Why is My Child Defiant or Explosive?

Dedicated to the lady at Walmart with the screaming kid and all of us “good parents” who have been that lady at Walmart.

One of the most difficult behaviors for parents or teachers to address is explosive behavior, a child who has little control over emotions and “melts down” in the classroom or at home.  It is frustrating, it is embarrassing, it is anxiety producing, it causes intense emotions in ourselves.  Parents agonize over why it happens or what they did wrong?  Often the parents are blamed or judged by bystanders in stores, family members, friends, or school staff.  However, I have seen parents with a variety of parenting styles have kids with poor emotional control, including those who are strict, those who are quick to give in, those who spank, those who use time out, those who take away privileges, and a whole lot of parents who feel like they have tried everything.  I know children with very little emotional control from homes that are falling apart, from homes that are loving and supportive, from poor families, from affluent families, from parents who have no clue how to parent, from parents with excellent skills, even from School Psychologists.  This is not to say that parenting styles do not have a role in this, but there IS more to it.  We have to stop judging each other and get to the root of the problem.  

What is the Root of the Problem?

The problem, the reason some children “explode” or act out with little emotional control, is because he or she is lacking a skill.  Emotional control is a skill.  Most kids will learn this skill through consistent discipline strategies, but some do not. 

Another way to look at it.

We don’t tell our kids how to read and then expect them to do it.  We show them step by step.  Some kids will pick it up easy, others will need to be taught and retaught and retaught and will need extensive help in doing so.  Do we blame ourselves?  Do we look at our friends judgementally and think to ourselves ”look at the book she is using, it’s all wrong?”  No, we assume the child has a problem learning to read and we find a way to teach him.  WE HAVE TO START LOOKING AT BEHAVIOR IN THE SAME WAY.  When a child is exploding, the first step should not be to label the child or blame the parent.  Lets start looking for the skill that is lacking.  When we find that skill, lets teach it.

It’s NOT always a control issue.  Sometimes kids act out because they have not been taught to obey and respect authority, but sometimes they act out in spite of good training at home.  The explosions lead to self esteem problems in the child and the child feeling like a “bad kid,” which in turn makes explosions bigger and more frequent.  Have you ever looked at a screaming child and demanded he control himself right now or “act your age.”  It’s a common thing to do.  Have you ever looked at a child with a Learning Disability and said “read on your grade level, now!” or ”I have told you and told you how to read, why aren’t you reading?”  Of course you haven’t.  We work with the reader at his level and patiently try different strategies to improve reading.  We can’t demand them to be good readers and we can’t demand that a child who does not have the skills to control his emotions “act his age.”  These explosive kids need skills and truth be told, we who work with these kids need skills. 

If you are a parent with a child who acts “out of control” stop blaming yourself.  It isn’t necessarily because you spanked or didn’t spank or were too strict or too lenient.  Your child is lacking the skills she needs to control her emotions.  Also, realize you are going to need to learn new skills to help your child learn the lacking skills.  You are no longer in the Parenting 101 class, you need to move on to the Advanced skill- teaching parenting class. 

The BEST book I have read on this topic is The Explosive Child by Ross Greene.  He addresses the skills these children might be lacking and he has great strategies to address the issue. (see Amazon link below)

If you are a teacher and have an “explosive child” in your class, rethink your perspective of the student.  The child needs to learn skills, so lets focus on teaching the skills and being patient with the children who are slower to learn emotional control.  We as school staff can not make excuses or blame the parents.  We have to reach the child at her level.  We teach a child to read at her level.  We must teach a child to control emotions at her level as well. 

Challenge for Everyone
Let us stop labeling these kids with emotional skill deficits as “bad kids” and stop judging the parents.  Let’s be honest with ourselves and recognize we all have shortcomings and could use skills in certain areas.  Maybe our kids need skills in emotional control, maybe we do, maybe we need skills in teaching emotional control, or maybe we need skills in some other area all together.  Let’s be patient with our children and our peers and ourselves. Let’s stop criticizing ourselves and others and start learning and teaching new skills.   We don’t live in a world with bad kids, we live in a world will kids who need skills, so let’s teach.

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