Friday, June 19, 2009

"The Explosive Child" by Ross W Greene

The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross W Greene, Ph.D.

I must begin this review by stating that I think that the book has a somewhat unfortunate title. At least to me, it sounds terribly negative, and that's something I try to avoid in parenting books. (I will never forget the day I picked up Dr James Dobson's "The Strong-Willed Child" wherein he said that some kids are just stubborn and we must basically beat it out of them otherwise they will end up sending themselves to hell. Really, that's what he said! It was terrible!) In any case, TEC is not like that at all. It's actually a very positive and proactive sort of book.

One point he does make right at the beginning is that some children explode (yelling, tantruming, hurting others, etc) while others implode (shutting down, ignoring, walking away from the situation, etc). Children with different temperaments will of course react to things differently, but according to Dr Greene, the causes are essentially the same, so can be treated with the same method.

Dr Greene's basic premise is that children do well if they can (rather than the more commonly taught children do well if they want to). In other words, if the child knows the rules, and has motivation to follow them, but is consistently misbehaving anyway, then it is because he has "a developmental delay--a learning disability of sorts--in the skills of flexibility and frustration tolerance" (p 15). In other words, they don't misbehave because they want to, they misbehave because they literally don't have the skills to process situations and behave in a more appropriate or adaptive manner. These kids don't need more incentives, punishments, or consequences--they need to be taught the skills that they are lacking.
Greene explains that "An explosive outburst--like other maladaptive behavior--occurs when the cognitive demands being placed upon a person outstrip that person's capacity to respond adaptively" (p 17). I know that's a lot of big words and technical terms all strung together, but take a minute to go back and read it again, because it's really critical as it underpins the whole philosophy of the book.

Having established that these children are misbehaving (and exploding/imploding) because they lack the skills to do otherwise, Greene then lays out the skills which are commonly lacking (different children will lack different skills of course, and many lack more than one):
  • Executive Skills (shifting from one activity to another, organization/planning, putting ideas into action, and separating emotional response from the thinking necessary to solve the problem)
  • Language Processing Skills (categorizing & expressing emotion, identifying & articulating his own needs, and solving problems)
  • Emotion Regulation Skills (when they become tired, irritated, scared, or otherwise upset their emotion gets in the way of their thinking, so they become irrational, inflexible, frustrated, and explosive)
  • Cognitive Flexibility Skills ("black-and-white thinkers stuck in a grey world" who struggle with adapting to changes in plans or changes in routine/schedule)
  • Social Skills (picking up social cues, interpreting those cues correctly, figuring out appropriate responses in social situations, and realizing how his behavior affects others)
Dr Greene is quick to clarify that these should be used as explanations, not excuses. In other words, this process of identifying lagging skills is just to help us understand what we need to consider as we begin to teach the child how to gain those skills--it is not an excuse for his maladaptive behavior.
The second part of identifying the problem is to consider triggers--that is, the situations or events that tend to set the child off. Many children are triggered by being tired, hungry, frustrated, or overstimulated. Sometimes just the presence of a certain person (or type of person) can be a trigger. Other triggers include things like being corrected, having an unexpected change in plans, or having to switch from one activity to another. Hopefully most parents already know that reducing triggers can reduce explosions, but sometimes triggering situations cannot be avoided, and that is where Plan B comes in.

Dr Greene discusses 3 plans: Plans A, B, and C.
Plan A is where the Adult forces his will on the child (it's what most of us were probably raised with--a "because I said so" sort of mentality, and when applied to a child who lacks the skills to measure up to the adult's expectations, it is a recipe for disaster...not to mention that it's not very respectful of the child!).
Plan C is where the adult capitulates and just lets the Child do what he pleases (which is not respectful of the adult, so is also problematic).
Plan B is to utilize what Dr Greene calls "collaborative problem solving" (CPS) to find solutions that will solve the concerns of Both adult and child. So of course Plan B is the ideal.
There is a time for Plan A--when the kid is running into the road of course you should grab him and stop him in spite of his protests. There is also a time for Plan C--when you realize that the issue at hand is not that big a deal or that your expectation was unrealistic. For the rest of the time, CPS can be a great tool to help parent and child work out solutions to deal with the immediate problems...and over time, as the parent guides them through the thinking processes of CPS, the child should be able to develop the skills he's been lacking.

Collaborative Problem Solving (in it's simplest form) consists of 3 steps:
1--empathize with the child (get their concern on the table, and let them see that you care about them and their concern)
2--define the problem (get your concern on the table too)
3--invite the child to propose solutions (you can make propositions of your own as well, but most children will have a higher investment in something they thought of, so if it seems like a decent solution, by all means try their idea! Remember that "Plan B is not 'tricky' Plan A!" (p 108).)
An acceptable solution is one that is realistic, doable, and mutually satisfactory. If it fails to meet any of those criteria, then keep proposing solutions until you find something that meets all three.

I highly recommend this book, particularly for any parent who has a child who consistently misbehaves even though he knows the rules and has been repeatedly punished for breaking them. It had never occurred to me that my academically advanced son might be struggling with certain mental skills, but as I read this book I repeatedly had the thought "that sounds a lot like my kid." I am just beginning to try CPS with him (Hubby hasn't read the book yet), and the first couple of attempts floundered a bit...I think he's used to us pushing our agenda (Plan A) and is struggling to identify what his own needs/wants actually are, because (unfortunately) they have often been ignored in the past as we tried to force him to do things our way. But the second try went better than the first, and I look forward to increased peace for all of us as we get the hang of this.
By the way, I did explain the basics here, but if you think these ideas would be helpful for you or your family, please don't rely on my version, please do get the book and read it for yourself. Dr Greene gives much more thorough explanations than I did, including sample conversations of how to apply CPS, common mistakes that parents make when trying to utilize CPS, and ideas for how to work with kids who don't want to work with you.

For those with school aged children, Dr Greene has also written Lost at School which teaches the same philosophy with school applications.


Mallory said...

How incredibly interesting! I really want to read this book now.

Emily said...

Oh wow, Bella is 4 out of those 5! I guess I need to add this book to my reading list...

Christa said...

I will be reading this book for sure! It's hard for people to remember that my twins are preemies...yes that was two years ago, but it still takes time to "catch-up" on things. I see other kids born the same month doing things I can only dream of my kids doing. This post really encouraged things I already knew. My girls would rather be left to play at will rather than me sit them down and say we're playing babies today, or dress up, or blocks. They are so well behaved so long as people just let them be, it's when people want them to do a certain thing, that isn't vital that they freak out and scream.

Lisa said...

I've been hearing a lot about this book lately, and your review has convinced me that I need to buy it. It sounds like it would help alot with issues we've been having with my son for a long time. I especially loved the part about "exploding" vs. "imploding", I had never thought of that before.

knittingsheeple said...

I read The Explosive Child - it's my older son to a T. It's really helped us in negotiating things with him (his anxiety manifests explosively).

It's a great book!

Summer said...

My second son is pretty explosive I'm going to check this book out.

Anonymous said...

Thank you - this is really useful. I'd seen this book recommended for me on Amazon, and it sounds like I should get it. I definitely want to get the 'Lost at School' book as my son's starting this autumn and I could do with some help in case we run into problems.

I have a question. The CPS approach sounds like the one described in 'How To Talk So Kids Can Listen...' Have you read that book as well? If so, how would you say the two approaches compare and would you say that 'The Explosive Child' still has more to offer to those who've read 'How To Talk So Kids Can Listen...'? (And if you *haven't* read that book, then I recommend it as strongly as possible!)

Kate said...

Thanks for the review. I've heard a lot about this book (it's recommended quite a bit on the Unconditional Parenting list) and it sounds great--actually, CPS sounds a lot like what we've naturally grown into here and have mostly really smooth experiences with it.

I love reading books that help me remember how small/immature/unskilled children are, and that it is this--and not some evil plan to make things difficult--that is responsible for, well, difficult behaviors!

Have you read the spirited child book? I did some reviews of it recently too. It seems like these 2 are along the same lines in terms of philosophy.

Mommy Bee said...

Kate--yes, I've read Spirited Child. I'm re-reading it right now in fact, and reviews (yes, plural posts) will be coming soon. :) It is in the reference list for Eplosive Child in fact. :) The biggest difference I note between the two however is the Spirited Child is talking about temperament (ie, this is how the kid IS) and Explosive Child is talking about lacking skills (ie, this is stuff the kid doesn't know *yet* but they can learn and move past it). I think both perspectives are helpful, and both apply to many kids--it takes a thoughtful parent to try to discern which things are hard wired and which can be learned.

Sarah V--I have read "how to talk so kids will listen..." and actually at the time I thought it was sortof in, doesn't everybody know that it's good to talk with kids and try to meet everyone's needs, you know? I think the key difference with Explosive Child is that it suggests that sometimes the kid CAN'T process things because they are lacking the skills to do so. So utilizing CPS to demonstrate and practice with them, they can be taught the skills...every kid will *benefit* from collaborative problem solving, but some kids *need* it to learn how to function, does that make sense?!

Anonymous said...

Thanks - yes. You've made my mind up - the book's on my Christmas list!

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