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The Ticking Time Bomb: Explosive Children


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“But, I want it NOW!” Yankel screamed as his mother lifted his baby sister, Leah, out of her car seat.

“Yankel, we can’t get ice cream now. I told you we could have it for dessert. We have to get inside to feed the baby.”

“No! I will not go inside! I’m going to sit in the car until you give me ice cream.”

“You cannot threaten me, Yankel. It’s not safe to stay in the car when Mommy is not there. Let’s go,” his mother said, gently tugging his arm to lift him out of the car.

“OW! Mommy, you hurt me! You hurt me!”

“Yankel, I barely touched you. Come on, out of the car!”

“No. No. No. You hurt me and I want ice cream. I am not leaving.”

With that, Yankel’s mother pulled a bottle out of her bag, mixed the formula, and began to feed Leah in the car. She knew that once Yankel was in that state, there was no negotiating with him.

***

While it’s true that not many parents are familiar with Yankel’s behavior, those parents who are know it all too well. Yankel is suffering from symptoms of what experts call Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD). Dr. Ross Greene, an expert on ODD, describes these children as “explosive.” He explains that children with ODD are easily frustrated, demanding and inflexible. When things don’t go their way, they react with violence or rage. Their siblings are afraid of them. Their parents are constantly walking on eggshells, terrified of the next outburst.

Dr. Greene says that “explosiveness” is an equal opportunity condition that affects male and female children across all age and economic conditions. He further clarifies, “Some blow up dozens of times a day, others just a few times a week. Some ‘lose it’ only at home, others only in school, and still others in any conceivable location.” He emphasizes: “these children have wonderful qualities and tremendous potential. In most ways, their cognitive skills have developed normally.” Yet something is wrong. They can’t properly process frustration or disappointments like everyone else. And they need help in trying to fix the problem. As a parent, you are the first line of defense (and offense!).

Many parents react to explosive children in extreme ways: they either give in immediately in order to avoid a tantrum or constantly punish their child when he or she even slightly acts out. Experts agree that the best way to deal with explosive children is to help the child develop the skills necessary to deal with frustration. Dr. Greene calls this strategy “Plan B” and outlines three steps in order to inculcate these important skills. First, he suggests that a parent exhibit empathy. In order to feel empathy, the parent must gather information and attempt to approach the problem from the child’s perspective. Next, the parent should define the problem aloud so that the child can hear the parent’s empathy and understanding. Lastly, the adult should invite solutions. Once the problem has been empathized and verbalize, the parent should help the child brainstorm realistic solutions to his problem.

Let’s consider how this would work for Yankel’s situation:

“But, I want it NOW!” Yankel screamed as his mother lifted his baby sister, Leah, out of her car seat.

“Oh, Yankel. It must be very hard for you right now. You want ice cream because it’s so hot outside and you want to cool off.”

“Yes, and I want it now,” Yankel says, still anxious, but listening to his mother’s calm rationale.

“You are feeling uncomfortable and hot and you can’t wait to just cool off with some nice cold ice cream. Right, Yankel?”

“Yes, I really want ice cream now.”

“So, Yankel, why don’t we talk about the quickest way to get cool and get ice cream. Look, Leah would also like to eat,” Yankel’s mother said, motioning to Leah’s insistent thumb sucking.

“Umm, maybe we can have ice cream right when we get home, without even taking off our shoes. Or, maybe we can sit and eat ice cream in front of the air conditioner,” Yankel said thoughtfully.

“Those sound like great ideas, Yankel,” his mother smiled, carefully unbuckling his belt and helping him out of the car.

First, Yankel’s mother provided empathy by commiserating with him, letting him know that she agreed that what he was going through was difficult (“Oh, Yankel. It must be very hard for you right now. You want ice cream because it’s so hot outside and you want to cool off.”). Then, she continued Plan B by defining the problem (“You are feeling uncomfortable and hot and you can’t wait to just cool off with some nice cold ice cream. Right, Yankel?”). Lastly, she invited Yankel to come up with some solutions to the problem (“Why don’t we talk about the quickest way to get cool and get ice cream”). Through this process, Yankel’s mother avoided a major meltdown and helped Yankel gain skills for the future.

***

Of course, providing empathy, defining the problem, and inviting solutions seems like an incredibly simple way to approach a complex behavioral issue, but I’ve seen it work dozens of times. After all, children with ODD simply do not have the skills to work out their frustration. Their only recourse when confronted with an unpleasant situation is to explode. Parents simply have to commit to the approach and with practice the results can feel miraculous.

Living with an explosive child can be frightening, frustrating, and overwhelming. At times, you might feel like you’re at your wits’ end. But stop and think about your child for a moment – he’s pretty miserable too. As his parent, you can reach out and make both of your worlds happier places!

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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