Understanding Your Child's Explosive Behavior

I HATE YOU!!! Punches the wall, makes a growling sound, looks for something to throw.

I'M MAD AT YOU!!! YOU'RE STUPID!! Throws nearest toy then punches little brother.

NOOOOOOOO!!! I WON’T GET READY FOR SCHOOL!!! Slams door, starts throwing toys.

If these kinds of scenarios are a regular occurrence in your household (they are in mine, lately), you’re most likely the exhausted, exasperated, and bewildered parent of an explosive child.

Though sensory challenges are not always the cause of a child’s explosive behaviors, they are often part of the picture, especially for kids who are sensory-defensive (also called sensory-avoidant or sensory over-responsive), like my older son, H.

H’s explosive behavior began in toddlerhood. His meltdowns and tantrums were on a completely different level. When he was 20 months, we took our first family vacation to Hawaii. While we waited in a crowded terminal to board our flight home, H became restless and cranky. He couldn’t sit still, didn’t want a snack, refused all the toys I tried to distract him with and then, when I said he couldn’t have a bite of his grandpa’s cookie (it wasn’t gluten-free and he’s gluten sensitive), he lost it.

Whether they have sensory issues or not, toddlers are known for having monstrous tantrums. H’s were beyond monstrous--they were violent. His shrieking and thrashing around caused people sitting next to us to get up and move far away. Horrified by what was happening, I grabbed him, flung him into my husband’s arms and gasped, “Get him out of here!”

My husband managed to carry him out of the boarding area and down the hall of the terminal, where, even after they were out of sight, we could still hear him. It lasted a good thirty minutes before he was finally so exhausted that he collapsed in my traumatized husband’s arms and passed out.

What we now refer to as “The Hawaii Debacle” was our introduction to the explosive behaviors that are common in children who are sensory defensive. H is almost six now. He’s been in occupational therapy since he was eleven months and has come a long way. And yet...he still has explosive behaviors. Over the past six months, his explosions have become more frequent and have been increasingly more difficult to manage which has led me to take a deeper dive into understanding what’s at play when he’s acting out with such intensity.

The first person I turned to was my mentor, the amazing Barbara Olinger. After describing one of H’s recent “episodes,” which included his screaming uncontrollably, punching a wall, hurling his Matchbox car across the room, then charging at me like he was auditioning for the World Wide Wrestling tour (never a dull moment in the Kleimo household, that’s for sure! takes a swig of wine), she recommended that I read The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene. Well, that seems fitting, I thought.

Let’s just say Dr. Greene is a genius. If you have a kid like H, The Explosive Child is a must-read. Greene’s premise-“kids do well if they can”-has become one of my parenting mantras and has provided the framework for my investigation into understanding H’s behavior. According to Greene, the following are common explanations for your child’s explosive behaviors that you can actually rule out:

  • He just wants attention.
  • He just wants his own way.
  • He’s manipulating us.
  • He’s not motivated.
  • He’s making bad choices.
  • He has a bad attitude.
  • He knows just what buttons to push.
  • He has a mental illness.

Even though I am fully aware of H’s sensory challenges and the role they play in triggering his explosions (I mean, I have a website called Sensory Mom for God’s sake!!), I have to admit that some of these explanations have crossed my mind. So, if you’re reading the list thinking, Wait a minute, I really do think my child acts this way to get my attention, or, um...clearly you don’t understand, my child is manipulating us, I get it. I’m with you.

This is where Greene’s “kids do well if they can” premise comes in handy.

Consider this paradigm shifter-

Behaviorally challenging kids are challenging because they’re lacking the skills not to be challenging.

When I first read this, I thought, So H isn’t purposely acting out to drive me insane? He’s not just seeking attention? He’s not a sociopath? (ok, I’m not serious about that last one, but the thought did briefly enter my mind during the World Wide Wrestling incident). As I read the list over again, I let out a huge sigh. It was a much needed reminder that his behavior is not indicative of some deep-seated character flaw, rather it’s a result of lagging skills related to his sensory processing challenges.

Through thirty years of work with children and families, Greene has determined that challenging kids like H lack the skills of flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving, the very skills that are required for self-regulation (ie. being able to stay calm when thrown a curveball).

Back to the theme, kids do well if they can...Greene reminds us that our child doesn’t want to fall apart. If he had the skills to remain regulated, he would! His explosive behaviors occur when “the demands being placed on him outstrip the skills he has to respond adaptively to those demands.” When our child is repeatedly having explosive outbursts, our natural inclination is to focus on their behaviors.

However, Greene asserts that their behaviors are the least important thing to focus on. Instead, our energy and attention should be directed toward the “skills he is lacking and the specific conditions in which those lacking skills are making life difficult.”

Greene refers to those conditions as unsolved problems and he assures us that, contrary to most parents’ beliefs, they are highly predictable. This is fabulous news because it means we parents can start solving these problems proactively instead of reactively. Once we identify the conditions that regularly trigger our child’s stress response, we can take concrete steps to alter the conditions, in turn lessening the frequency and intensity of his outbursts.

To make our lives easier, Greene has created a downloadable and printable worksheet to help identify your child’s lagging skills and the accompanying unsolved problems. Use this as your starting point. This week, take some time to fill it out, ideally with the help of your partner so you’re on the same page. Next week, I’ll summarize Greene’s strategies for decreasing your child’s explosive behaviors.

Spoiler alert: The strategies involve changing how you respond to your child’s challenging behaviors as opposed to how your child responds to you. It’s important to remember that we parents are 50 percent of the equation. When our child is struggling, we must stop, turn our focus inward, and ask, What is my role in this?

Greene encourages us to consider: “What expectations [we’re] putting on [our] kid, whether those expectations are truly realistic, how [we’re] going about trying to get [our] expectations met, and what problem-solving approach [we’re] using when our expectations are not met.” He reminds us that “it takes two to tango,” and if we expect our child to remain regulated, we have to remain regulated ourselves.

For tips on how to stay calm when your child isn’t, Click Here.

If you’re the concerned, exhausted, and fed up parent of an explosive child, don’t lose hope. Adopting Greene’s philosophy that “kids do well if they can,” removing your judgments about your child’s behavior and identifying his lagging skills and the resulting unsolved problems are the first steps to help turn things around for your child and your family.

What are your child’s biggest behavioral challenges? Are you familiar with Dr. Greene’s work? What are your thoughts and/or questions? 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.