How to Decrease Your Child's Explosive Behaviors

“Kids do well if they can.”

Take a minute to let that phrase sink in.

Now think about your child. Your amazing, curious, sensitive, energetic, thoughtful, creative...annoying, difficult, explosive child. Dr. Ross Greene, clinical psychologist and author of The Explosive Child, wants you to know that your behaviorally challenging child doesn't want to be challenging. Your child doesn’t want to drive you and the rest of your family insane. And he certainly doesn’t want to make you angry. He wants to do well, and he would...if he could.

In last week’s post (click here to read), I delved into Dr. Greene’s “kids do well if they can” philosophy. We learned that:

  • Behaviorally challenging kids are not challenging all the time.
  • Behaviorally challenging kids are not choosing to be challenging.
  • Behaviorally challenging kids are challenging because they’re lacking the skills to not be challenging.
  • The specific skills they’re lacking are flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving.
  • Challenging behaviors occur when the demands being placed upon a child outstrip the skills he has to respond adaptively to those demands.
  • Our job as parents is to identify the skills our child is lacking and the conditions in which those lacking skills make life difficult.
  • We parents are 50 percent of the equation- “It takes two to tango.”
  • Decreasing our child’s explosive behaviors involves changing the way we respond to those behaviors.
    (Greene, 1998)

Wow, we learned quite a bit!

If you didn’t get a chance to download Dr. Greene’s Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems worksheet, click here. This is where you’ll want to start. If you had a chance to fill it out, great! You’re ready for the next step.

Once you’ve identified your child’s lagging skills and unsolved problems, you’ll want to zero in on your top three or four high-priority unsolved problems to tackle first. Greene gives us three options for dealing with them:

  • Plan A- Solving the problem using the “traditional” unilateral discipline paradigm through the imposition of adult will.
  • Plan B- Solving the problem collaboratively.
  • Plan C- Setting aside the unsolved problem for the time being.

Plan A: “My Way Or The Highway”

Your child repeatedly ignores you when you tell him it’s time to turn off the tv and get ready for bed. You say something like, “Since you aren’t listening, you’ve lost your tv privileges for tomorrow.”

Your older child hits his younger brother because your younger son won’t give him a Lego piece from the car he just built. You say, “We don’t hit. You have to take a break and you can’t play with the Legos anymore."

According to Greene, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this “typical” type of response. That is, there’s nothing wrong with this when you’re dealing with a “typical” kid. But, we’re not talking about typical kids here, we’re talking about behaviorally challenging kids who have a pattern of explosive behaviors. With these kids, Plan A won’t do diddly. In fact, it will actually increase the likelihood of an explosive outburst.

So, Plan A is out.

Moving on to Plan B: “We’re all in this together.”

Plan B has three steps.

The Empathy step, the Define the Problem step, and the Invitation step.

The first step is to use empathy to gather information from your child so you can better understand why he’s struggling with a specific unsolved problem. You want your child to feel seen and heard, like he matters, and that his perspective is important to you.

Let’s be honest here, the empathy step is no small task. When you’re being bombarded by your child’s violent outbursts on a daily basis, it’s likely that the last thing you’re interested in is his perspective. Trust me, I get it! In addition to “kids do well if they can,” I have another go-to quote when my empathy is nowhere to be found- “Children need the most love when they act the least deserving of it.” These two quotes are often on repeat in my head.

When it comes to gathering information from our child, Greene suggests choosing a neutral time, when your child is calm and regulated, to initiate the conversation. He recommends beginning with, “I’ve noticed that….” and ending with, “What’s up?”

One of my older son H’s unsolved problems is the transition from watching a show to the show being over and having to turn off the TV or iPad. I chose to bring it up when we were driving to camp last week- he was calm and regulated and talking to him while driving helps mitigate the stimulation of having to make eye contact/being face to face.

Here’s how it went down-

Me: H, I’ve noticed that it’s been really hard lately for you to stop watching TV when the TV timer goes off. What’s up?


Me: Forcing myself not to repeat the question.

More silence. Then…

H: I don’t like it when I have to stop watching my show.

The second step is to introduce your concern. Greene suggests beginning with “My concern is…” or “The thing is…”

Me: I totally get it. I don’t like it when I have to stop doing something I’m enjoying either. (Flashback to my pedicure last week- Wait! You’re already done with the massage? Are you sure? I think the timer was wrong!). The thing is, when you scream, hit, and throw things as soon as it’s time to stop watching your show, it tells me that watching a special show in the afternoon isn’t a good idea.

The final invitation step is to brainstorm potential solutions that address both your and your child’s concerns about the unsolved problem. Greene suggests saying, “Let’s think about how we can solve this problem.”

Me: I know you love getting to watch a special show and I’d hate to not let you do that once in awhile. Let’s figure out how we can solve this problem. Do you have any ideas?

H: Well, you could just let me watch for longer.

(Me to myself: I’m with you, buddy, my thoughts exactly about my foot massage!)

Me: Hmmm, that’s one idea, but that still wouldn’t solve the problem of your being upset when it ended. Next time you watch a show in the afternoon, what if you and I have a talk before the show starts and we figure out something really fun to do as soon as the show ends? You can decide on something super fun and that way, when the show ends, you might still feel sad that it’s over, but you’ll feel excited to do our next fun thing!

H: (mulling it over) Yeah, that sounds like a good idea, Mom.

Me: (Very pleased with myself!) Ok, perfect!!! I’m so glad we came up with a solution! Next time you get to watch a special show, we’ll try it out.

H: Mom, what comes after a million?

Yeah, lost him there at the end, but you get the point. We haven’t watched any afternoon shows since our last incident, so I haven’t tested out our solution yet. But as soon as I do, I’ll let you know how it goes. Fingers crossed.

The key to Plan B is that we’re empathizing and collaborating with our child, as opposed to imposing our will on them. By doing so, we’re circumventing a power struggle and sending them the message that we see, hear, and feel them.

On to Plan C: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Plan C is about choosing our battles and knowing that helping our child with his behavioral challenges is a marathon, not a sprint. If you invoke Plan C, you’re going to temporarily set aside an unsolved problem because you are focusing on other higher priority problems.

Greene assures us that using Plan C is not the equivalent of “giving in.” If you decide to use Plan C, you are thoughtfully and intentionally setting aside certain expectations of your child because you’ve got bigger fish to fry. You’ll come back to the temporarily set aside unsolved problem once you’ve solved the higher priority problems.

So, there you have it. Three specific plans for managing your child’s explosive behavior taken straight from Dr. Greene’s best selling book, The Explosive Child. Well, two actually, because, let’s face it, most of us have been using Plan A and it’s not working. You may have noticed that Plans B and C are not some kind of magic bullet, rather they’re long-term strategies for helping reduce your child’s challenging behaviors.

We can’t directly teach our kids the skills they are lacking- flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving- but we can teach them indirectly through our modeling of those skills when we use Plan B.

I know what you’re thinking...This is great and all, and I’m totally going to try Plan B, but I need help with what to do in the moment when my child’s behavior is reminiscent of The Incredible Hulk’s. Don’t worry, I’m on it. Next week I’ll cover strategies for dealing with explosive behavior as it’s happening.

What do you think of Dr. Greene’s plans? Is Plan B something you would try? If not, what are your concerns? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you.


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.