What is Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child about? Do you feel like you live according to your child’s moods?
The Explosive Child offers you a way to get your child’s behavior under control—and a way to get your life back. In it, clinical child psychologist Ross W. Greene outlines a method of addressing the behavioral problems of “explosive children” through collaboration and communication.
Read below for a brief overview of The Explosive Child.
The Explosive Child by Ross Greene
Some children get angry quickly and are remarkably stubborn. For parents of these children, dealing with their behavioral issues can be draining at best and extremely disruptive to home life at worst. Drawing on his experience with long-term behavioral problems, clinical child psychologist Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child outlines a method for addressing these “explosive” children. By using open communication and collaborating with your child, Greene says, you can stop dealing with outbursts as they happen and start preventing them from happening in the first place. Our overview covers his method in four parts:
- Part 1: Understanding Explosive Children discusses common myths about the causes of outbursts and Greene’s explanation of why they really happen.
- Part 2: Managing Outbursts outlines common strategies parents use to manage outbursts and Greene’s opinion on each.
- Part 3: Preventing Outbursts explores Greene’s suggestion that prevention is key for addressing long-term behavioral problems.
- Part 4: Common Challenges lists challenges parents may face when using Greene’s methods and details how to overcome them.
Part 1: Understanding Explosive Children
Greene defines “explosive” children as children who have frequent and severe outbursts: moments of heightened frustration, anger, and inappropriate behavior. Behaviors during an outburst might include extended screaming fits, physical violence, or shutting down entirely. All children have outbursts occasionally, but explosive children have them often enough to overwhelm or even endanger themselves and their families.
Before you can address your child’s outbursts, Greene explains, you must first understand why they happen. To this end, Part 1 of our overview will walk through common myths about the causes of outbursts and then outline Greene’s explanation of why they really happen.
Common Myths About Outbursts
Greene focuses his arguments on two common myths about outbursts:
Myth #1: Outbursts Are Planned
The first and most significant myth Greene challenges is that children can behave if they want to, but they “choose” to have outbursts—planning them or using them to get what they want. Greene explains that in reality, outbursts are sudden and intense emotional experiences that are very unpleasant for a child. Just as no adult would willingly choose to become extremely upset or strategically plan when they’ll become extremely upset, children don’t want to have outbursts and don’t plan them ahead of time.
Myth #2: Outbursts Are Inevitable
Second, Greene dispels the myth that there’s nothing parents can do about outbursts. This myth often uses medical diagnoses to claim a child is and always will be unstable and prone to outbursts regardless of what their parents do. This myth fails to understand these diagnoses properly, explains Greene. Diagnoses are just checklists of symptoms or behaviors—they aren’t definitive or permanent, and parents can work to address specific symptoms to improve their child’s behavior.
What Actually Causes Outbursts
If outbursts don’t come from manipulative children or diagnoses, then why do they happen? What causes them? Greene explains that outbursts have two required components: a practical challenge and a lack of the executive skill needed to meet that challenge.
1) A Practical Challenge
The first component of an outburst is simple: A child has trouble with something practical, like doing a specific task or following a specific rule. All people, children and adults alike, face practical challenges throughout their lives for any number of different reasons. For example, Liz has great difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.
2) A Lacking Executive Skill
A practical challenge alone isn’t enough to cause an outburst, however. A child must also lack an important executive skill: skills crucial for self-control and functioning in everyday life—like patience, emotional management, or flexibility. Most people can use these skills to cope with practical challenges productively—they could persevere in spite of their struggle, take a break to calm down, or try using a different approach, for example.
On the other hand, a child who lacks executive skills might not know how to approach a practical challenge and might be unable to communicate this to their parents. When their parents then tell them to complete these challenges, the child will get frustrated with their inability to do anything and have an outburst. Meanwhile, since the child can’t communicate what they’re going through, their outburst might look like willful disobedience to an outside observer. While all children sometimes experience this frustration, an “explosive child” struggles with more executive skills and therefore has more outbursts.
Part 2: Managing Outbursts
After explaining the main components of outbursts, Greene discusses the pros and cons of three common strategies parents use to manage outbursts.
Strategy #1: Demand
The first strategy Greene discusses is to make demands of your child using one-way communication—you make a decision independent of your child and then expect them to obey.
Pros of “Demand”
Greene says the strategy of making demands is often crucial in the heat of the moment when your child is putting themself or others in danger. For example, grabbing your child to keep them from running into traffic and demanding they stop is not only appropriate but necessary.
Cons of “Demand”
While the “demand” strategy isn’t inherently good or bad, explains Greene, it often doesn’t work on explosive children in the long term. Remember, children have outbursts when they struggle to complete a practical challenge—simply demanding they complete it won’t address the real issue. However, it will often make them defensive or more frustrated if they lack the executive skills to communicate their difficulty or understand your perspective.
Strategy #2: Delay
Another strategy for managing outbursts Greene discusses is to delay dealing with the issue. This isn’t giving up on practical challenges, but rather prioritizing what you deal with and when.
Pros of “Delay”
The “delay” strategy is useful when you need to de-escalate an outburst in progress or when you just don’t have the emotional energy to address an issue. Don’t feel like this strategy means giving up—after all, your child was already failing to complete these practical challenges when you were still trying to enforce them. The delay strategy just means fewer outbursts and power struggles while you focus on bigger issues.
Cons of “Delay”
This strategy doesn’t work in the long term either—your ultimate goal is for your child to be able to overcome all their practical challenges, and delaying on its own doesn’t help with this.
Strategy #3: Discuss
So far, we’ve seen two strategies that work as short-term solutions but fail to address long-term behavioral problems. To solve these long-term problems, Greene suggests a third strategy of working collaboratively with your child to determine what’s triggering their outbursts and how to fix it. You accomplish this by discussing their outbursts in an attempt to understand their perspective, communicate your own perspective, and come up with a solution.
Pros of “Discuss”
This strategy is best for addressing your child’s behavioral issues in the long term, explains Greene. By discovering the practical challenges and missing executive skills that lead to your child’s outbursts, you can address them and prevent outbursts from happening altogether—eliminating behavioral problems and helping your child complete their practical challenges.
Cons of “Discuss”
Greene acknowledges this strategy often doesn’t work when your child is already upset or having an outburst, as they won’t be able to communicate while their emotions are heightened.
Part 3: Preventing Outbursts
As we noted in Part 2, Greene contends the “discuss” strategy is best for addressing long-term behavioral problems. In Part 3 of our overview, we’ll outline the four main steps of this strategy: prepare topics, gather information, share your perspective, and brainstorm solutions.
Step #1: Prepare Topics
Before discussing outbursts with your child, Greene says you should prepare two lists, one for each component of an outburst:
1) Practical Challenges
Make a list of the specific tasks your child has trouble completing and the rules they have trouble following. Don’t frame this in terms of their problem behaviors—prevention requires focusing on what causes outbursts, not on what happens during outbursts.
2) Lacking Executive Skills
Make a list of the executive skills your child might be lacking. Greene provides his own list you can use as well. He frames these missing skills as “difficulties” your child faces rather than as problems with their behavior. Note that you won’t be using this list for discussion topics with your child—it’s just for your own reference to try and contextualize your child’s outbursts.
Step #2: Get Your Child’s Perspective
Once you’ve created your lists, Greene says you can discuss practical challenges with your child beginning with the ones that cause the most outbursts or conflicts. Your goal in these conversations is to understand your child’s perspective on their practical challenges and outbursts. Greene acknowledges this isn’t always an easy process—kids often don’t fully understand their own feelings, and they might resist talking about their behavior—but by approaching your child openly and working with them, you’ll eventually discover the causes of their outbursts.
Greene offers two guidelines for conducting these discussions with your child:
1) Ask Specific Questions
Greene explains that your questioning throughout the discussion should focus on the specific circumstances behind practical challenges—allowing you to change or avoid these circumstances later on, preventing outbursts. To do this, ask your child a lot of what, who, where, and when questions, like: What is challenging or frustrating? Who makes you upset? Where and when do you tend to get upset? What were you thinking about in the moments leading to the outburst?
2) Practice Active Listening
While getting your child’s perspective, you’ll want to keep your child as open and communicative as possible so they feel comfortable talking with you. To this end, Greene suggests you actively listen to your child, making them the focus of the conversation. He offers several conversational dos and don’ts for active listening:
- Do repeat your child’s answers back to them to make sure you understand them correctly.
- Do ask clarifying questions like “What do you mean?” or “How so?” when you don’t understand something.
- Don’t bring up problem behaviors, as doing so might make your child defensive and closed off.
- Don’t guess what your child is feeling or why they acted a certain way—you don’t want to speak over them and deprive them of an opportunity to explain themself.
- Don’t offer solutions yet, as this will come later.
Step #3: Explain Your Perspective
Once you feel as though you have a good sense of your child’s perspective on a practical challenge, Greene says you should explain your perspective to them. Tell your child why you ask them to complete these practical challenges and how failing to do so negatively impacts them and the people around them. By helping your child understand why you ask them to complete practical challenges, those challenges will feel less arbitrary and less frustrating.
Step #4: Brainstorm and Test Solutions Together
Once both you and your child have made your perspectives clear, Greene says the next step is to work with your child to find a solution that works for both of you. You shouldn’t go into this step having already decided on a solution since it might narrow your thinking or cause you to slip into a “demand” strategy. Whatever solution you land on should be realistic and should satisfy everyone—otherwise, it’ll only breed resentment and increase tension over time, leading to future conflicts.
While you might think this step gives your child too much power or lets them take control, Greene argues this isn’t the case. You’re still determining a way they can complete the practical challenges you give them, after all.
Greene outlines a three-part plan for brainstorming potential solutions: recap your concerns, offer initial ideas, and then revisit and refine them.
1) Recap Concerns
Recap your and your child’s perspectives. This will help keep in mind what your solution has to address. For example, during the discussion in Step #2, Liz revealed that she has trouble getting up on days when there’s nothing she likes for breakfast. Liz’s dad will recap this as well as his concerns about lateness.
2) Offer Initial Ideas
Brainstorm some initial ideas for solutions, asking your child first. Since this is their struggle, they might already have some ideas of how to address it or a perspective different from your own. Then, you can offer your own ideas or modifications. For example, Liz suggests she should pick what she has for breakfast every day. Liz’s dad modifies the idea slightly, suggesting they plan breakfasts for each week together.
3) Revisit and Refine
Work with your child to implement your solution, changing it as needed. Try out your solution for a while and see if it helps your child address their practical challenge or lowers the number of outbursts they have. If it doesn’t, continue having follow-up discussions with your child to try and determine what works, what doesn’t, and whether another solution might be better. Remember, this is a process, and you might not get it right on the first try.
Part 4: Common Challenges
As you work to prevent outbursts by using Greene’s method, you’ll likely encounter challenges. In Part 4 of our guide, we’ll discuss three common challenges parents face during this process, as well as Greene’s suggestions for how to deal with them.
Challenge #1: Reluctance
Greene acknowledges that especially early on when you adopt the “discuss” strategy, your child might be reluctant or unwilling to talk. This is normal and usually occurs for two main reasons:
- Your child still expects a one-way “demand” strategy and isn’t used to this new two-way approach. Therefore, they might still be somewhat defensive or not yet have the executive skills to communicate openly.
- Your child genuinely doesn’t know why they struggle with a practical challenge or why they had an outburst.
Even if your child is reluctant early on, keep at it. Continuing to have these conversations will help them get better at reflecting on and communicating their feelings.
Challenge #2: Other Children and Adults
The second common challenge Greene brings up is managing your child when they’re around other children and adults. Because public outbursts can get chaotic quickly, Greene emphasizes safety and stability should be your first priority—even if it means getting medication to manage their behavior or using the “delay” strategy to avoid outbursts. In addition, you can make things easier for yourself by explaining your child’s outbursts to others:
- Tell your child’s school about what causes your child to have outbursts, as well as the solutions you and your child use to prevent them.
- If your child’s siblings resent the special attention or privileges your child receives, explain that fair doesn’t always mean equal—different people struggle with different things, and your job as a parent is to help your children overcome whatever their struggles may be.
Challenge #3: Difficulty Communicating
Greene explains that if your child has limited communication, whether due to a disability, diagnosed condition, or any other number of reasons, the “discuss” strategy becomes more difficult but not impossible. You can use simplified methods like key phrases or pointing to pictures to help them express their needs. If your child is largely unable to communicate, you can keep track of their outbursts and try to find patterns of when they occur. These patterns can help you determine and then address the causes of those outbursts.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Explosive Child summary:
- How to get your life back when you have a child with behavioral problems
- Common myths about the causes of outbursts and why they really happen
- Why prevention is key for addressing long-term behavioral issues