A Review by Shawna Nelson, our Graduate Student Intern

The Explosive Child, written by psychologist Dr. Ross Greene is a guide for parents of children who are inflexible, easily frustrated, angered, and triggered in especially intense ways. These children will often scream, kick, bite, and lash out with physical or emotional aggression that is out of proportion with the situation. We’re not talking standard tantrums here. This isn’t a child who can be distracted out of a meltdown, or bounce back when you reason with them. These kids meltdown at nuclear proportions over standard disappointments. Explosive children are black and white thinkers in a grey world. They lack cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation skills, a dangerous combination.

This book leads off with a compassionate truth that every parent should internalize: Kids do well if they can.

Often children who qualify as explosive are labeled manipulative, spoiled, willful, or unmotivated. But Dr. Greene suggests that explosive children are different, this isn’t a behavioral issue, it’s a wiring issue. In play therapy, we call these children 20%ers, while 80% of children will respond to rewards, punishments, and bribes these children will not. If they could react calmly, transition easily, and not push back on adults’ requests they would. But they can’t.

So what do we do?

First and most importantly, identify the child’s triggers. A written record for a week or more with notes like where, when, and circumstances around an explosion can be extremely useful in managing these children. Common triggers are new siblings, hunger, fatigue, sensory issues, overstimulation, transitions, and difficult tasks. Understanding when and where triggers happen can help you use the main suggestion of this book: collaborative problem-solving.

Once triggers have been identified Dr. Grenne lays out three plans for adults to use with explosive children:

Plan A is the adult imposing their will on the child. The adult has a demand, the child fails to meet the demand, and the adult persists in the demand. Everyone becomes frustrated. This plan is the least useful.

Dr. Greene wants you to use Plan B: Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS). It involves 3 steps:

  1. Empathizing- in this step, you acknowledge that the child is struggling with the trigger. You make this acknowledgment with warmth and concern, “It’s hard for you to get out of bed in the morning.” Some explosive children reject adult reflections about their challenges because of shame. For these children you might say objectively and compassionately, “Waking you up has been hard for me.”
  2. Identifying the problem- in this step you inquire and explain. Inquire about the child’s issue and explain your concern. “What’s up?” This is a question for older children but it is stated throughout the book. For a younger child, the inquiry step looks different. For their struggles, you’re often called on to be a detective. What time are they going to sleep? Is there room dark and comfortable? What happens before bedtime?
  3. Invitation to solve the problem- This is the brainstorming phase. For older children this is collaborative. You’re working to identify solutions that meet both of your concerns. For younger children this is experimental. Changing a routine and explaining the change beforehand. Ex: “Tonight instead of watching a show after the bath you’ll watch it after dinner and before the bath.” You might solicit their input about changes but only in the case that it’s reasonable to implement them. The best solutions are reasonable and mutually satisfactory, they must address the adult’s concern.

Plan C: Simply drop the expectation to avoid the explosion. Not giving up per se, but at that moment, whatever it is you are requesting of the explosive child, you drop. Brushing teeth, putting shoes on, finishing the homework. Plan C can create stability, especially in a tense moment. It can be used in preparation for Plan B. If a situation is consistently causing explosions you might drop the expectation until you can use the CPS method to come up with an amenable solution.

Unfortunately, many explosive children cannot clearly articulate their concerns about their triggers. This book misses developmental marks for young and emotionally withdrawn children. Because of this, the best way to use Plan B and occasionally Plan C is to be an expert on your child. This is accomplished through observation. What happens before an explosion? Where do they happen most? Who is around? Answering these questions can help you titrate your responses, expectations, and environment. My wisest Montessori mentors would often say, “You can’t change the child, but you can always change the environment.”