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January 30, 2015 / 10 Shevat, 5775
 
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Dealing With The Explosive Child


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“Tatty, this isn’t the way we usually go home.”

“I know Mendy. I just thought we’d go a different way this time.”

“But Ta, this isn’t the right way!”

“It’s okay Mendy. This way might even be faster.”

“WE CAN’T GO THIS WAY! IT’S NOT THE SAME! I DON’T KNOW THIS WAY!”

“Mendy, it’s okay to go a different way once in a while.”

KABOOM!

Kaboom! That’s what we experience when there is an explosion. And that’s exactly what we feel like when we are dealing with an “explosive” child. For those of you who don’t understand what I’m talking about, consider yourselves blessed. But those who know exactly what it means for a child to “explode” for no apparent reason understand what a tremendous challenge this is. It’s like living inside a simmering volcano. As one frustrated mother put it, “We are in a perpetual state of crisis.”

First of all, how do we define “explosive” children? After all, most children will throw a temper tantrum or “act out” once in a while. Hasn’t everyone experienced the irrational youngster screaming for no reason in shul or at the supermarket? Chances are that you, as the adult, were cringing with embarrassment. You couldn’t wait to get home.

Now consider the “explosive” child who acts this way on a consistent basis. Explosive children are easily frustrated, demanding and inflexible. When things don’t go their way, they react with violence and rage. Their siblings are afraid of them. Their parents are terrified of setting off the next outburst. They have an impossible time holding on to friends. And, like Mendy, they can erupt in tantrums, kicking, screaming, sudden outbursts, verbal and physical aggression, in response to relatively benign situations.

It makes a parent feel both helpless and angry at the same time – helpless at the thought of having no control whatsoever over the situation and angry that their child insists on behaving irrationally and well beyond acceptable modes of behavior.

So, what’s a parent to do? First of all, we must understand that this is nobody’s fault. And just as you’re not in control of what’s going on, neither is your child. Children are explosive because of a variety of reasons having to do with their brain chemistry, their inability to absorb levels of frustration and their inability to react in a certain manner. Living with an explosive child is not a pleasant situation, to be sure. But if we try to understand what makes this happen, we can begin to work on minimizing the eruptions and helping the child behave more like a normal kid.

Dr. Ross W. Greene PhD wrote the classic parenting guide to dealing with explosive children. He offers a new approach to understanding and parenting easily frustrated and chronically inflexible children like Mendy. His work is important for parents of explosive children who want to help their child. But it’s also filled with good ideas for parents of any child who is sometimes stubborn, unyielding and prone to frustration.

Dr. Greene understands the pain of parents who are actually fearful that an explosion will erupt at any moment. “Mental health professionals,” he says, “have bestowed myriad diagnoses on these children. However, a simple label doesn’t begin to explain the upheaval, turmoil and trauma that these outbursts cause.”

Imagine that you were planning a pleasant outing with your family. You were going to have a picnic in the park, but when you woke up that morning it was raining and you just couldn’t go. Your children would be disappointed, to be sure, but they would probably eventually adapt to the situation and agree on a different activity.

The explosive child can’t do that. He lacks the skills needed to process the information and handle the disappointment. Instead, he breaks into a tantrum and begins to scream. It’s not making him happy. He just doesn’t know what else to do.

Of course, most of us would become frustrated ourselves when dealing with this behavior. We start reasoning with the child, but that doesn’t work. Then we raise our voice, we set down rules, we threaten and sometimes we even engage in a shouting match with the child. All of these methods are self-destructive. They simply don’t work.

Dr. Greene suggests a refreshingly different approach. He lays down two important rules. One — think clearly. Two — stay calm. Sounds easy, right? But when you’re caught in the middle of an explosion that’s out of control, especially when you’re in public, it’s not easy at all. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things that we, as parents, can do.

Now here’s what we shouldn’t do. One — never turn the explosive situation into a power struggle.

Consider the story of Mendy and his father. It could have gone something like this:

“Tatty, this isn’t the way we usually go home.”

“I know, Mendy. I just thought we’d go a different way this time.”

“But Ta, this isn’t the right way!”

“It’s okay Mendy. This way might even be faster.”

“We can’t go this way! It’s not the same! I don’t know this way!”

“Mendy, I’m the driver, and what I say goes. This is the way we’re going home and I don’t want to hear any more about it!”

Kaboom!

“Mendy, I command you to stop this right now! I’m counting to three and if you don’t stop screaming, you will be severely punished! 1… 2… 3…! Mendy, stop it right now!!”

Clearly, this method of controlling Mendy’s behavior is going nowhere fast. If anything, it’s just escalating the tension and making an impossible situation even worse.

Now let’s consider the other option that many parents use. And that’s no-no number two — never give in to all of the explosive child’s unreasonable expectations. Back to Mendy –

“We can’t go this way Ta! It’s not the right way!”

“Okay, Mendy, calm down. See? I’m making a U-turn right now and getting us back on the other road. We’ll go the regular way, just like you want to.”

Giving in to Mendy might relieve the tension for a short while. It may even avoid a really ugly temper tantrum. But it won’t solve a thing. It’s only a matter of time until some other situation comes up, one which may be impossible to give in to, and you’ll be back at square one in no time.

So what’s the proper way to deal with this type of behavior? First we have to understand what’s causing it. If we can recognize that Mendy can’t respond properly to the cognitive demands being made, we can try to “walk him through” the situation and help him formulate a better response. It’s like his brain is “locked” and he can’t think things through logically. So we’re going to have to unlock his brain and do the thinking for him.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say Sureleh wants an ice cream, but there aren’t any left in the freezer. The scenario might go something like this:

“I want my ice cream NOW! I want to have it! I have to have it!”

“Okay, Sureleh. You want your ice cream. I understand that. Why? What’s up?”

“I’m very hungry!!”

“I see. You’re hungry and you want ice cream. But you can’t have any because the freezer is empty. And that’s making you angry. I think I know what we can do. Maybe we can call the store and see if they’re open late tonight. Or maybe we can eat a different snack instead of ice cream. Do you have any other ideas, Sureleh?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just call the store already before it’s too late.”

Notice how Sureleh’s mother empathized with her daughter and “walked her through” the thinking process. She validated Sureleh’s disappointment by verbalizing it. Then she offered alternatives to eating the ice cream. This technique works well for kids like Sureleh because they don’t have the emotional maturity to come up with these alternatives themselves. Yet, when a parent offers the solutions, it calms them down considerably to the point where the explosion is very often completely avoided.

Sureleh’s mother’s solution might sound simplistic, but it isn’t. It also may sound easy to adapt, but believe me when I tell you that it is not. Once the explosion is well under way, these children are already out of control and kicking and screaming. Parents feel a little silly repeating the child’s request and offering solutions like some kind of a robot while this emotional outburst is going on. It doesn’t matter. If we persevere by putting in the effort and continuing to follow this plan, in the end chances are good that the explosions will decrease dramatically. The goal is for him or her to eventually be able to process the solutions s/he needs to handle difficult situations all by himself.

I’ve seen explosive children benefit greatly from this type of intervention and I’m a tremendous advocate of Dr. Greene’s approach. Using this technique can bring wonderful results. What’s really nice about it is that it’s not uniquely effective with explosive children. I’ve seen successful results when it’s utilized with any child who decides to throw a tantrum or become generally irrational and uncooperative. I welcome any parent who wants help in using this technique to contact me. I’d be happy to explain it in detail.

Living with an explosive child is frightening, frustrating and overwhelming. But when we stop and think that the child is pretty unhappy, and probably plenty scared, about what’s happening to him, we see things differently. If we understand the issues involved and deal with them correctly in a consistent manner, half the battle is won. Now back to our friend Mendy –

“Ta, we can’t go this way! It’s not the same! I don’t know this way!”

“Okay Mendy. You want to go the other way. I understand that. You don’t know how to go this way and I can see that it’s making you angry. I think I know what we can do. We can continue to go this way, because it’s faster, and you can see how it gets us home on the GPS system. Or you can call Uncle Moish on the cell phone and ask him if he knows how to get home this way. That way you won’t be so angry. Do you want me to set up the GPS for you now? Or do you have any other ideas?”

“Oh never mind. Let’s just get home already!”

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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