Parenting Children With Explosive Temperaments: An Interview With Dr. Ross Greene

As you all know I have reached a new level of understanding about our daughter’s challenging behavior, in part due to discovering Dr. Ross Greene’s book, The Explosive Child. I was thrilled to have the chance to interview him for my latest contribution to The Mother Company.

An Interview with Ross W. Greene, Ph. D.

Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of raising twins so far has been learning how to parent children of the same age with two drastically different temperaments. Our daughter is one of those kids who has been described as willful, bossy, rigid, oppositional, and more. For parents with children like this, the sense of overwhelm can be incapacitating and the comments from outsiders that you must not be disciplining your child enough can be disheartening. I was honored to recently have a chance to interview Ross Greene, Ph. D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Explosive Child. I asked him to shed some light on how to understand and parent a child with such challenging behavior.

What are the differences between explosive anger and a more common kind of anger in young children?

On a technical level, the differences involve frequency, severity, intensity and duration. These are typically the hallmarks that make something diagnosable as opposed to something more typical. However, this is not the most important question for people who are concerned about their children’s behavior. The truth is, what is concerning to one parent may not be as concerning to another. Some people have a higher tolerance to certain behaviors and may respond less reactively, thus adding less fuel to the fire. What needs to be asked is, “is my child’s behavior negatively impacting him or her and our family?”

Why are some children so easily frustrated and “chronically inflexible”? Is this sort of temperament genetic? Do children tend to outgrow the behavior? Are there typical triggers?

We all want what we want. Kids who are not behaviorally challenging can get what they want in an adaptive fashion. But not all children have those skills, thus they try to get what they want in maladaptive ways. As a parent, assuming your child is not using their skills on purpose is a losing place to operate from. But if you assume a child doesn’t have the skills to get what they need in an appropriate way, you are never going to go wrong. You will not be a pushover. You are not a wishful thinker. You are not having the wool pulled over your eyes. Instead, you are being compassionate and are able to treat each situation as a moment to connect and teach. Children do not choose to explode any more than a child would choose to have a reading disability.

I wouldn’t count on children outgrowing their temperament. As time goes by, skills may be acquired and sometimes, just because of maturation, they are better able to handle what previously set them off. As for the genetic question, a child’s temperament is 100% nature and 100% nurture. That is, some kids are wired so that they are more vulnerable, but these genetics are also influenced by the child’s environment. Such things as maternal stress or the foods a mother ate while pregnant might have an effect. It’s impossible to answer this question accurately, but more importantly, it doesn’t change what you, as a parent, need to do to help your child.

Triggers are different for every child, but typical ones often include homework, chores, bedtime, waking up in the morning, hygiene, screen time and food. It’s important for parents to get a clear picture of all the instances in a child’s day that cause him or her to be triggered. Additionally, every doctor needs to be open to the full range of factors that influence a child’s behavior. Although these are not the most common factors, I have seen them often enough that I would be doing a disservice not to mention that looking at possible sleep disturbances, blood sugar levels, thyroid issues and food intolerances (particularly to gluten) can sometimes make a difference in improving a child’s behavior.

What are a few specific tips for parents, to help a child who has an explosive temperament (both during the explosions and during the calm between the storms)?

During the storm what you need to focus on is diffusing and de-escalating the storm. You can’t reliably and predictably solve challenging episodes when you’re in the midst of them. The calm between the storms is the time to work on what will maintain the calm so the storm doesn’t occur. Parents must figure out what lagging skills a child has that lead to unsolved problems. These lagging skills can include things such as:

  • Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words.
  • Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration in order to think rationally.
  • Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem.
  • Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mind-set or task to another.
  • Difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, or novelty.

Lagging skills are why kids explode more easily, more often and in more extreme ways than your average child. Unsolved problems are the specific things a child explodes about. Once you have identified the lagging skills and unsolved problems, you can work toward solving them proactively and collaboratively with your child. And yes, even very young children can do this!

Let’s say your child has 10 unsolved problems that cause him to lose control. Choose 2 or 3 that are causing the most episodes. You may find that just solving these 2 or 3 problems reduces 70 – 80% of the challenging episodes. Once this happens, parents notice that their child isn’t always challenging and they then have an easier time seeing that their child is actually lacking skills. They are able to see their child in a more empathetic light, which has the effect of changing the dynamic of their relationship.

Can the standard way of thinking about behavior and discipline work with a child with an explosive temperament?

Studies show that typical interventions such as time outs or reward charts are ineffective. Once the intervention is removed, the challenging behavior returns. In addition, many of the children with challenging behavior are simply lacking the skills to do the tasks demanded of them. Punishing a child for not having a skill is counterproductive and using stickers to try to coerce a child into a desired behavior if they don’t have the developmental skill to do it, makes no sense. You wouldn’t expect a toddler to be able to tie his shoes simply because you promised a reward. However, if you collaboratively solve a problem it improves both the relationship and the communication and that problem no longer triggers the challenging behavior.

Solving problems collaboratively involves the following:

  • Figure out unsolved problems.
  • Prioritize problems.
  • Figure out your child’s concern.
  • Find out why he/she is not doing well on activity or demand.
  • Put adult’s concern on the table.
  • Put heads together to collaboratively solve the problem and address all parties’ concerns.

Do these children do well in typical educational and social environments? Are there special precautions parents can take to make these environments more conducive?

Some challenging kids do well in environments when they have the specific skills to meet the demands being put upon them. But when they lack the skills needed, the challenging behavior surfaces. Knowing your child, knowing both their skills and their lagging skills allows you to try to put them in situations where they can succeed. If your child is in a situation where she doesn’t have the skills to be successful, then you have to make sure she has the support to navigate those situations so she can eventually do it independently. For example, you wouldn’t simply ask a kindergartener to do long division and tell him “you’ll have to do it some day, so you might as well get used to it now!” No, you would provide the scaffolding of learning all the steps that come first so that he would eventually be able to do the complex math problems on his own. It’s the same with social skills. You need to remember that not every child develops his social skills at the same time, just as every child develops their skill at math at different times.

What do parents need to know about parenting a child with these sorts of challenges?

The most important thing to remember is to be responsive to the hand you’ve been dealt. Focus on the hand you’re holding, not the preconceived notion of what you think your child “should” be. That is, parents should be asking, who is my child? What skills does my child lack? How can I be more responsive to my child? If you had a child who couldn’t walk you wouldn’t spend all your time trying to find ways to get him to walk, you would, instead, focus on making life as simple and easy for that child as you could. It’s the same with a child who has lagging skills and challenging behavior. Find ways to improve the child’s chance of living a happy and successful life without trying to change who that child is.

Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the originator of an innovative, proven approach to solving problems collaboratively, as described in his highly acclaimed books The Explosive Child and Lost at School.

Connection, Empathy And Respect. Parenting The “Challenging” Child

There are many strategies recommended by “experts”, pediatricians, family and friends for shaping children’s behaviors. We have all been told to try reasoning, redirecting, reassuring, maybe even ignoring, rewarding or punishing. Some of these methods work some of the time. Others work as long as the threat (or promised reward) is present.

empathy and challenging behavior

Along the way I fortunately found mentors and friends who taught me that empathy, respect and connection were the keys to peace and happiness in my home. But as my children neared the end of preschool, I realized it wasn’t working as well with our daughter as it was with our son.

My husband, frustrated by our daughter’s hour-long tantrums over seemingly insignificant disappointments, her increasingly aggressive behavior toward me when she was raging, her extreme anxiety over separating from me, and what he saw as rude and obstinate behavior, began to worry that “this empathy thing” wasn’t working.

In my heart, I knew his sense that what she might need was for us to be more firm, to put our foot down, just wasn’t right. He didn’t insist on it, but her challenging behavior was getting worse and was taking all of our time and energy.

I knew what she needed was compassion, but I also knew things couldn’t go on like this. So much of what worked with our son, or with my clients’ children, wasn’t working with her. I started doubting myself and doubting the way I had been parenting.

Connection-based parenting works like a dream with our son. He and I have an wonderfully connected relationship. Of course he occasionally does stuff that makes me nutty, but I can talk to him about his behavior, I can explain how it affects other people, and he (most of the time) can change his behavior or help me to understand something he needs in the moment that’s causing him to act out. He feels totally at ease about telling me when I have hurt his feelings and will ask for what he needs from me to do a repair. Connection, empathy, respect. It works.

Except when you need more.

moody girlOur daughter is often a world of difference from her brother. My connection with her is deep and warm and wonderful. But at around age 3 and a half, I noticed it had taken on a clingy and desperate feel. Where he is outgoing, comfortable in social situations and makes friends easily, she can be anxious, shy and rigid. It’s not merely a tendency toward introversion, which I have myself. I think it often goes beyond that to a state of real agitation. On top of it, I began to realize that she was not making friends on her own and I began to wonder about her social skills.

What do you do when you have a child who isn’t developing in the usual way and has extreme difficulty handling transitions or shifting from one thing to another? What about when your child has no ability to take a broader perspective about their behavior or can’t fully grasp that the way they act affects those around them? What about a child who has intense difficulty beging flexible or seeing multiple solutions to a problem? When you have a child like this, do the usual methods of parenting work?

Well, yes. And no.

In the last couple of months I had what amounted to a revelation about our daughter. Having spent countless hours pouring over articles, researching methods, visiting specialists, consulting psychologists and changing diets in an effort to help her, I suddenly realized that what I was, in fact, doing was trying to change her.

The thought struck me one afternoon, “What if she is always this way?”

All along I have been trying to do all of these things because I thought if I hit on the right combination she would be “fixed”. She would be more like her brother. She would be easy. But maybe this is just who she is. Maybe what she needs is not to be fixed, but just to be understood and to be accepted. Maybe what I needed to be doing was to find ways to make life easier for her, not me.

This change of thought along with realizing that my daughter wasn’t just being willful, wasn’t just being obstinate, but actually had lagging skills in certain areas completely shifted my perspective. I no longer had the same frustration when she lost control when we didn’t have a particular food she wanted or when she would blow her top when I asked her to stop drawing because it was time to leave the house. I understood…really understood…she couldn’t help it.

“Kids [like this] do not choose to explode any more than a child would choose to have a reading disability. These kids lack crucial skills required for handling life’s challenges. There’s a big difference between viewing these kids’ explosions as the result of a failure to progress developmentally and interpreting them as planned, intentional and purposeful” ~ Ross W. Greene, Ph. D.

the explosive childDr. Greene’s book, The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children has been such an eye opener for me. Whereas before I saw her behavior as being willful or obstinate or rude, now I understand that she actually doesn’t always have the skills to meet her needs. Things like problem solving or being flexible, which I totally take for granted in her brother, just aren’t so simple when it comes to her. She’s not being inflexible on purpose. She just doesn’t have the developmental skill to do it yet.

It’s been extremely challenging to work on this because up until now it’s nothing I had ever had any knowledge of. If a child misbehaved, I just assumed more connection and more empathy was needed. But sometimes there is more to it. I knew children could have speech and motor delays, but I just didn’t realize the sort of behaviors she had trouble with fell into the category of developmental delays.

And what about outsiders? When they see her screaming at me or melting down, they may think I am too permissive a parent and that my daughter is spoiled and throwing a temper tantrum because of that. It’s bad enough to feel I am being judged as a mom, but I can take it. Knowing that my daughter is also being judged is another story.

This journey has made me exquisitely aware of how everyone has things that they struggle with. For some, the struggles are obvious and perhaps that makes it easier for us to have empathy for those people. Sometimes the struggles are commonplace and we feel some comfort in knowing “it’s just a stage”. But for others, the struggle is internal, invisible, less obvious from the outside. When the struggle results in behaviors society deems unacceptable, what are we to do?

All I know is that I will continue to parent with connection, empathy and respect. It just turns out that our daughter needs it in an even deeper way than I thought.

Why We Shout In Anger: How Connection Leads To Cooperation

” The level of cooperation parents get from their kids is usually equal to
the level of connection children feel with their parents.” ~ Pam Leo

For a number of years now I have been parenting with this quote from Pam Leo in mind. Not always consciously, but always in my heart I knew this sentiment to be true. Children “act out” when they sense disconnection. They “misbehave” in a misguided effort to get needs met and return to connection. The angrier parents get and the more punitive we become, the more we can expect children to continue to give us more of the same misbehavior and acting out.

heartsI have been thinking about this a lot lately (generally because keeping connection despite my daughter’s challenging behavior can be difficult) and have been trying to write a post about it when my friend, Julie, sent me this beautiful story that clarified everything I have been trying to say:

Why We Shout In Anger

A Hindu saint who was visiting the river Ganges to take bath, found a group of family members on the banks, shouting in anger at each other. He turned to his disciples, smiled, and asked:

“Why do people shout in anger shout at each other?”

The disciples thought for a while. One of them said, “Because we lose our calm, we shout.”

“But, why should you shout when the other person is just next to you? You can just as well tell him what you have to say in a soft manner” answered the saint.

The disciple gave some other answers but none satisfied the other disciples.

Finally the saint explained.

“When two people are angry at each other, their hearts distance a lot. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they are, the stronger they will have to shout to hear each other to cover that great distance.

But what happens when two people fall in love? They don’t shout at each other but talk softly, Because their hearts are very close. The distance between them is either nonexistent or very small.”

The saint continued, “When they love each other even more, what happens? They do not speak, only whisper and they get even closer to each other in their love. Finally they even need not whisper, they only look at each other and that is all. That is how close two people are when they love each other.”

He looked at his disciples and said, “So when you argue do not let your hearts get distant. Do not say words that distance each other more, or else there will come a day when the distance is so great that you will not find the path to return.”

connection with child 2I sat with this story for a little while, remembering a lesson I had learned somewhere along the way: all behavior is an attempt to get a need met. Thus, children do not misbehave, but they may not have the skills to get what they need in a way that makes things easy for adults.

“Don’t interpret that children are trying to do something to you — they are only trying to do something for themselves. And this does not make them bad children or misbehaving children. But it may cause a problem” ~ Thomas Gordon

I notice that when I let go of the idea that my children are being manipulative, willful or obstinate and instead remember that they would cooperate if they could, our connection to each other returns. Once the connection is there, their challenging behavior diminishes and often I am aware that I had been trying to defend my position of authority instead of relating to them during a particularly challenging moment.

Once I am treating my kids as if they are trying to get needs met and may not know how to do it appropriately, I am less likely to be triggered by their behavior (thus, less likely to blow my top) and am more likely to have the presence of mind to be empathetic and offer help.

I think, as parents, we often feel helpless and frustrated when our children don’t do what we want them to do. Perhaps we forget, in those moments, that our children are fully formed human beings who don’t yet have the skills to explain their behaviors. Instead, they do things like whine, cry, bite, pout, hit and any other number of behaviors to express themselves.

In those moments it’s so easy to let our hearts get distant. But, as Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better”. I don’t beat myself up for what I didn’t know to do before, but now that I know better, it keeps me honest and on the right track as I continue growing as a mother.

No more distant hearts in our family. No more shouting in anger.