Are you resorting to traditional and ineffectual strategies, advocated by behavior therapists when it comes to parenting explosive children? This is really important because the research by Dr. Ross Greene in his book ‘The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, “Chronically Inflexible” Children’ takes a completely different angle.
It is controversial so you have been warned. Dr. Greene is a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School. Initial research and monitoring of his methods show that they are much more effective in the long term. It might be worth reading on, so turn off your phone!
What is so special about parenting explosive children?
We are all too familiar with the scenario. A seemingly trivial request, like stop watching TV and do homework, results in a temper tantrum. These scenes are distressing and can make family life a misery. So, what is going on exactly? Are these kids incapable of responding to a normal request and what is it that makes them insensitive to logic or plain good old reasoning?
These children have an extremely low frustration tolerance threshold so that means they fly off the handle when the most trivial obstacle comes on to their radar. To say that they are very easily frustrated is, to put it mildly! They have very little control over their explosive behavior (as if we hadn’t noticed!). A real challenge for parenting them.
Have you tried the usual rewards/consequences with these kids and maybe you have noticed that they are not a very effective parenting tool? Sometimes, things get even more explosive, in spite of the best parenting intentions. When things are calmer, you might even read your kids a story about anger such as the one here, called Ziger The Tiger Never Gets Angry
What is the cause? Is it because of poor parenting?
Here is the good news, according to Dr. G. It is not due to our poor parenting. There are biological reasons. Here they are:
- some kids are more temperamental than others. Some can be easily soothed, others no. They seem to be born that way, so hence the biological explanation
- executive functions are lacking. That means that the organizing of actions, changing from one activity to another are all compromised and many of these symptoms are typical of kids with ADHD. Hyperactivity, poor attention and impulsivity begin to take over
- the skills required to change from one activity to another are lacking so these children explode. They are frustrated and there is also no intention on their part to be disobedient
- poor language skills are also an issue because these lead to a lack of problem-solving skills and that can only increase their frustration
- some children are cheerful. Others are always cranky and irritable. If your kid is the latter type, then an explosion of frustration and bad temper is much more likely to happen suddenly.
Why traditional parenting approaches will not work
Punishments and consequences will have little effect and that is why the author distances himself from the behavior therapists. He thinks that a reaction by parents where they have to make sure that they win and that the kids must not get what they want (because it is unsafe, undesirable or unhealthy) is not really what it is about! Punishment will not work for kids who do not have the necessary skills to deal with their frustration or their inability to be flexible.
What does Dr. Greene suggest?
We need to change our thinking from the attitude that our kid is acting out, is a spoiled brat and must not get his way because that will be giving in to him. All wrong according to Dr. G. We should be concentrating on a skills building technique. He calls this the Basket/Container Approach.
We should first aim to reduce the number of meltdowns. So, that means adjusting our expectations and discarding the situations where it is just not worth putting up with another explosion. We will aim to try and reduce the number of demands where the kid has to tolerate frustration. We can do this by using this new method as one of the best strategies.
These behaviors put the kids’ safety and those of their friends at risk. There might be cases of refusing to wear a seat belt or where they hit out violently at other children. Here, no compromise is possible so we will have to put up with the meltdown. However, there are 2 criteria Dr. Greene uses for this category. First, the kids should be actually capable of carrying out the expected task/chore/procedure/rule etc. Second is that the behavior is above the bottom line and is a must.
These behaviors may involve backtalk, doing homework using bad language and insults and so on. They are a high priority and you are not going to have a meltdown over these as they are also above the bottom line but negotiation is possible.
Your child is watching TV and must start his homework soon. He wants to go on watching TV. The temptation is to ban TV for the rest of the week. (That would be a normal consequence for the behavior therapists but there is a risk that it might degenerate into a meltdown).
Dr. G. says however that one of the best explosive child strategies is to start some sort of negotiation which might/could lead to a compromise. He suggests telling the kid:- “I know that it is important to you to keep watching TV. I would like for you to be able to do this, but I also know that you have homework that needs to get done. Let’s try to come up with a compromise where you’ll get some of what you want, and I’ll get some of what I want”.
This might work and you have to work on it over time. There are no magic quick fix solutions here! But negotiating on the time factor here could be a good lever to start with. When it does not work, the parent may have to give in and resolve to come back later and work again on a compromise. The behavior therapists will jump in here and say that the kid is learning how to get what he wants, just by digging his heels in. But if the parent insists on turning off the TV at this point, an explosion will almost certainly result and homework may never get done. Greene’s approach is superior (in my view) in that the child is made aware of the importance of negotiation, a vital life skill. This is one of the great explosive child strategies that I know about.
All the behaviors that are relatively minor and that previously caused many a meltdown to go in this container. They can range from what to wear, tidying up and what to eat. They are simply not worth the effort in enduring another meltdown. Every parent will have their own bottom line so the things in Container C will vary enormously. But by following this approach, we have reduced the number of explosions already and much more importantly, we have started the child on the compromise/negotiation skills approach.
But does all this work?
As time goes on, we can try and move more of the behaviors into Container B so that negotiation becomes a normal part of our family day to day patterns.
One experiment compared two groups of families of kids with ODD. (Greene et al. . The effectiveness of collaborative problem-solving in affectively dysregulated children with oppositional-defiant disorder: Initial findings).
One group of parents did a 12-week course based on the behavioral principles advocated by Dr. Russell Barkley while the other group followed Green’s principles (Collaborative Problem Solving, CPS) for a similar period of time.
And the results?
Both groups of families were very pleased with the results of this type of parenting because there was a definite decrease in the number of meltdowns and oppositional behavior. But after only 4 months, the parents of the traditional methods noticed that there was a success rate of only 40% whereas The CPS group were still reporting an 80% improvement in behaving.
There are still more experiments to be carried out so it is impossible to say which result is best but it seems that the negotiations and collaborative model will give better results for more effective parenting in the long term when dealing with explosive children.