5 Real Time Strategies for Managing Your Child's Explosive Behavior

If you’ve read the last two blog posts, you’re familiar with Dr. Ross Greene’s philosophy,

"Kids do well if they can."

If you’re new to the blog, I’ll sum it up for you. After 30 years of working with children and families, Dr. Greene, clinical psychologist and author of several books including The Explosive Child, concluded that behaviorally challenging kids do not want to be challenging. They’re not acting out to get attention or to be manipulative. They’re not unmotivated, they don’t have permanent character flaws, bad attitudes, or a mental illness. And they’re not possessed (that’s my addition to the mix- ha!).

Behaviorally challenging kids are challenging because they lack the skills not to be challenging. (Click here to read more about Greene’s philosophy).

Last week, I summarized Greene’s long-term strategy for decreasing your behaviorally challenging child’s explosive episodes (Click here to read). This week, we’re focusing on what to do when you’re directly in the eye of the storm.

How in the world do we stay calm and help our child regulate when he’s completely and utterly out of control? What do we do when his episodes are happening multiple times a day? When we’re too exhausted, stressed, overwhelmed, and fed up to deal effectively with his outbursts? When his outbursts are causing our own outbursts?!!

Over the past several years, I’ve been desperately searching for answers to these questions! I haven’t found any magic solutions, but here are the strategies that help us weather the daily behavioral storms.

1. “I am a calm mom/dad. I am a calm mom/dad.” When the sh%t hits the fan, start taking deep breaths and repeat this mantra in your head. I know it sounds cliché and, well, a little ridiculous, but I’m serious, it’s incredibly helpful. When your child is exploding, your number one top priority is to stay calm. The second you go into the red zone, it’s game over.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I have to remind myself of this Every. Single. Day. I figure it can’t be overstated. The length/intensity of our child’s explosive episode is contingent on our level of zen. When our nervous system goes haywire along with theirs, we’re in for a much longer ride than when we stay calm and grounded. So, keep this mantra on hand and use it often!

2. Less talk more action. Once your child goes into the red zone, he’s left the rational part of his brain (the prefrontal cortex) and is bouncing around in the emotion control center (the limbic system), where his amygdala has sounded an internal alarm system- the fight or flight response. It’s impossible to reason with someone once they’ve entered this state- they literally have zero access to the part of their brains that would allow them to hear and process what you’re saying. Keep your words short and sweet and focus on physical intervention- less talk, more action.

Here’s an example...

Last week was a rough one for my older son, H. We had family in town and were celebrating my Dad’s 70th birthday. There was a lot going on- family we don’t see often were staying with us, dinner at a noisy restaurant, staying up past bedtime, all day at the beach- it was a recipe for disaster. And sure enough, disaster hit.

Sunday evening, after a long day at the beach, we were all (trying) to enjoy dinner on the patio as H was antagonizing his younger brother, whining, and refusing to stay seated. Next thing we knew, he was running around with a water gun “watering the plants” and then the table. When I told him to stop, he laughed maniacally and continued his spraying spree.

Knowing he was already in sensory overload, I got up, went to him (it was a bit of a chase), picked him up, and carried him (kicking and screaming) into the bathroom. I sat on top of the toilet, held him firmly, and calmly said, “H, I’m going to hold you until your body calms down.” That was it.

Not, you are out of control and you’re ruining the night for us.
Not, I told you not to spray the water gun and you didn’t listen and now I’m mad.
Not, what the heck is wrong with you, can’t you just calm down and let us all enjoy our time together?

I was definitely thinking all those things, but after I informed him that I’d be holding him until his body calmed down, I sat quietly and focused on keeping my nervous system calm so as not to rouse his any further (“I am a calm mom, I am a calm mom”). He thrashed around, cried, yelled, and told me he hated me. The more he thrashed, the more firmly I held him. After several minutes, I calmly repeated, “H, I’m going to hold you until your body calms down, honey. Mommy is going to help your body calm down.”

Finally, he stopped resisting and melted into me. He was exhausted and so was I. Once he was calm, I continued holding him and rocked him gently for a few minutes before we returned to the family to say goodnight. Relatively speaking, I was able to calm him pretty quickly. Had I chosen to continue giving him warnings and verbal reprimands, who knows how long his tirade would have lasted. Less talk more action is the key.

Side note: H had been overdone long before the water gun entered the picture. I knew it, but had chosen to ignore the signs of his sensory overload. I felt like Maverick in Top Gun when he’s admonished by Viper for flying below the hard deck, “The hard deck for this hop was 10,000 feet. You knew it, you broke it….why?” I know H’s limits and I knew he was heading towards sensory overload, but I didn’t intervene until it was too late. Why? This was one of those live and learn parenting moments where I had to extend myself some grace, let it go, and file the lesson away for next time- less talk, more immediate action.

3. Use deep pressure. Many (but not all) sensory kids respond well to deep pressure when they are dysregulated. Deep pressure has a calming effect on the nervous system, especially for kids who are sensory defensive. Click here to read more about the research on the calming effects of deep pressure.

Using deep pressure in the heat of the moment is part of your less talk, more action plan. You’re going to resist the urge to give warnings, verbal reprimands, and lectures. Instead, you’ll physically intervene using some type of deep pressure. If your child is only mildly overstimulated and isn’t having a full-on fight or flight response, you can give his shoulders a firm squeeze while you state the limit, “I can’t let you throw toys.” If he’s moderately overstimulated, you can give him a firm bear hug and say, “I’m going to help your body calm down.”

Intervening at the first signs of sensory overload with proprioceptive activities can help thwart an impending explosive episode. Click Here for a list of powerful proprioceptive activities to try.

If your child has reached the point of being extremely dysregulated, pick him up, sit down with him on your lap with your arms wrapped around him to provide deep pressure, and say, “I’m going to hold you until your body calms down.”

Important note: The key here is that you are calm. You are zen. You are the Dalai Lama. This will absolutely not work if you are entering the red zone. If you feel like you’re about to lose it, you should not try to physically hold your child. I repeat, do not try to physically hold your child if you are on the verge of losing it.

If, and only if, you’re calm and grounded, you’ll use firm (not tight) pressure to hold your child until his body calms. This isn’t a punishment and it’s most definitely not done out of anger. It’s a way to help him regulate and keep him safe. While you’re holding him, focus on your breath, both to keep your nervous system in check and to model calm breathing. You’re still following the less talk, more action rule, so keep your words to a minimum. The goal here is to combine firm pressure and deep breathing to help your child regulate.

When H is extremely dysregulated, holding him is very helpful. But, this will not work for every child and is obviously not the best option for older, bigger children.

4. Reframe anger. We tend to view anger as a “bad” emotion, as something to be avoided. When we experience anger, we often feel guilty, like we shouldn’t be feeling that way. Here’s the thing- anger is neither bad nor good, it’s simply information.

Anger tells us that something is off and needs our attention.

Try thinking of anger as energy and of your child’s outbursts as a way to release that energy. If that energy doesn’t get released, it can manifest in sadness, physical illness, anxiety, and depression. So, instead of judging your child’s explosive outbursts as “bad,” try reframing them as a necessary and adaptive way to move intense energy out of the body.

Your job is to teach your child safe ways to express his anger so he doesn’t harm himself or others. When he’s calm and regulated, talk to him about anger. Let him know that you understand why he gets frustrated, upset, and angry and that it’s ok to have these feelings. If you have an older child, ask him questions, get curious, and show a willingness to enter his world to get a better understanding of what’s upsetting him. He may not know, but it’s worth asking.

Then suggest safe ways for him to express his anger when he feels like he’s going to explode. Here are some ideas:

  • Punching a pillow
  • Pillow fights- grab the nearest pillows and have at it!
  • Yelling at the top of his lungs while tightening up his body, then releasing
  • Roll it out- roll around on a grass lawn
  • Bang on a drum kit
  • Break things- keep a box of things that are ok to break and let him get after it
  • Crumple up paper and throw it as hard as he can
  • Dance it out- turn on some high energy music and get that body movin’
  • Throw things- keep a box of things that are safe to throw
  • Chewy toys- give him some chewy toys to chomp on
  • Squeezy toys- give him toys to squish and squeeze as hard as he can

Collaborate with your child to create an Anger Tool Box that’s easily accessible at home. Here’s a Sensory Tool Kit you can purchase if making your own seems a little overwhelming, as it did for me (Note:I’m not affiliated with Project Sensory; I found their site through one of my favorite sensory blogs, www.lemonlimeadventures.com).

5. Ride the Wave. Once your child has entered the red zone, you’re going to have to ride it out. Think of it as a set of giant waves. There’s nothing you or your child can do to stop the set from coming once it’s in motion. Trying to interrupt your child’s outburst or make it stop is futile and will most likely result in a more intense, prolonged outburst.

Your best bet is to:

  1. Accept that it’s happening
  2. Take steps to keep yourself calm
  3. Keep words to a minimum
  4. Physically intervene to keep your child safe and/or provide deep pressure
  5. Model a safe way for him to get the anger out- throw him a pillow, bust out the drum kit, blast some music from your phone for a dance party- whatever strategy works for him.
  6. Ride the wave! Let your child have his outburst in its entirety. Once he’s released all that energy, his system will have a chance to reboot and you can address the trigger and his reaction once he’s calm.

Here are two phrases to remember when you’re about to be pounded by a set wave: “This too shall pass,” and “That which we resist, persists.”

In the heat of the moment, remind yourself that this will eventually come to an end. Also, the more you try to reason your child out of the outburst through verbal reprimands or attempted punishments, the more he will explode. So, focus on keeping him and anyone else around him safe and let him just ride that massive wave. Eventually the wave will crash, the ocean will calm, and you’ll both be stronger and more resilient from having survived the storm.

Many of you responded to the recent survey I sent (thank you so much! Click here if you didn’t get a chance to respond). I learned so much about you. Many of you shared that the most challenging aspect of parenting a child with SPD is managing explosive behaviors.

If this is your biggest challenge, you’re in good company! What strategies are you currently using to manage your child’s explosive behavior? What’s working and what’s not? Leave a comment below- the Sensory Mom readers and I would love to hear from you.


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