By Amanda Diekman
We’ve been out for an energetic afternoon swinging at the park, and as we arrive back home, my six-year-old Michael runs to the door, pressed to my side, attempting to squeeze into the locked door. I cannot find my keys with this amoeba child touching me and too many park bags in my hands. As I search for the keys, my phone rings, an important call, one I’ve been waiting for, so despite the chaotic moment, I answer it.
The moment I grab the phone in my left hand and press it to my ear, my fingers find my keys with my right hand. I say “Hello?” as the keys turn in the lock and the door swings open. Instead of running upstairs to hide and decompress, as I expected, Michael runs into the open doorway, spins to face me, face screwed up into a growl. “I hate yoooouuuu!” he screams. He forms his fingers into claws and begins scratching at my face. His breath is coming fast, a low moan escaping; his eyes are wild. This explosion comes out of nowhere, as they always do.
“I’ll have to call you back,” I say as fast as I can, one word “Illhavetocallyouback.” I drop everything in my hands, hoping the industrial phone case will protect it as it clatters to the ground.
I have an explosive child. He has exploded like this, sudden, aggressive, and violent, practically since he was born. One moment we are holding hands by the door, the next moment, he is trying to destroy me.
Parenting the unlucky ones
At the height of our struggle, I picked up a parenting book called The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene. The author’s stories comfort me; I recognize these children. Instead of combing through parenting articles about unrecognizably tame issues, I read about pre-teens knocking holes in walls, months of silent treatment, kids who are restrained in school, and I feel sad and comforted at once.
Life is so hard for these kids. They are the unlucky ones. The unlucky kids are the “hitters, bitters, fighters, and screamers.” Everyone responds to stress and emotion differently. The lucky kids are the cryers, whiners, and sulkers. No one is kicked out of school for crying at their best friend.
Kids do well when they can, not when they want to
The Explosive Child is about the hardest of hard situations that human face raising other humans, and yet the centerpiece of the book is the idea that kids do well when they can. Kids do well, try their best, and want to please adults, all on their own, without rewards or punishments.
“The reason reward and punishment strategies haven’t helped is because they won’t teach your child the skills he’s lacking or solve the problems that are contributing to challenging episodes,” declares Dr. Greene. This book urges parents to look past difficult behaviors, like my son’s meltdown after our park outing, and instead to look upstream at the parental expectations that the child is not able to meet.
These are called “Unsolved Problems,” and the book’s method shares how to collaboratively and proactively solve them with mutually satisfactory solutions.
For example, my parental expectation was that my child would wait patiently next to me while I opened the door. Then I added another expectation by asking him to wait through a phone call.
My child has lagging skills around patience, tolerating changes to the plan, and processing unexpected auditory input, like a phone ringing. When lagging skills hit high parental expectations, kaboom. Explosions.
Follow the method
The Explosive Child reframes our lens to begin looking at an explosive child as a struggling child with challenging behaviors. These behaviors are communicating something, and as the parent I am a detective, working closely with my child to determine what is so hard and how to change the situation so that my child can meet the demand without explosions. There are 6 steps to the method:
1. Be proactive. This method is not for “in the moment” problems. In the moment, we simply keep people safe and de-escalate.
2. Define the problem. Find out precisely what expectation our child is struggling to meet. There is something we want for our child to do; we just need figure out what it is.
3. Listen to what’s hard. Listen and listen and listen until the child has said everything they can possibly think of to say about the unsolved problem.
4. Share your top priority related to the problem. We ask ourselves: “Why does this matter to me as the adult?”
5. Collaborate on solutions that take our kids’ concerns as seriously as we take our own. Let our child go first in suggesting something, while being ready with a few suggestions of our own. Be sure that our suggestions meet everyone’s top concerns equally.
6. Be willing to try something and learn from it. The first ideas probably won’t work completely, but we can learn and try again!
Be willing to drop a lot of expectations
At the heart of this method is in the slow trusting work of collaborative problem solving, which is only possible for a few problems at a time. So what do we do with the rest of our parental expectations that are causing explosions? We let those expectations go! If it is not a top problem, I’ve learned that it is ok to let it go. Brushing teeth is important, but safety and stability are even more important. Releasing expectations is the radical, unsung hero of this method.
Look at specific struggles, not diagnoses
One of the central tenants of Dr. Greene’s method in The Explosive Child is an insistence that mental health should be treated with equal seriousness as physical health. “If your child lost a limb and was physically unable to climb the stairs, would you continue to insist on it?” notes Dr. Greene. Why would anxiety, depression or trauma be any less real or debilitating?
This book taught me to look at specific situations, instead of using diagnoses as blanket descriptions of a cluster of symptoms. Dr. Greene argues that while many explosive children have been diagnosed ad nauseam, and those lists of letters still aren’t leading their caregivers toward healing strategies.
Explosive children need us to see them. They need us to release our projections and expectations, and accept them, right where they are.
To stand with your child, just as they are, in radical acceptance, is one of the hardest things a parent can do.
Amanda Diekman is a Presbyterian pastor, late-diagnosed autistic, and a neurodivergent parenting coach. She uses collaborative problem solving with her three neurodivergent boys in Durham, NC. You can find her writing at www.amandadiekman.net and engage on Instagram at simple.soulful.amanda.
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