An Interview with Ross W. Greene, Ph. D.
Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of raising twins so far has been learning how to parent children of the same age with two drastically different temperaments. Our daughter is one of those kids who has been described as willful, bossy, rigid, oppositional, and more. For parents with children like this, the sense of overwhelm can be incapacitating and the comments from outsiders that you must not be disciplining your child enough can be disheartening. I was honored to recently have a chance to interview Ross Greene, Ph. D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Explosive Child. I asked him to shed some light on how to understand and parent a child with such challenging behavior. — Gina Osher, The Twin Coach, TMC Contributor
What are the differences between explosive anger and a more common kind of anger in young children?
On a technical level, the differences involve frequency, severity, intensity and duration. These are typically the hallmarks that make something diagnosable as opposed to something more typical. However, this is not the most important question for people who are concerned about their children’s behavior. The truth is, what is concerning to one parent may not be as concerning to another. Some people have a higher tolerance to certain behaviors and may respond less reactively, thus adding less fuel to the fire. What needs to be asked is, “is my child’s behavior negatively impacting him or her and our family?”
Why are some children so easily frustrated and “chronically inflexible”? Is this sort of temperament genetic? Do children tend to outgrow the behavior? Are there typical triggers?
We all want what we want. Kids who are not behaviorally challenging can get what they want in an adaptive fashion. But not all children have those skills, thus they try to get what they want in maladaptive ways. As a parent, assuming your child is not using their skills on purpose is a losing place to operate from. But if you assume a child doesn’t have the skills to get what they need in an appropriate way, you are never going to go wrong. You will not be a pushover. You are not a wishful thinker. You are not having the wool pulled over your eyes. Instead, you are being compassionate and are able to treat each situation as a moment to connect and teach. Children do not choose to explode any more than a child would choose to have a reading disability.
I wouldn’t count on children outgrowing their temperament. As time goes by, skills may be acquired and sometimes, just because of maturation, they are better able to handle what previously set them off. As for the genetic question, a child’s temperament is 100% nature and 100% nurture. That is, some kids are wired so that they are more vulnerable, but these genetics are also influenced by the child’s environment. Such things as maternal stress or the foods a mother ate while pregnant might have an effect. It’s impossible to answer this question accurately, but more importantly, it doesn’t change what you, as a parent, need to do to help your child.
Triggers are different for every child, but typical ones often include homework, chores, bedtime, waking up in the morning, hygiene, screen time and food. It’s important for parents to get a clear picture of all the instances in a child’s day that cause him or her to be triggered. Additionally, every doctor needs to be open to the full range of factors that influence a child’s behavior. Although these are not the most common factors, I have seen them often enough that I would be doing a disservice not to mention that looking at possible sleep disturbances, blood sugar levels, thyroid issues and food intolerances (particularly to gluten) can sometimes make a difference in improving a child’s behavior.
What are a few specific tips for parents, to help a child who has an explosive temperament (both during the explosions and during the calm between the storms)?
During the storm what you need to focus on is diffusing and de-escalating the storm. You can’t reliably and predictably solve challenging episodes when you’re in the midst of them. The calm between the storms is the time to work on what will maintain the calm so the storm doesn’t occur. Parents must figure out what lagging skills a child has that lead to unsolved problems. These lagging skills can include things such as:
- Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words.
- Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration in order to think rationally.
- Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem.
- Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mind-set or task to another.
- Difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, or novelty.
Lagging skills are why kids explode more easily, more often and in more extreme ways than your average child. Unsolved problems are the specific things a child explodes about. Once you have identified the lagging skills and unsolved problems, you can work toward solving them proactively and collaboratively with your child. And yes, even very young children can do this!
Let’s say your child has 10 unsolved problems that cause him to lose control. Choose 2 or 3 that are causing the most episodes. You may find that just solving these 2 or 3 problems reduces 70 – 80% of the challenging episodes. Once this happens, parents notice that their child isn’t always challenging and they then have an easier time seeing that their child is actually lacking skills. They are able to see their child in a more empathetic light, which has the effect of changing the dynamic of their relationship.
Can the standard way of thinking about behavior and discipline work with a child with an explosive temperament?
Studies show that typical interventions such as time outs or reward charts are ineffective. Once the intervention is removed, the challenging behavior returns. In addition, many of the children with challenging behavior are simply lacking the skills to do the tasks demanded of them. Punishing a child for not having a skill is counterproductive and using stickers to try to coerce a child into a desired behavior if they don’t have the developmental skill to do it, makes no sense. You wouldn’t expect a toddler to be able to tie his shoes simply because you promised a reward. However, if you collaboratively solve a problem it improves both the relationship and the communication and that problem no longer triggers the challenging behavior.
Solving problems collaboratively involves the following:
- Figure out unsolved problems.
- Prioritize problems.
- Figure out your child’s concern.
- Find out why he/she is not doing well on activity or demand.
- Put adult’s concern on the table.
- Put heads together to collaboratively solve the problem and address all parties’ concerns.
Do these children do well in typical educational and social environments? Are there special precautions parents can take to make these environments more conducive?
Some challenging kids do well in environments when they have the specific skills to meet the demands being put upon them. But when they lack the skills needed, the challenging behavior surfaces. Knowing your child, knowing both their skills and their lagging skills allows you to try to put them in situations where they can succeed. If your child is in a situation where she doesn’t have the skills to be successful, then you have to make sure she has the support to navigate those situations so she can eventually do it independently. For example, you wouldn’t simply ask a kindergartener to do long division and tell him “you’ll have to do it some day, so you might as well get used to it now!” No, you would provide the scaffolding of learning all the steps that come first so that he would eventually be able to do the complex math problems on his own. It’s the same with social skills. You need to remember that not every child develops his social skills at the same time, just as every child develops their skill at math at different times.
What do parents need to know about parenting a child with these sorts of challenges?
The most important thing to remember is to be responsive to the hand you’ve been dealt. Focus on the hand you’re holding, not the preconceived notion of what you think your child “should” be. That is, parents should be asking, who is my child? What skills does my child lack? How can I be more responsive to my child? If you had a child who couldn’t walk you wouldn’t spend all your time trying to find ways to get him to walk, you would, instead, focus on making life as simple and easy for that child as you could. It’s the same with a child who has lagging skills and challenging behavior. Find ways to improve the child’s chance of living a happy and successful life without trying to change who that child is.
Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the originator of an innovative, proven approach to solving problems collaboratively, as described in his highly acclaimed books The Explosive Child and Lost at School.
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