Ross Greene’s book, The Explosive Child, is one of my three all time favorite parenting books (click this link to see my three must read parenting books). In this book, Dr. Greene argues that conventional parenting approaches that are based on limits and consequences do not work well with explosive children. This perspective contradicts the position of many experts who say that explosive kids need firmer limits and clearer, stronger consequences. Greene points out that consequence based approaches address the child’s motivation to comply. In other words, a child is more motivated to comply with parental requests because of his/her desire to avoid bad consequences and to get good consequences. Dr. Greene suggests that explosive children want to cooperate (i.e. they are motivated to cooperate), but they are unable to cooperate because of a delay in the development of critical cognitive skills required for cooperation: flexibility and frustration tolerance. Just as it does not make sense to treat a learning disorder with rewards and punishment – rather we work to help the child develop the skills necessary to succeed – it doesn’t make sense to use rewards and punishments to address a delay in the development of the skills necessary for cooperation.
Pathways and Triggers
“Pathways” is the term that Greene uses to refer to the specific lagging skills that make it difficult for kids to comply with parental requests and which make them vulnerable to explosions. These pathways include executive skills, language processing skills, emotion regulation skills, cognitive flexibility skills, and social skills.
A “trigger” is “a situation or event that routinely precipitates explosive outbursts” (Greene, p. 47). Green argues that most explosive kids are provoked by a relatively small number of highly predictable triggers. Identifying what a child’s triggers are gives parents the ability to anticipate explosions.
For example, a child might regularly respond with explosions to requests that he turn off a video game when he is in the middle of a level. The trigger is the request to stop playing the game and the pathway is a lack of the ability on the part of the child to shift cognitive set (an executive skill.) A child who has the skill to shift cognitive set more easily might grumble at having to shut the game off, but can do so without being overwhelmed and exploding.
Greene prescribes an approach to dealing with explosions that he calls Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS). He considers triggers and the explosions that they precipitate to be “problems that have yet to be solved” (p. 47). Explosions are a maladaptive attempt on the part of the child to solve the problem. CPS is an adaptive approach. CPS has three parts. In part 1, the parent uses Empathy to come to an understanding of what the child’s concern is. In part 2, Define the Problem, the parent puts his or her own concern on the table. The problem “defined” is the two conflicting concerns that are creating the power struggle. In part 3, Invitation, the parent and child brainstorm possible solutions to the conflict. The solutions need to be reasonable, doable and mutually agreeable. Collaborate Problem Solving has two modes: emergency CPS and proactive CPS. Emergency CPS is done to try to head off an explosion. Proactive CPS is done in calm moments to create a plan to deal with conflicts and deal with future potential explosions before they occur.
Ross Greene’s book is well worth the read for the parent of an explosive child. His way of understanding why children explode is extremely helpful. In addition to setting the stage for his CPS approach, it helps parents avoid the blame game in which they feel at fault for their child’s explosions and they develop a negative image of their child as manipulative, demanding or bad. The idea of identifying triggers I also find very powerful. Parents of explosive children can feel as if they are sitting on a ticking time bomb 24/7. Once parents have figured out what their child’s triggers are, they can at least relax when those triggers are not present. This can provide great relief. Finally, I find Green’s CPS to be a sound and easy to follow method for improving communication and problem solving between any set of parents and children and its value is not limited to families of explosive children.
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As if raising a challenging boy wasn’t stressful, exhausting and difficult enough, parents of challenging boys also have to contend with the advice, judgment and blame of friends, relatives, and strangers at the playground and supermarket. “You’ve got to be firmer, more consistent, stop giving in to him,” they say. This ever-present criticism is painful, but it isn’t even as bad as what is going on inside the mind of the parent of the challenging boy. You wonder what you are doing wrong and you can feel like you are a bad parent and that the problems you are having with your child are all your fault. It is a terrible thing to have a difficult problem to solve and on top of that to feel judged by others and blamed by yourself. While it is easy to get into criticizing yourself and blaming yourself, you need to stop it. You may ask why shouldn’t you blame yourself?
First, it isn’t your fault! Dr. James Garbarino, internationally recognized expert on child development and professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, says, “the only people who can really be totally self confident and sure about child rearing are people who don’t have children or people whose children are grown and out of the home.” In other words, when other people advise or judge you, or when you blame yourself, you don’t know what you are talking about. Why is this? It’s because child development is so complex. It’s impossible to say “this causes that” in most instances. You may have heard of the “butterfly effect.” Mathematician Ian Stewart describes it this way “the flapping of a single butterfly’s wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a month’s time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn’t happen. Or maybe one that wasn’t going to happen does.” The interplay of nature and nurture in the life of a developing child is so complex that it makes it impossible to ascribe blame and responsibility with any validity or accuracy.
Second, it doesn’t help! Placing blame doesn’t do anything to improve the situation. Even if you could assign blame accurately, there is still a problem to solve regardless of whose fault it was. There’s a great scene in the movie “Apollo 13.” The three astronauts are many thousands of miles away from the earth in their damaged spacecraft. The tensions are running high. There is a very real possibility that they won’t make it home alive and they start getting into trading blame. Finally the astronaut played by Tom Hanks interrupts the blame and says, “We’re not doing this, gentlemen. We are not going to do this. We are not going to go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes. We’re just going to end up right back here with the same problems, trying to stay alive.” The whole movie is full of the theme of “working the problem” versus panicking, losing hope, blaming. This scene illustrates how placing blame actually prevents us from gaining a real understanding of the problem and of coming up with a plan to solve it.
Third, blame creates a cycle of guilt and anger! Perhaps the most destructive aspect of blaming yourself is that it creates a cycle of guilt and anger that makes everyone involved unhappy. When you blame yourself you feel guilty about having caused the problem and your self-esteem and mood suffer accordingly. The thing about guilt, however, is that is not a stable emotion. Eventually when the guilt feelings get strong enough, they reverse into anger. It is as if you say “wait a minute, it’s not my fault. It’s his (referring to your son).” Now you are at risk of losing your cool and blowing up at your son or saying something to him that will be hurtful and that you regret.
It is the nature of power struggles (or of just about any other challenging interaction that we get into with our children) that we find ourselves time and time again caught up in them by surprise. In spite of our best intentions to keep calm, not yell, and avoid the fight, we invariably fall into its trap. This isn’t because we’re lazy, stupid, or a bad parent. It is because of the nature of power struggles. They occur in our emotional blind spots. They occur because of our emotional blind spots.
One of the most powerful tools for reducing power struggles and other negative interactions is to keep a parenting diary. At some time after the power struggle is over, write as detailed a description of it as possible. Start your entry from the point in time that everything seemed fine and then describe moment by moment the course of events from when they were fine to when things had gone wrong. Ask yourself questions as you write: how was I feeling before things started? Tired? Upset about something else? What triggered my child? Was he tired or hungry? What was he upset about? What was going on between us? Was I not paying attention? Was he acting needy or bratty? What memories or feelings does this situation evoke for me? What fears were evoked by the encounter? Do I feel like a bad parent? Am I afraid that others will judge me? Am I afraid that this explosion by my son is the sign of worse things to come? Do I feel panicked that if I don’t do something to stop this behavior right now that he’ll be a delinquent by high school? (I know this may seem extreme, but if you reflect carefully on your thoughts you might be surprised at the extremity of your underlying fears).
Just writing down a description of the power struggle, and the events leading up to it, does a lot. It helps process and relieve the lingering bad feelings from the event (guilt, fear, or anger). Writing about power struggles also leads to beneficial physiological changes in us. Writing leads to a reduction of the hormones that are released by stressful situations like fighting with our kids. These “stress hormones” contribute to exhaustion, over eating, and decreased immune system functioning. So, it’s good to reduce them. (Look at the work of psychologist James Pennebaker for more on the therapeutic effects of writing).
Writing down a description of the power struggle can also help us to develop a greater understanding of the reasons why we acted the way we did in the power struggle. Our diary writing can also help us understand our boy’s behavior better and develop more empathy for him. One diary entry might not shed much light by it self. It might take many diary entries before you develop clarity about what is going on in you and your son in these situations.
Even a single diary entry can do something powerful, however. It allows us to make a plan for how to deal with a similar circumstance when it arises the next time. The reason we find ourselves yelling, or saying or doing other things we regret like giving in to the tantrum is that the emotion centers in our brain have hijacked control of our behavior away from the rational thinking part of our brain. When our emotions have hijacked our brain in this way, we can’t think clearly and we are at risk of doing something to perpetuate the power struggle. We can, however, execute a plan established ahead of time based on our diary work. Because it doesn’t require us to think on our feet, this plan we made in our diary work can be executed even in the heat of the moment.
In addition to using it to work through difficult interactions with our kids, a parenting diary can also be used as a tool to reorient us in a positive direction. Psychologists studying Positive Psychology have found that writing down what we are grateful for helps keep us in a positive mindset. At the end of each entry take a moment for gratitude. Write down 5 things about your son that you are grateful for. It may be his sense of humor, his tenderness in moments when he allows a cuddle, the way he embraces life totally and with intensity. Next write down 5 things about yourself as a parent that you are grateful for. It may be your patience, your dedication (it’s pretty dedicated to read a blog on parenting), your playfulness, your warmth.
These are my absolute favorite books on parenting of all time. Each one is well worth the read (and the first one doesn’t even require reading because it’s an audiobook!).
1. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. (Audiobook) by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
2. Between Parent & Child. by Haim G. Ginott
3. Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too. by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
4. The Seven Spiritual Laws for Parents. by Deepak Chopra
5. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. by John Gottman.
6. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. by John Gottman
7. Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. by Daniel J. Siegel & Mary Hartzell.
8. The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children. by Ross Greene
9. The Golfer’s Mind: Play to Play Great. by Bob Rotella
10. Sacred Yoga Practice with Rainbeau Mars – Vinyasa Flow: Beginners (DVD) by Rainbeau Mars
I have written a blurb about each book so you can have a feel for it. Happy reading!
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. (Audiobook) by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
My number one, must own, parenting book of all time is an audiobook. Parents of one or more elementary aged kids frequently are simply too busy or too flat exhausted to read anything. With the How to Talk audiobook you can listen to it in the car on the way to work or running errands and get a lot of very helpful information and useful suggestions without further stretching an already over stretched life.
Inside the front cover of the print version of How to Talk is a list of what this book will teach you to do.
- To cope with your child’s negative feelings – frustration, disappointment, anger, etc…,
- To express your anger without being hurtful.
- To set firm limits and still maintain good will.
- To use alternatives to punishment.
- Resolve family conflicts easily.
This isn’t hype. The book really accomplishes these objectives. How to Talk really is a “how to” book. It is full of helpful strategies and techniques. It contains many familiar examples of the kinds of unhelpful conversations we have with out kids side by side with helpful alternative dialogue. The basic premise of the book is that listening to children’s feelings and accepting them non-judgmentally sets the stage for increased cooperation.
Between Parent & Child. by Haim G. Ginott
Haim Ginott was the teacher of Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and it is his concepts about understanding and communicating with children that form the basis of their books How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Sibling Without Rivalry. At the heart Dr. Ginott’s approach to communication with children is the recognition that denying children’s feelings makes the feelings more intense and confused and makes the feelings more likely to lead to misbehavior. In contrast, accepting a child’s negative feelings reduces their intensity, helps the child understand and accept him or herself, and helps the child to be more cooperative and a better problems solver.
Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too. by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
One of the most universal problems in all of parenting is sibling rivalry. It can be the cause of much fighting between siblings, the source of much distress in parents, and can lie at the root of many behavioral and emotional problems that eventually lead parents to seek psychological treatment for their kids. Like How to Talk to Kids, Siblings Without Rivalry is full of strategies and helpful examples that make it easy for readers to grasp and apply the books principles with great results.
The Seven Spiritual Laws for Parents. by Deepak Chopra
Most parenting books concern themselves with managing the many problems that come up in the course of child rearing. In The Seven Spiritual Laws for Parents, Chopra focuses our attention on our children’s spiritual development. He presents principles (‘laws’) and exercises designed to help parents raise children who have “the ability to love and have compassion, the capacity to feel joy and spread it to others, the security of knowing that one’s life serves a purpose, and finally, a sense of connection to the creative power of the universe.”
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. by John Gottman.
In many families, the single most important thing that parents can do to help their children is to work on making their marriages happy and satisfying. This is especially true for parents of challenging boys. Having a challenging boy places a strain on the parents’ relationship. Strain in your relationship can lead a challenging boy to act badly to draw your attention away from you conflicts and onto his bad behavior. As you can see a vicious cycle can quickly develop with challenging boys and their parents’ marriages. Gottman’s marital advice is based on solid psychological research. In Gottman’s view, marriages grow and deepen through reconciling differences between the spouses. Gottman’s research suggests that couples who have 5 positive interactions to every negative one have the happiest and most stable marriages. He also identifies, what he calls, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for every marriage: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
This book will not only help your marriage, it will help all of your intimate relationships, including your relationship with your challenging son. Applying Gottman’s principles – 5 to 1 positive ratio, and avoiding criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – will improve any relationship.
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. by John Gottman
Dr. Gottman also applied his research skills to studying what types of parenting practices promote the development of emotional intelligence and resilience in children. From his research, Gottman concluded that parents who are “Emotion Coaches” have the best results. Emotion coaching parents tune into and empathize with their child’s feelings, help the child “find the words to label the emotion he is having” and finally these parents “set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand.” Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child helps parents learn how to be Emotion Coaches.
Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. by Daniel J. Siegel & Mary Hartzell.
In Parenting from the Inside Out, Siegel and Hartzell argue that our ability to understand ourselves and our own experiences as children has a powerful impact on our ability to develop a loving and secure attachment with our children. In their words, “this book is designed to help you makes sense of your own life, both past and present, by enhancing your understanding of how your childhood influenced your life and affects your parenting.” According to Seigel and Hartzell, we are not prisoners of our past if we understand it. However, if we fail to achieve this self-understanding we are destined to repeat in our parenting many of the difficulties of our own past.
In the Explosive Child, Ross Greene explains how delays in a child’s development of flexibility and frustration tolerance makes them prone to power struggles and explosions. Greene points out that “children do well if they can,” but often kids with these developmental delays cannot cooperate even though they wish to. Greene spells out an approach to working with an explosive child that first involves learning to identify what triggers the outburst for the child so that those triggers can be eliminated or managed by the parents. Second, he describes a strategy for dealing with conflicts that he calls “Collaborate Problem Solving” (CPS). CPS is a simple and effective technique to help reduce power struggles.
The Golfer’s Mind: Play to Play Great. by Bob Rotella
This little book about golf is full of wisdom that can be applied beyond the golf course to any challenging endeavor of life. In The Golfer’s Mind Rotella shows how bringing the best possible attitude to every golf shot increases ones success and satisfaction as a golfer. Similarly, applying his insights to parenting, can help golfer and non-golfer alike bring their best attitude to every moment of parenting, to rise above set backs and frustrations and to maintain a focus on our goals for a healthy and happy home.
Sacred Yoga Practice with Rainbeau Mars – Vinyasa Flow: Beginners (DVD) by Rainbeau Mars
Parenting young children is physically demanding and emotionally stressful. If we do not take care of our bodies and our stress we can’t be at our best with our children and we will burn out. I find that yoga’s combination of physical exercise with emotional calm to be an excellent source of restoration from the demands of parenting and life. There are many great yoga DVDs and many great yoga classes, I happen to like this one for beginners. Yoga isn’t the answer for everyone, but getting some kind of exercise is incredibly helpful to any parent.
Oppositional, Rebellious, Difficult, Defiant, Explosive, Spirited, Challenging … What’s in a Name?
Who are Challenging Boys? They are kids who get tagged with many negative labels: oppositional, difficult, defiant, manipulative, willful, noncompliant, rigid, angry, temperamental, and rebellious and they tend to make life difficult for their parents and teachers. These negative labels, however, reflect a misunderstanding of who these boys are and why they behave the way that they do. These labels overlook the fact that Challenging Boys are full of important positive qualities. They are bright, curious, creative, passionate and sensitive kids who have a very strong commitment to justice and fairness. When we view them through the negative lens of these labels we set up negative expectations that make it even more likely that our challenging boys will act in difficult ways. The first step in more effectively parenting a challenging boy is to be careful to not use judgmental labels.
I have chosen the term “Challenging” to describe these boys because it captures their complex nature. Challenging first refers to the fact that it is often challenging to be the parent or the teacher of these boys. They seem to be almost constitutionally opposed to authority when it is arbitrarily administered. As a parent or a teacher there are decisions that have to be made, things that have to be done, places that have to be gotten to, and rules that have to be followed. It makes life pretty difficult to have your authority questioned at seemingly every turn.
“Challenging” also refers to the positive fact that Challenging Boys challenge us to grow as parents and as people. We have to develop a greater capacity for empathy as we search to understand what important principle our challenging boy is defending in an argument. If we don’t, we will be caught up in yet another power struggle before we know it. Challenging boys further challenge us to develop our skills at conflict resolution and collaboration. Because power struggles can be almost unavoidable, challenge boys also challenge us to learn how to be calm in the face of anger and conflict. Lastly, challenging boys challenge us to grow in that they challenge us to be honest with ourselves and with them. They are exquisitely sensitive truth detectors and they will call us on it if we try to BS them.
Finally, “challenging boys” means that we need to challenge our boys to learn how to pick their battles. They need to learn, as Aristotle said “to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.” We need to challenge our boys learn how to get along in addition to how to fight. We don’t want, however, to turn our boys in to “compliant boys.” Our culture needs these kids and their challenging natures to call into question the status quo and to make our society better and more just for us all. Many of the important revolutionaries in science, politics and business have been challenging boys. Wilbur and Orville Wright, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Steven Jobs had been challenging boys just to name a few.