In the book, “The Explosive Child” by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., Greene focuses on how parents can best respond to children who display difficult behaviors, especially those due to low frustration tolerance and explosiveness. The book, originally published in 1998, was followed by a second edition in 2001. It opens with an example of a child throwing a tantrum.
The author repeatedly mentions the characteristics of flexibility and frustration tolerance and how parents can help their children increase flexibility and improve responses to frustration. He uses common language in his suggestions to parents of children suffering from many types of behavioral/emotional problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder.
Why Children Explode
Greene makes the point that explosive children do not make it a goal to be inflexible and disobedient. He stresses that explosive children are behind other kids their age in developing characteristics like flexibility and compliance. These developmental differences can be very frustrating for parents. As a result, parents may resort to accusations and blame, for example, “this child is purposely behaving this way just to annoy me.”
According to Greene, a parent can help an explosive child just by recognizing he does not have the necessary understanding to explain why he acts the ways that he does. When a parent truly grasps this concept, it can make it easier for them to view the child’s temper outbursts as efforts of self-expression. This approach is often used by therapists/counselors to defuse frustration and anger the parents have accumulated toward their children’s problematic behaviors. When parents accept this view of their children’s behavior, they are thusly relieved of their needs to feel angry, embarrassed, or disappointed about the disruptive behaviors.
Parents’ Reactions to Children Who Demonstrate Inflexibility and Explosiveness
Greene stresses that the parent’s main goal must be shown in their reactions to a child’s temper tantrum or acting out episode. According to Greene, the incident will defuse if the parent’s goal is to be open and communicative without demonstrating negative emotion toward the child. On the other hand, if the parent’s goal is to “show them who’s boss,” then Greene says the child will probably escalate into a full-fledged tantrum. The author’s way of providing these suggestions is much like what therapists do with parents in counseling sessions, using clear, concise directives and examples.
Once parents recognize a child is not intentionally misbehaving, the next thing to do is to review the punishments they have given for the child’s prior meltdowns. This step is important because parents need to evaluate the effectiveness of punishments and discipline methods they have used in the past. Doing so will lead parents to see that the meltdowns are not reflections of the child’s level of compliance.
In other words, the goal of parents intervening with explosive children is not to simply force them to do what the parents want, but instead to assist the children to engage in problem-solving. The author believes that rigid, easily frustrated kids need parents to be helpers rather than disciplinarians. Such children must have adults on their sides who understand and can aid them in changing the direction of their moods/behaviors. In essence, Greene emphasizes parents need to be willing to help their children, rather than just getting frustrated and angry with them.
Greene says that behavioral methods used with most children probably won’t be all that useful with easily frustrated and/or explosive children. He continues that it is best for parents to closely observe early on in the tantrum, the child’s behavioral and emotional clues. Is he/she angry? Frustrated that he/she can’t do a task like the other children? Using this method enables parents to identify if a child is working toward a big meltdown and then, ideally, defuse it.
Inflexibility and Explosiveness in Children
The “vapor lock stage” is a phrase Greene uses to refer to the child’s initial stubbornness or resistance to cooperate. As the vapor lock stage sets in, the child approaches a crossroads, a point where choices can be made. A crossroads is Greene’s term for the second level of the impending disaster. The child’s behavior upon reaching the crossroads is usually dependent upon the parent’s response (according to Greene). Assisting the child by communicating kindly and aiding in problem-solving will most likely prevent the incident from escalating to level 3 (a meltdown). On the other hand, a parent’s shaming, chastising, demanding, or punishing tone will most likely lead to level three, a meltdown. Greene is quite specific in his description of the levels and steps in order to assist parent’s who are themselves on the edge while attempting to manage a child’s tantrums.
Suggestions for Parents
Parents are advised to document scenarios which they have learned can trigger meltdowns in their children, according to Greene. He postulates that, in so doing, the parent will no longer be surprised by the child’s explosiveness. In other words, forewarned is forearmed. Knowing this information, a parent can proceed to alter routines and situations for the child to circumvent an episode. Some previously troubling situations can, therefore, be planned for or even avoided completely. Greene emphasizes parents must be keen observers. Also, they must notice the warning signs that a child is beginning to get worked up so steps can be diplomatically taken to calm the child before escalation occurs. Interestingly, mental health therapists also suggest that parents “observe the process of what is going on” in the home, rather than simply responding to “surface issues.”
One more important point is that parents must be ready and willing to identify when he/she is modeling less-than-desirable behavioral characteristics of rigidity, sensitive temperament, demandingness, or stubbornness to their children. This is often the case more times than not, when children are continuously acting out. As children mimic the behavior of the adults closest to them, much of their negative behaviors can be explained simply by examining how parents are relating to them.
Greene’s “Three Basket” Approach
Greene suggests parents use his three basket concept in managing children’s frustration tolerance and explosiveness. He brings together Goals A, B, and C with Baskets A, B, and C as follow:
Goal A – Basket A
Goal A: Maintaining Adults as Authority Figures.
Basket A holds all statements that parents say to maintain their roles as authority figures. When a parent tells a child what he should/should not do, they are pulling from Basket A. Safety issues are the main concepts found here, according to Greene.
Goal B – Basket B
Goal B: Teaching skills of flexibility and frustration tolerance.
Basket B’s behaviors are not quite as important as those in Basket A. Yet Basket B’s behaviors of parents teaming with their kids as problem-solvers and teachers of flexibility are still germane to the process. Basket B is key because easily frustrated and explosive kids must be taught skills to reduce these negative emotions and behaviors.
Goal C – Basket C
Goal C: Being cognizant of your child’s limitations.
In Basket C are actions of children that must be viewed as minor and not worthy of the parent’s attention. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff (which is found in Basket C.)
Comments and Summary
Greene’s goals to educate and explain to parents the specifics regarding children’s problematic behaviors are accomplished in this book. Once parents understand what Greene is saying, their feelings of frustrations and anger toward their own children will most likely dissipate. Once these feelings fade away, a parent is better equipped to diplomatically confront challenging child behavior problems and be successful.
His descriptions of the baskets were hard to follow at times. The reader might struggle to figure out “Whose basket is it, anyway?” because there are times when it seems that a basket belongs to the parents and contains their wishes, goals and necessities. Still other times in Greene’s discussion, it sounds like the child’s behaviors should be “sorted” into Baskets A, B, and C. Although other principles and ideas in the book are well-described and specific, the basket discussion was convoluted at times, which could make it troublesome for parents to actually apply the method as intended.
The good news is that Greene advises parents to use behavioral and cognitive methods with their children, which have been shown in the research to be quite effective. This leads to the conclusion that there is nothing terribly unique in his overall approach. Even so, his book provides useful information for frustrated parents who may read this book.
For more of Ross Greene’s tips regarding management of temperamental children, consult his book, “The Explosive Child”.
Resource: “The Explosive Child”, Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., 2001, HarperCollins Books: New York, New York.