3 Key First Steps to Effectively Respond To The Explosive Child

The timer rings.

Mother: “It’s time to stop using the iPad now Simon, your timer’s up”

Child: “After this, it’s almost done”

Another 5 minutes had passed.

Mother: “When are you going to stop using the iPad? Your timer’s done!”

Child: “Wait! I already told you after this!”

Mother: “After what???! Stop using it RIGHT NOW”

Child: “No.”

And mother goes on to snatch the iPad out of Simon’s hand.

KABOOM. Simon was livid. His face turned red, his eyebrows furrow, hatred coming out of his eyes like he hates you so much. He grabs the nearest object next to him and throws it 5 metres across the room.

The sight of the Hotwheels car almost hitting her youngest son in the head made HER livid.

Oh no, but that’s not all, he stands up and pushes all the dining chairs down onto the floor. He uses all his strength to shift the dining table. He goes on to push the sofa out of place.

Mother: Simon! You better stop right now! This is ridiculous! I’m not going to let you use the iPad ever again! You agreed on 30 minutes and every time you can’t stick to the timer. You better stop messing up the house now if you don’t want to do a lot of clearing up. You know you’re going to have to clear up the mess you’ve just created right? I’m going to make sure you clean up the house!

Simon goes on to exert even more strength in pushing furniture around.

Mother ended up hitting Simon. She didn’t know how else to make him stop. She needed him to stop being so explosive (ironically by using violence on him).

Simon was even more upset. He continued on his messing-up-the-house mission. Mother hits some more. Simon cries.

Mother: Why do I have to end up hitting and screaming at you EVERY TIME? Why? Why don’t you listen to me when I talk to you NICELY?

Simon continues crying and screaming and thrashing. He also uses his nails to sink into her skin as he grabs her arms.

He was SO ANGRY.

By this time mother was already feeling guilty for having hit Simon, for letting the situation unfold like it had. Mother was feeling shitty.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Olga Pozdina

That was the situation in my house last year EVERY SINGLE DAY. It was enough to drive me mad, guilty, feeling helpless and suicidal.

It was not only about the iPad. Everything could turn into an episode of tears, shouting, hitting and furniture-shifting. It was exhausting to say the least. It was more painful to have this kind of relationship with my son. I wanted it to stop but I didn’t know how. It just got worse and worse day after day. I wanted to run away. I didn’t want to be a mother anymore. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t feel that I was suitable to be his mother. I have failed. 

Fast forward to almost one year later, after a few sessions of play therapy, occupational therapy and parents consultation with the therapists, I now have a loving relationship with my son. He hasn’t been explosive for almost half a year now. It’s refreshing. It’s welcomed. I love this new relationship I have with him, and so does he. We’re a happy family once again. Although major episodes do still happen occasionally, I no longer want to run away. I no longer feel like a failure.

If you have an explosive child, trust that it can be reversed. It’s not the end. You might or might not need to send your child to a therapist, but after many sessions, here are the 3 key first steps I’d like to share with you in handling your explosive child:

Something Is Not Right

After 8 sessions with a play therapist, we discovered that my son was severely insecure and had very low self-esteem. No doubt, considering how we had been responding to his “explosions”.

After 6 sessions with an occupational therapist, we discovered that he has some issues with his sensory integration and sensory processing namely: proprioception and movement & gravity. Nothing major but enough to explain his behaviours. And that he’s most likely a highly anxious child.

According to the hypothesized sequences of human development related to sensory integration and sensory processing above, it will affect other things on top in the hierarchy e.g. gravitational security, body awareness and motor planning ability. All this has the possibility of affecting emotional maturation, motor skills and creativity, work skills, concentration, ability to form meaningful relationships.

My point is, when your child is difficult it is not because he is being naughty, purposely defiant or downright sent from hell. It is because there is an underlying reason.

So imposing punishments, lecturing, or trying to change the behaviour forcibly will only make matters worse. I promise you. We’ve been through it.

Instead, we need to help him sort through his own shortcomings.

The Way You Respond Makes A Whole Lot of Difference

One of my favourite books “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” has a very important message for parents:


So how could the iPad scenario above have played out if the mother had approached the problem in a more understanding way? 

The timer rings.

Mother: “It’s time to stop using the iPad now Simon, your timer’s up”

Child: “After this, it’s almost done”

Mother: “I see that you need more time. How much more time do you need?”

Child: “When it’s done”

Mother: “Can I check how long more it is?”

Mother takes the iPad.

Mother: “It’s 1 and a half hours long. I don’t think I can allow that. Your eyes will be spoilt staring at the screen that long.

Child: “No! But I want to watch it until the end! I want the iPad back!

Mother: “You want to watch until the end of the video but I’m not letting you do it. You feel it’s totally unfair.

Child: “I want it!” 

Mother: “I can see that you haven’t had enough time on your iPad. That can be so frustrating. You wanted to watch until the end and mummy didn’t let you”

Child: “Yeah, I just started watching the episode”

Mother: “You just started watching the episode and you don’t feel like stopping when it just started”

Child: “yeah” (a bit more calmed down because child feels understood)

Mother: “It’s so difficult to stop doing something you still enjoy so much. At the same time we both know that you need to take a break from looking at the screen.”

Child: “But why?!”

Mother: “Because I care about your eyes. I don’t want it to hurt or become bad. Because I love you”

Child: “But I still want it ….” (but kind of giving in already)

Mother: “You can continue on your next screen time. Now let’s go for a walk and see if any of your friends are at the playground”

Personally I would prefer this exchange than the first one. It ended differently and that’s what matters.

Child feels understood by having the parent repeat exactly what they’ve heard.

Be Proactive

I’ve read and re-read this amazing life-saving book titled “The Explosive Child: A new Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children” (sounded like my son as recently as last year).

There’s something I wish all parents would learn from this book, and not only parents of explosive children. I wish I had known about collaborative problem solving before things got out of control in our house. According to the book, it consists of 3 steps: the Empathy step, the Define the Problem step and the Invitation step.

  • The Empathy step involves gathering information from your child to understand his concern or perspective about a given unsolved problem.
  • The Define the Problem step involves communicating your concern or perspective about the same problem.
  • The Invitation step involves brainstorming with your child to find solutions that are realistic and mutually satisfactory.

This is best used before before any problem arises. If you know that your child always has a problem with certain things, then it’s a good idea to talk to them about it when they’re calm.

For example,

While doing something together, Mother can start a conversation with Simon.

Mother: I’ve noticed that it’s been difficult for you to stop using the iPad once the timer is done. What’s up?

Child: Nothing.

Mother: I’m not mad at you.

Child: I just want to use the iPad for as long as I like.

Mother: You want to use it for as long as you like. Hm… [the Empathy step]

Child: It’s always too short.

Mother: It’s always too short.

Child: And every time I start a new episode you’ll ask me to stop.

Mother: I see. I make you stop every time a new episode just starts.

Mother: The thing is, if you watch the screen for too long, your eyes will be tired and they won’t be able to see clearly when you look far anymore. I don’t want you to end up wearing spectacles. [the Define the problem step]

Mother: I wonder if there’s a way for me not to stop you when the episode just starts? [the Invitation step]

Child: I can let you know when I start a new episode.

Mother: You can let me know when you start a new episode, that’s a good idea! But what if you’ve already used up most of your allowed screen time? Do you think you can watch something that is short enough for you to end just when the timer is done and keep the longer episodes for another screen time?

Child: Well…

Mother: Here’s how we can go about doing this. When your first episode is done, you let mummy know. Then we’ll see how much time you have left on your timer then we can search for short clips for you to watch. That way you won’t need to stop watching when the clip is still going on. How does that sound?

Child: Okay…

This is hard and it takes time to be comfortable with this new approach. As the author of The Explosive Child said, It’s not something you do two or three times before returning to your old way of doing things. It’s not a technique; it’s a way of life.

There should be a sign of less explosion on your child’s part once you start to understand and practise these 3 steps in your household. Good luck!

(featured image courtesy of Kris Mouser-Brown)

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