Big Lessons from a Little Boy

Big Lessons Pic with Graphics


* I wrote an update to this post, Big Lessons from a (Gluten Free) Little Boy, to share our experiences with putting Will on a gluten free diet. You can read it here.

This is the story of a little boy and the family who loves him. It is not an easy story to tell, but God’s voice has been in my heart, whispering that there are people who need to read this – people who need

hope, to know that they are not alone. People who have tried every discipline trick in the book with their “explosive” child with no success. Those are the people I am trying to reach today.

When I say explosive child, I am not talking about one who throws an occasional temper tantrum. I am talking about a child who, at the slightest annoyance and often at unpredictable times, launches into a full scale fit of rage. I’m talking about destroyed property, attempts to harm others, and complete loss of control. This kind of behavior is the subject of Dr. Ross W. Greene’s book The Explosive Child.

Update July 2014: I also recently read the book Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. It takes the awesomeness of The Explosive Child up several notches by discussing the personality traits that often cause kids to explode. I cannot recommend these two books highly enough!

This book has been a much needed resource for our family.  It is also available as an ebook.

This book has been a much needed resource for our family. It is also available as an ebook.

If you are living with a child who sounds like he or she may benefit from this book, please, for the sake of your family, buy it. Don’t borrow it from the library, just buy it. You will reference it over and over again. While you are waiting for the book to arrive, explore Dr. Greene’s website, Lives in the Balance. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this excerpt from the first chapter, Kids Do Well if they Can:

The single most important theme of this book is the title of this chapter: kids do well if they can. The basic premise of this theme is that if your kid could do well, he would do well…his explosions reflect a developmental delay – a learning disability of sorts – in the skills of flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. So if your kid had the skills to handle disagreements and plans being changed on him without falling apart, he’d be handling these challenges adaptively. And because he doesn’t have the skills, he isn’t.

My son Will is so sweet, loving, generous, kind, thoughtful, hard-working, smart, funny, and a wonderful big brother, among other things. I love him with all of my heart. However, as Dr. Greene states above, he has lagging skills in the areas of flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. I don’t know why it took us so long to realize that when his behavior was less than stellar, he wasn’t being manipulative. He was simply showing us that he lacked the skills he needed to behave appropriately.

Now, after that long introduction, I want to tell you about some very big, and very humbling, lessons we’ve learned from this special little boy.

Family Quote

Teamwork is not just for school and work

Here is a very simple explanation of Dr. Greene’s collaborative problem solving theory:

A child explodes because the demands being placed on him exceed his ability to deal with them. The parents and child work together to address each other’s concerns and come up with a mutually agreeable solution.

This sounds much simpler than it really is. We encountered challenges along the way, but we knew we needed to stick with it. Collaborative problem solving gave us the results that time outs, sticker charts, and taking away privileges had not provided. Time outs consistently lasted for an hour. No amount of stickers could help him overcome his lagging emotional skills. Taking away privileges just made the explosion that much bigger. No problems were solved until we started looking at him as a kid who needed help with his emotional skills. Dr. Greene’s website contains some great lists of common lagging skills and unsolved problems that we used to guide ourselves through the process.

Flexibility is more important than being right

As Dr. Greene says, you can’t teach a child to be flexible by being inflexible yourself. Here is how we do this. We say “We are doing X thing now.” Will says “But I want to do Y.” We have been taught that as parents, what we say goes. We are older, so obviously we know better, right? Not always. We have learned to ask Will why he wants to do Y thing. If it is really important to him and does not cause a problem, we consider letting him do it. There are times, though, that he has to hear the word no and deal with it, but when we can, we model what it means to be flexible.

A lot of people see an exploding kid and blame the parents for being too permissive. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say something like “If he was my kid, I’d show him who’s boss.” Believe me, I know. We tried that over and over again and it didn’t work. That line of reasoning just doesn’t work with explosive kids. This is a difficult concept to grasp because we are trained to think the opposite.

However, because of their lagging skills, these kids need to be taught how to react appropriately, rather than be punished even more. Dr. Greene rightly points out that explosive kids feel more emotional pain than most adults will experience in a lifetime. I’d rather teach my kid what he needs to know than punish him needlessly. The proof is in the pudding. We have found that after we show Will some flexibility, he tends to be much more cooperative and he extends that flexibility to the rest of the family.

He deserves more credit than I realized

This was one of the most enlightening moments I’ve had in my parenting career. We used to assume that Will’s difficult behavior was intentional, that he was purposely manipulating situations to get what he wanted. After we read the book, the light went on. If kids do well if they can, then he obviously couldn’t do well. Why would he put himself through countless, useless time outs and other negative reinforcement if he could choose to do well? Our focus changed from disciplining him for being difficult to helping him gain the skills he needed.

Play first, work later

Will used to consistently explode when he felt that he was not getting enough attention. My tendency to work before playing aggravates him to no end. My DNA should really be spelled W-O-R-K. Being productive is enjoyable for me, and on top of that, running a five person and one dog household requires a lot of work. However, I have found that when I take time to play with him first, he is calmer and more flexible and we are all happier.

We need to remember his strengths

Will’s strengths are numerous. When I’m getting frustrated by his behavior, I try to remember the things that I appreciate about him and some of the many special things he has done for me. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps me keep my attitude in check.

He needs to be reminded that I love him

I remind him that I love him many times a day. He often complains that I’ve said it ten hundred times, but I know that deep down inside, he needs to hear it.

I know this has been a long post, but I appreciate each and every one of you who has read to the end. This parenting thing is hard for all of us, but we can do it if we just stick together and keep loving these little blessings we’ve been given.

Do you have an explosive child? Leave a comment below so we can hear your story!

Linked to Babies and Beyond | Titus 2sdays | Heart-Filled Fridays


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About beckymaag

Hello and thank you for visiting Peace in the Pod! My name is Becky. I am a Catholic, a wife, a mother of three beautiful young children, and a child of God. I am imperfect but I am loved.
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12 Responses to Big Lessons from a Little Boy

  1. Rose says:

    Gonna add this to my reading list!


  2. Susan LeBaron-Tonini says:

    I’m also going to read it. Thanks for the heads up.


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  4. Chris says:

    Becky, This is very insightful. Lots of good info. here. I have been teaching kids flexible thinking for the past 2 1/2 years, but teaching my own child has unique challenges. It’s a different relationship with different dynamics. I have leaned so much from my son’s meltdowns. I have so much more empathy and compassion for other parents that I judged as inconsistent and too lax when I was a teacher with no kids of my own. I admire the way you search for answers: read, seek help etc. Your blog talks about things that some of us feel shame and embarrassment about. It’s comforting to know I am not alone in these struggles.


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