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David Baxter

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Dealing with Explosive Children
by Robert Needlman, M.D.
Thu, Apr 12, 2007

This blog entry is about the many, many children who are brought to the doctor because of explosive behavior. See if any of these portraits sound familiar:
  • He walks past his sister, who is watching TV. Without warning, he slugs her.
  • Any time you tell her "No," she screams and swears at you, and keeps it up for 20 minutes.
  • He can be happy one minute, and screaming and throwing things the next.
  • Her face changes -- she's like a completely different person.
  • You never can tell when she'll explode; it could be any time.
If you have a child like this, you probably feel stressed a lot of the time. You have to worry that at any moment an explosion could ruin the day for your child and you. You might blame yourself, because you have not been a perfect parent (even though nobody is). You might blame your child, who seems to be simply "bad" or "spoiled." You might worry that there is something wrong with your child's brain.

All of these explanations are possible. Some children are simply spoiled, simply the product of bad parenting, or simply (although of course it is not simple at all!) have mental illness. But most of the time there are several causes, not just one. For example:

  • One child who often flies into rages has one parent with depression and one parent with bipolar disorder, also called manic-depression. Emotional problems often have a genetic cause. But he's also been exposed to his parents' emotional ups and downs, which might be a source of upset, and also a powerful example.
  • One child is highly sensitive to changes in temperature, noise, and lighting levels; changes throw her off. Her explosions come most when she's exposed to these stresses -- stresses her parents barely notice.
  • One child was traumatized when his mother was suddenly taken to the hospital; he's been anxious about separations ever since. His parents tried to cope by sneaking away, so he wouldn't get upset. As a result, he's even more clingy than ever, since he can never be sure when his mom or dad will disappear.
  • One child has learned that explosions get him what he wants, at least some of the time. Often what he wants is to not have to do whatever it is that his mother wants him to do at any given moment. He doesn't like the way it feels to blow up, but he often likes the result, if it means he gets to keep on playing.
Because so many different things can make a child explosive, there is no one single prescription or cure. On the other hand, there are some responses that a pretty sure to make matters worse. While a parental explosion can sometimes dampen a child's rage, most often it has just the opposite effect. The parent's anger just feeds into the child's anger, and everyone stays furious for a long time. Giving in to a child's demands, in the hopes of avoiding more anger, also tends to backfire. Children who gain control through anger often become tyrants or bullies in the own homes. But even though they are in charge, they aren't happy.

The best blanket advice I've heard comes from The Explosive Child, by psychologist Ross Greene. He suggests that you sort a child's demands into one of three "baskets":

  • In Basket One are the demands that you agree to give in to, because they are reasonable, or because you don't care one way or the other. Your child wants his sandwich cut into triangles instead of straight across. Fine: triangles it is!
  • In Basket Three are the demands that you absolutely never will agree to, no matter what. Your child wants to use your steak knives for target practice, in your kitchen. Not happening. For these sorts of demands, you say No and you don't waver, even if your child blows up.
  • Basket Two is the most interesting. This is where you put demands that you don't absolutely agree or disagree with. You use these Basket Two demands to teach your child compromise. Begin by explaining that a compromise is when everyone gets some of what they want, but nobody gets it all. Your child wants to go outside on a cold day without a coat. You're pretty sure he'll get cold. A compromise might be that he carries his coat, so he can put it on if he gets cold. The more you can help your child to compromise, the less you'll both have to deal with unwanted explosions.
 

AVC

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I believe in the old fashion methods, as the old saying goes, if you spare the rod you spoil the child, work camp techniques would also work with such a child, make them do hard labor for a while instead of watching TV, that will give them a dose of reality and that is what is needed with this type of kid.

I hated working on a farm in the tomato fields putting hay under the plants for hours, I did it for a few hours for a Black Woman when I was young, something like this will straighten a kid out for a long time for sure.
 

David Baxter

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1. You're assuming this is solely the result of bad behavior, which often is not the case. Punishing or harshly disciplining children for a mental health issue isn't going to help anything.

2. Even for conduct problems, the research simply doesn't bear out the claims of success with a "boot camp" approach. More often than not, the result is the same behavior in an even angrier child.
 

AVC

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That is possible, but I'm not talking about kids with physical or mental problems, that is a different story, you mention explosive children, most of the time that is from parents who do not discipline children at all and were never taught discipline themselves as children, many of these parents have no idea how to teach it to their kids.

What I'm saying is there is a reward and punishment system that should be used in raising kids that has been successful for thousands of years and that is the method I would use on normal children.
 
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I believe in the old fashion methods, as the old saying goes, if you spare the rod you spoil the child, work camp techniques would also work with such a child, make them do hard labor for a while instead of watching TV, that will give them a dose of reality and that is what is needed with this type of kid.

i really hope you meant this as a figure of speech and that this was a bad choice of words on your part, and that you do not condone any form of physical or mental abuse in order to give kids a dose of reality. your words come across as very harsh to me, but again, you may not have meant it that way.

kids need discipline, but it needs to be fair. i agree sometimes tough love is required, but there may be many factors leading to problem behaviour in children. one may want to consider the source of their distress, of what's causing them to be difficult and try to treat that rather than to just blindly punish.
 

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The Collaborative Problem Solving Centre has launched a new website called Think:Kids. This is a good starting point for any parent who is dealing with a challenging child who has behaviour problems and/or who rages.

This website has information on the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) model that was first introduced by Dr. Ross Greene in his book The Explosive Child. http://www.explosivechild.com/

Think:Kids gives an overview of the CPS model. It has sections for Parents, Educators, Pediatricians, & Systems and Facilities.

The site has a combination of videos and text.

Worth checking out is "Pathways Inventory" that lists all the symptoms of inflexible children.

The authors contend that many challenging kids lack the skills they need for flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving (and other things). If your child lacks the skills required for handling life?s social, emotional, and behavioral challenges you are going to see some of the behaviours included in this list.

The authors also address why reward and punishment programs don't work for challenging kids -- they basically lack the skills to be able to learn through a reward and punishment system.

The site also has the basics of the CPS approach. There is some really useful information that can help if you are dealing with a child who gets easily frustrated -- including kids who rage.

You can find the website at www.thinkkids.org.
 

AVC

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No Ladybug, I meant what I said, if a child is violent toward others and causes physical harm then making them "do yard work" is a way to teach some discipline, it could be cleaning their bedroom, folding clothes or any other tasks that kids never want to do.

It could be taking extended naps like my Mother made us do when we would not eat dinner, it could be watching no Television shows for a while.

My Uncles use to take their belts off all the time to take care of business with their kids and it seemed to work, all the kids ended up as fine men too!

Now I'm not suggesting violence by Fathers toward their kids at all, once my brother and I were fighting and my Father took it out on me with a punch to the temple, a few days later on the baseball field I had a seizure and was hospitalized, so that is over done discipline, the type you are worried about.
 

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Well, we've had this debate before, AVC. The reality is:

1. that physical punishment will temporarily suppress behavior but in the long run does not change behavior - to change behavior requires positive incentives to change (rewards, praise, etc.)

2. that physical punishment produces a range of undesirable negative emotional effects which can and often does lead to worse behaviors

3. that hitting a child delivers the message that if you have a disagreement or conflict with someone it is acceptable to deal with that by the use of physical aggression and force - not a message most parents should really want to give to their children

4. that in many regions physical punishment such as you are describing is illegal and may well result in charges of assault being laid against the parent
 

AVC

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In the case of my Father and Uncles, all had 3 Sons, since they were already throwing punches, these men taking their belts off and settling matters worked, there was no fighting after that.

So dealing with a violent gang of boys is not always done with verbal persuasion and reason, during an ongoing riot this has little value.

By then it is too late to use the techniques that some of you are bringing up since "the explosion" is actually a full blown war between brothers.
 

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And the uncle had a choice: Lead by example and parent responsibly or follow the lead of his aggressive sons to demonstrate to them that might makes right, right being the strongest person with the biggest belt...

You are describing a bad response to a dysfunctional family situation.
 

AVC

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Well, I would agree, if a riot breaks out in your living room once a week I guess there may be some dysfunction within the family, but it only takes one person misfiring to get a family going in that direction, the weakest link theory or one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.

So large families always have these problems to deal with I would imagine.
 
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No Ladybug, I meant what I said, if a child is violent toward others and causes physical harm then making them "do yard work" is a way to teach some discipline, it could be cleaning their bedroom, folding clothes or any other tasks that kids never want to do.

It could be taking extended naps like my Mother made us do when we would not eat dinner, it could be watching no Television shows for a while.
these are all things i agree with.

My Uncles use to take their belts off all the time to take care of business with their kids and it seemed to work, all the kids ended up as fine men too!
this i completely, totally, and utterly disagree with. there is no justification whatsoever to ever inflict physical harm to a child! i am sure these fine men will do the same to their children if they become "unmanagable".

Now I'm not suggesting violence by Fathers toward their kids at all, once my brother and I were fighting and my Father took it out on me with a punch to the temple, a few days later on the baseball field I had a seizure and was hospitalized, so that is over done discipline, the type you are worried about.

you're sending mixed messages. you seem to agree that being beaten with a belt is okay to discipline, but a punch to the temple is not because you ended up with seizures. i do not see what the difference is between either. have you considered the emotional damage of being beaten with a belt? a child responds in two possible ways, one is fear, the other is agression. a person becomes withdrawn and afraid when beaten, or they become abusive themselves. maybe not towards the "disciplinarian", because they're afraid of that person, but they will take it out on those weaker than they. isn't this how schoolyard bullies are created?

how did your father beating you make you feel? do you think if he had used his belt on you instead, that emotionally you would have been fine? i suspect you would have felt the same way as you did when he punched you. the only difference would have been that you would not have had a seizure.
 

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I'm one of 12 children. I don't recall any fist fights in our home. :)

You mean to tell me that there was never a fight in your family, no smacking, pushing, yelling ?

You have boys.

Are you saying they have never had any physical contact in any of their disputes growing up Dr. Baxter ?

Yes LadyBug, a strap across the back (as the old Stones song goes) would have been much better than a direct very hard full fisted blow to the temple by a raging mad man, especially since he just walked in the door from work and did not understand that my little brother started it all, I was the eldest and he was the youngest kid.

You all must understand also that I grew up in "The Rubber City", Akron, Ohio and all my family were tire builders, working class blue collar people, this is the way they did things in those days 40 years ago.
 

David Baxter

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A lot of things have changed in 40 years, AVC. As I said earlier, the form of discipline you describe is viewed the same as any other assault here in Canada. I believe that's true of many states in the US as well.
 

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