Explosive Kids: Real Strategies to Help You Manage Their Outbursts

Posted August 10, 2012 by

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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 1-on-1 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.


Holly Fields has worked with children with emotional and physical disabilities for more than 15 years in the home, at school, and in rehabilitation settings, as well as therapeutic riding programs. She was with Legacy Publishing Company as a 1-on-1 Coach for two years. Holly has a Masters Degree in Special Education. She has two adult children, two rescue dogs and one cat.

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  1. Holly Fields Report

    Kristen: thank you for writing in. Food allergies can cause many different kinds of behavior, as you know. One suggestion we would have is to have a complete allergy work up from her doctor. Ruling out any physical factors is the first step. We would also suggest that you go to our free website: empoweringparents.com and look up some articles that deal with explosive behaviors. Here is a link to one that I think would be especially helpful: http://www.empoweringparents.com/the-10-rules-of-dealing-with-an-angry-child.php?&key=Outbursts-And-Temper-Tantrums
    Please keep in touch and let us know how she is progressing and anything else we can do to help.

  2. Kristen Report

    My daughter is 10 and ADD. We figured out by accident she has a severe gluten allergy and noticed an immediate and consistent dramatic improvement in behavior.

    Unfortunately, the explosions are still there.

    While they are much further apart, they are far more intense. She so over-emotional and stubborn!

    I am terrified that if I don’t get a handle on her behavior now, things will only get exponentially worse as she gets older.

  3. Holly Fields Report

    Thank you for leaving a comment, Brontegirl. It sounds like you have been working very hard to deal with the disrespect your son continues to show. There are a few suggestions we can offer. The first is to disconnect at the first sign of disrespect and no matter what he says to you after you turn away, do not re-engage with him until he’s calm. He might need you to do this to shut down the outburst so he can cool off. Once he does that, we would also suggest using consequences that will motivate him to practice the behavior you want to see. This could be shutting off his cell phone until he can speak respectfully for two hours. We also suggest that you keep the duration of consequences less than three days, as James Lehman states, because longer consequences often cause children to give up all together. Try this for a few days and let us know how he responds. Thank you again for writing to us.

  4. Brontegirl Report

    My son is angry and calls me inappropriate names when I ask him to do anything, or make virtually any comment whatsoever. I’ve been working the program for several months but we are very frustrated. We took his cell phone away. We took his playdates away. We have taken his psp away. We have nothing left that we can take away from him except his clothes and shoes. He doesn’t seem to care that he has no privileges. Luckily, he likes school and does his homework but the disrespectful outbursts are our biggest issue.

  5. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “HelpforMom”: You ask a great question. It can be difficult for parents to know how to respond to adult children who are not held to the same expectations by the other parent. You can’t necessarily control what goes on in the other parent’s house or how the other parent chooses to respond to your daughter’s behavior. You do have complete control over how you choose to respond to her behaviors and choices. It’s probably going to be most effective to continue doing what it sounds like you are doing now: establishing clear limits and firm boundaries. I understand how difficult it can be to feel like you’re the only one who is holding your daughter accountable for her choices. That is not an easy place to be and I’m sorry you have to deal with the silent treatment as a consequence of that. Keep in mind you are doing what you can to help your daughter become a responsible adult. Even if she is choosing to use the victim stance as a way to avoid responsibility for her behavior, that doesn’t mean she isn’t still responsible for her choices. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this challenging situation. Take care.

  6. Dale Sadler Report

    For some children the consequence of a bad grade is too far away in time to be effective. Also, if a child doesn’t care enough to do his homework, he is not going to care whether or not he gets a zero. For these, a child must not be allowed to do anything until homework is done. An hour of video games is sometimes too difficult to come out of and change gears again to get back into school mode. Work first. Then Fun. This is the natural order of things.

  7. HelpforMom Report

    I have an older, 21 year old child. She clearly has a victim mentality and blames me for everything wrong in her childhood. She lives with her father who gives in to all of her demands, so as not to have to deal with her explosive anger. As a result, I get blamed for everything that she believes is wrong in her life.

    How do I deal with a child whose anger and demands are enabled by her other parent? She has spent months not talking to me as a consequence of “not treating her right.” Very painful.



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