explosive Child

Yet another worthwhile parenting book, I found this one at Amy’s school: The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene.

Greene describes the inflexible-explosive child as one who is easily frustrated and doesn’t handle frustration well. It’s difficult for such a child to adapt or be flexible, and he tends to think in all or nothing, black and white terms. These kids don’t do better even when they’re highly motivated (with positive or negative consequences, rewards, punishments, etc, or by internal motivation). Their explosions may seem random at times, and there may be particular issues or situations that are especially likely to provoke a meltdown.

The point reiterated most throughout the book is that these kids are not rebelling, they know the rules, they know who’s boss, but for a variety of reasons they are unable to access this information or act on it once they’re in a meltdown. Therefore parenting them does not mean primary emphasis on rules, on authority, or on after-the-fact consequences. Instead, it involves intervening before the meltdown in ways that help develop flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem-solving.

The author describes many possible pathways to inflexibility-explosiveness, including difficult temperament, ADHD, executive function deficit, social skills deficits, autism and pervasive developmental disorder, language processing difficulties, mood, anxiety, nonverbal learning disability, sensory integration dysfunction, and other factors.

There are two parts to the recommended approach to parenting these kids.

  1. The user-friendlier environment
    • All adults involved with the child should understand the nature of her difficulties and know the things that provoke her explosions.
    • Demands for flexibility and frustration tolerance should be reduced by wise prioritizing.
    • Identify situations that often lead to meltdowns.
    • Notice warning signs and act quickly.
    • Understand incoherence for what it is, not as rebellion, spite, attention-seeking, manipulation, etc.
    • Understand one’s own contribution to the child’s inflexibility and explosiveness.
    • Use more effective language, such as “difficulty,” “easily frustrated,” “thinking clearly,” instead of “bratty,” etc.
    • Develop a more realistic image of who the child is and can be.
  2. Baskets
    • Basket A is for things that are important enough that you’re willing to endure a meltdown about them (not that you try to start a meltdown), IF they are enforceable, AND IF your child is able to succeed fairly consistently with them. If you say “No,” “You must,” or “You can’t,” you’re talking Basket A; be sure to only speak this way for things you really think belong in this basket, such as safety for your child, other people, animals, and property. This basket reinforces parental authority.
    • Basket B is the training basket, for things that are important but that you don’t want to endure a meltdown about. Your response to Basket B items is empathy and an invitation to problem-solving. This basket helps develop skills for flexibility and frustration tolerance.
    • Basket C is where you put things that — temporarily or permanently — you’re not going to worry about or deal with at all. This one’s about recognizing your child’s limits, reducing overall frustration, and not picking unnecessary battles. This is not about fighting with your kid about an issue and then giving up. It’s about making such issues non-issues.

    The author details some typical ways parents go about the baskets ineffectively: putting things in Basket A that aren’t that important, putting so much in Basket C that there’s nothing for training problem-solving and thinking skills, forgetting that Basket B is very hard work for parent AND child, using Basket A responses to Basket B or C items, trying to move something from Basket A to Basket B in the middle of a battle, handing down unilateral solutions.

    There’s a chapter on brain chemistry and medication; the author has what seems a well-balanced view of such things, neither ascribing everything to brain chemistry nor dismissing the help of a well-chosen and carefully monitored medication.

    Strategies for Basket B include helping the child think, creating a roadmap, communicating, problem-solving, and working it out. Most of these are somewhat self-explanatory and overlap considerably. One chapter develops the roadmap idea further. A roadmap is “a mental script that can provide a child with a way to think more clearly and stay calm” (193).

    It must be planned in advance and simple enough to follow.

    It can involve teaching a kid to recognize the signs of frustration and teaching him words to use to express it, as well as words to describe what it is that they’re finding frustrating or how they want to be helped with it.

    Inflexible-explosive kids may resort to automatic responses such as “I hate you,” “It’s not fair,” or Amy’s “I can’t do anything,” “I’ll never want to do that.” When these responses only occur in and around meltdown situations, they’re likely not meaningful; parental response should be to help provide more accurate vocabulary. (If such responses occur at all kinds of times, then they need to be more directly addressed.)

    There’s a chapter about family dynamics, and then one summarizing the book and addressing typical parent questions:

    • This approach is active and authoritative, not passive or permissive; it’s hard work, but hard work that is geared toward results.
    • This approach is not a temporary fix, after which you return to old ways. The contents of each basket, and the specifics of the user-friendlier environment, change and develop; Basket A in particular becomes less and less important.
    • This approach allows for the use of motivational programs such as rewards and punishments, when the parent views them realistically: if using them will really likely result in better behavior, AND if the anticipated benefit outweighs the potential price, AND if consequences can and will be enforced, AND if the consequences will be accessible and meaningful to the child next time he’s frustrated. Helping a child think of ways to make amends is especially useful in this category.
    • Timeouts can be used if they actually help the child calm down. Especially useful is everyone taking a break and separating, with each having a designated room.
    • It’s better to err on the side of thinking your child’s behavior is unplanned and unintentional, than to err on the other side.
    • Lying is sometimes motivated when a child acts before or without understanding why they’re acting that way. Sometimes it’s motivated when a child doesn’t think long enough to arrive at an accurate answer. Since it’s so often impulsive and unplanned, lying is usually best in Basket B.
    • When time pressure is an issue, prioritize, eliminate as many frustrations as you can, consider doing yourself what the child seems unable to do quickly or efficiently at the time, and possibly help your child develop better awareness of time.
    • When your child does something unsafe or has a meltdown, do whatever is necessary to establish safety, even if there’s a meltdown. Then restore coherence — some kids want a cuddle, some want space, some maybe want something else. There’s more — reflect on what happened and what factors might have been involved, and consider how you might prevent a recurrence.
    • Be aware of the potential impact of seemingly small changes, like having a holiday in a different place, or transitioning from school to summer, etc.
    • When you find yourself saying “I don’t have time for this” or “I’m sick of this,” you need to refuel. This approach can actually help by reducing overall frustration and limiting meltdowns. You can also seek refreshment in other ways — time apart, therapy, involvement in other aspects of life, support groups, etc.

3 thoughts on “The Explosive Child

  1. This sounds like a great book! My favorite part of what you described is how he helps parents think through their assumptions about their child’s motivation, and how they can change their interpretations to feel more compassion toward their child.

    By the way, my m-i-l loved your posts about dreamer kids.


  2. Christen, yes, that’s one of the things I most disliked about Shepherding a Child’s Heart — it talked about addressing the heart under the behavior, but always seemed to err on the side of assuming intentional sin, like with the baby who tried to remove a hat because he’s “rebelling against external authority,” rather than, maybe, not liking the way the hat feels and expressing that in the only way he knows, and / or exploring this new part of his world with his hands, the primary teachers of the young child.

    Oh, and thanks for passing that on about your MIL. I need to get out another chapter or two of that book soon.

    Jan, I didn’t know you fostered. What a full and interesting life you lead and have led.

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