Explosive Kids: Real Strategies to Help You Manage Their Outbursts
By Holly Fields
What are the warning signs that your child is about to explode? Do they wait until you’re in a compromising situation or a busy store? Does it only happen at home? What are some things you can do to prepare yourself?
My advice to parents is to think back to the times your child has lost his temper. Look for triggers such as the word “No,” requests like, “You need to take the garbage out,” or “Clean your room!” For many of the parents who use parent coaching, a guaranteed outburst comes after they say, “Time to get off the computer or video game!!” Understand that there can be many triggers for your child, and that each child is different.
When making demands or requests, your child may react strongly to specific directives such as homework. This can stem from the frustration of not being able to do the things they want to do — and/or the need to avoid things that are too difficult. “I’ll do my homework after I play a video game,” they might say — or, “I’ll do it later.” They might also say they don’t feel well or are too tired. These are all ploys used to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of boredom, struggling or failing.
Once you know some of the triggers, take time to observe the corresponding behavior. For my son, it’s his voice. It becomes “bitter” in tone and contemptuous in content. When he was younger, he had a very high-pitched scream. Some children’s faces turn red as they work themselves up into a frenzy, and for others it may become apparent when a handful of legos bounce off lamps and windows!
As a parent, what is your next step? You can anticipate certain meltdowns knowing you need to ask them to do their homework or complete a chore. One suggestion James and Janet Lehman have is to develop an incentive program in which the chore or homework is completed before they are allowed any privileges. This not only sets up a structure and expectation, but can help motivate them to follow through on the task.
When incentives prove ineffective, or there is additional pushback, you can always rely on natural consequences or take away privileges. As James says in Homework Hell, “Keep in mind that our job as parents is to help guide and coach our children with their schoolwork, but it’s also our job to let them experience the natural consequences when they don’t get it done. That might mean that they get a poor grade, which is the result of not following through on their responsibilities. It’s so important to let your child experience the disappointment that comes with that, because that will help motivate them to try harder next time.”
This leads us to look at the reaction parents have to these outbursts. Our reactions can have a profound effect on the outcome. If we stay engaged with the child, explaining, negotiating, nagging, threatening or screaming, the situation will continue to escalate and the chances of the job being completed are reduced to almost zero. Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW say that when you find yourself in a tug-of-war over control with a defiant child,”Try letting go of the rope. And ask yourself, ‘What is my intention in this discussion?’ If you’re simply arguing with no clear direction or purpose, it’s probably not a discussion that needs to occur. The best thing to do is walk away. Remember, it takes two to tug on that rope. If you keep pulling on your end, you’re likely to end up in the mud. As a parent, you are much better off focusing on your response to the choice your child is making rather than trying to make him/her do something.
The key is to anticipate some triggers, learn the warning signs of an outburst, and set up some incentives and consequences. The last piece is your reaction as a parent. Stay calm and neutral. This is much easier said than done, but an effective tool to avoid an escalation in their behavior. Don’t give their behavior any power, just disconnect. By ignoring it, “it will die from neglect” as James Lehman says. Part of doing so is to learn how to disconnect and walk away at the first sign of a power struggle or an argument waiting to happen – and keep going! Follow up later, after your child is calm, with a problem solving discussion and any consequences that need to be given. Staying calm will help save you energy and you won’t have to walk on eggshells or handle with care. You’ll be able to handle your kids’ behavior with power, confidence, and love.