All children can get angry; they’re human. But there is a difference between a child who occasionally gets angry and stomps around for a few minutes, and a kid who gets extremely angry and has an intense outburst. The latter is what is considered an “explosive” child.
Being the parent of an explosive child isn’t easy; trying to get to the root of their anger is often an exhaustive process. According to Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, these children often have trouble being flexible or adaptable, have a low frustration tolerance, and have difficulty problem solving. Because they have trouble with these particular areas, they often use anger as a tool for expressing themselves.
But their explosive anger can lead to a host of problems at home and in school. For those parents who are looking for ways to cope with their explosive child’s behavior, fear not. There are ways to deal with it, and alleviate the stress for both of you.
Through his work with explosive children, Dr. Greene developed the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) model, which teaches adults dealing with these children a new way to approach things like discipline so that you have better luck getting to the root of their problems. The CPS model is based on the theory that “challenging behavior occurs when the demands and expectations being placed on a kid exceed the kid’s capacity to respond adaptively.” So it’s not that these kids are bad or manipulative, or any other negative characterization; it’s just that their brains literally can’t handle what is expected of them.
When their brains can’t properly articulate their issues or frustrations, then they lash out. So dealing with their behavior is all a matter of approach. The CPS solution — which has been implemented in homes and schools all over the country — relies on empathy for the child and creating a collaborative way of dealing with the frustrations that work best for the adult and the child.
The CPS model recommends that, first and foremost, the parent remain calm. I know, easier said than done, but it is crucial. An already frustrated child will only become more frustrated when they’re being yelled at.
Trying to avoid triggers is also helpful, but sometimes it’s just unrealistic. For example, my four-year-old son throws some of his most epic tantrums around taking a bath and going to bed. Obviously, these are things we can’t avoid unless I want to be up all night and have a smelly kid. Needless to say, I want neither of these things.
Recognizing that bath time and bedtime are triggers, I use the countdown system, telling him: “In 20 minutes we’re going to put on our pajamas and get ready for bed. You can watch one more episode of your show before it’s time to take a bath.”
It doesn’t always stop the tantrum from happening, but he can’t say he wasn’t warned it was coming. And when I say 20 minutes, or one more episode, I mean it. You can’t let them talk you out of it because you want to avoid a fight. You have to stand firm on what behaviors you will and won’t allow.
Getting explosive kids to use their words is also critical. Often the frustration that leads to lashing out is because the child can’t properly articulate their thoughts or feelings. “Use your words,” is a common phrase in my house. My son can have a hard time articulating his feelings, especially when he’s overwhelmed or frustrated. If I can catch him before he really starts to go off the rails, I remind him to use his words to get his point across. If he doesn’t, I tell him that I cannot and will not help him until he does.
When he calms down and uses his words, I praise him for it. Praising children for their positive behavior, instead of reinforcing the negative, can also make a huge difference. That being said, choosing how you deal with the negative behavior is also important. In a piece for Bounceback Parenting, Alissa Marquess writes that she has implemented a hand signal for when she chooses not to engage her daughter in a negative behavior.
Even when employing empathy, you still have to provide consequences. Though they don’t work for everyone, clinical psychologist Dr. Vasco Lopes recommends time-outs — putting them in an area with no toys or distractions until they calm down — for children under seven. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a good place to start, especially if they’re being physical. If my son gets angry and lashes out at me by hitting, he knows that I am taking something away from him. If he’s watching television, it goes off until he calms down. Or I’ll take away a toy. If you can’t get them into a safe space, then remove yourself from the area until they calm down.
“What this does is gives your child an immediate and consistent consequence for her aggression and it removes all access to reinforcing things in her environment,” says Dr. Lopes.
Lastly, try to work on their behavior when they’re not upset and frustrated. Talking to them about how to navigate those big or difficult feelings when they’re not in the midst of a five alarm meltdown is much easier than trying to reason in the middle of an outburst. You can discuss more effective coping mechanisms. For instance, breathing techniques have been amazing for my son. If he begins to feel frustrated, he will (sometimes) step back and take a few deep breaths to center himself. I use the phrase “calm your mind” when he begins to get too worked up. This way, it gives him something to focus on. If he can shut off some of those thoughts, he can look at things more clearly and maybe we can avoid a major meltdown.
With explosive children, giving them the tools to channel their frustrations is key. If you are unsure of how to begin dealing with your child’s explosive behaviors, reaching out for professional help doesn’t make you a failure. There could be a deeper meaning to their outbursts, like a medical diagnosis that requires treatment. But if you don’t get that checked out, you will be doing both you and your child a great disservice.
Empathy, and knowing how to deal with them in a way that will not make them feel shamed for feelings, is crucial. Knowing their triggers and trying to create healthy boundaries around them is the first step in creating a more positive environment for them. When they are given the space to have their frustrations recognized, and then validated, they will ultimately begin to flourish.