Today I write to you about a personal issue that my wife and I have experienced. We are blessed with two boys who are smart and curious. They’re both doing well in school and have friends. One of them, however, gets overwhelmed when things don’t go his way. He’ll lash out at us or his brother seemingly for no reason. Punishments don’t work. Appeasement has not worked either.
Does the above describe your child? If you answered yes, then you have an explosive child.
What is an explosive child?
In Dr. Ross Greene’s book, the Explosive Child, he defines explosiveness as “A child who responds to routine problems with extreme frustration—crying, screaming, swearing, kicking, hitting, biting, spitting, destroying property, and worse. A child whose frequent, severe outbursts leave his or her parents feeling frustrated, scared, worried, and desperate for help.”
In our case, our son would not listen to the rules. As responsible parents we tried to put routines in place and get him to adapt. This did not work at all. For instance, we told him to get off the computer and go to bed at 9. He would quietly ignore us and keep playing. Any attempt at forcing him resulted in cursing, crying, and sometimes physical attacks.
We then resorted to bribery in the form of more screen time or ordering food from his favorite restaurant. Unfortunately, this failed as well. He was perfectly happy taking our bribes and still not following the rules. More alarming, any rule enforcement resulted in the same aggressive behavior.
This went on for about a year and a half. We were worried and scared of losing control and that there was something wrong with our son. We took him to two different psychologists in the hope of figuring out the issue. He refused to listen to them and clammed up during the counseling sessions.
We were at wits end when a breakthrough happened.
What did we realize about the relationship with our son?
We found a third psychologist. Although our son refused to speak with her after the first session, we the parents spoke with her for three months. We explained our concerns and told her more about him. What we realized is that our son is angry and defiant about the rules and his lack of say in them. We also understood that he’s also a perfectionist and gets very angry when his results are less than perfect. We also spoke directly with our son. He told us that he wasn’t happy at home and felt unloved. Definitely not what parents want to hear. We were upset and heartbroken.
What did we do to improve the relationship?
Realizing the true nature of the relationship with our son and the obvious failure of previous attempts at control we did a 360 degree turn with some radical changes.
We set out to show our son that we loved him, even if he wasn’t perfect. We did this by showing a lot more affection. Hugging, kissing, saying I love you are all of the things we did. We made his favorite meals more often and did our best to not yell at him.
I made it a point to spend more 1-on-1 time with him. The best way to do this in my case is to take him food shopping where he can help me pick up groceries and pick a few snacks for himself. We also take regular walks in our neighborhood where he tells him about some latest video game adventure. Every time that we’re together I try to hear him and make him laugh in the hope that a friendly relationship will build trust and a feeling of love and belonging.
We also removed a key point of contention around his computer time. Before, we would shut off his access at 9pm sharp. A lot of times he was in the middle of a game and would have an explosive fit when this computer would shut down. This resulted in an hour of verbal arguments and screaming. Now, we keep the computer always on and ask him to go to bed once his game is done. 9 out of 10 times he will stop playing himself around 9:15 or so and start his bedtime routine. The important thing is that he feels he’s in control. Sure, sometimes we will have to shut the computer down because he simply won’t get off but those instances are getting rare.
Another big change in how we raise our son is that we mostly stopped punishments. These did not work anyway and just made him angry. We appeal to his sense of control by saying things like “You know this is the right thing to do” or “You need to eat to be strong. This is what you want, isn’t it?”. By him having control over the final outcome, punishment and the trigger for his defiance is removed. Sure, it sometimes doesn’t work and we do resort to punishment. Over time we noticed less of a need for punishment as he becomes older.
We also don’t miss the opportunity to tell him that it’s ok to not be perfect. No one ever is. If things don’t work out then learn from your mistakes and try again. So far, this is a work in progress. Since we repeat it on an almost daily basis, however, I feel that the idea will stick in his head.
There’s a lot of things to think about in this post about improving the relationship with your explosive child. What worked for us is making our son understand that we love him. Giving him some freedom without excessive rules and unnecessary punishments helps as well. Finally, chipping away at his perfectionism will hopefully increase his self-confidence and self-worth. I surely hope you give some of these a try.
In the meantime I apply the steps in my book Grit for Kids as much as I can with both sons to make them happy and successful.
I’m interested in what tactics you use in dealing with a defiant, angry, and explosive child. Please comment below and let me know!