Last week, I talked about explosive personalities and how to understand what makes an individual react in a volatile way. This article won't deliver a solution, but will offer some ideas to ponder for parents, caregivers, family and community members in regards to the explosive children they are raising, or they have in their lives.
To start with, a good support system is very important. Parents know that raising children is not only rewarding, but the hardest job we'll ever do - humbling us often daily. If we hope to have loving adult relationships with our kids, we do our best to be the parents they need us to be rather than repeating genetic (often dysfunctional) cycles. And parents of reactionary children need to develop extra patience, empathy and understanding, as they will be tested, often to their breaking points, over and over again. A support system may consist of other parents in similar situations, compassionate non-judgmental family members, counselors and free programs like www.familysmart.ca.
Parents of extremely reactive children can do their best not to take the behaviour of their kids personally even though there will be many times when the attacks are deeply hurtful and personal. They could come to understand that their child is lacking coping, self-regulation, critical thinking, and communication skills. The child only knows what they perceive through their confused states of mind in the present moment. The demands on them (school, family or community) exceed their ability to think rationally, so they react impulsively.
There could also be other factors to consider which may be contributing to the imbalance, including diet (nutrition has a huge impact on mental health), lack of exercise, too much gaming stimulation, not enough sleep, being hungry or thirsty, bullying, trauma or abuse from others, etc.
In Dr. Ross Greene's book The Explosive Child, he identifies and explains the main skills lacking in the over-reactive child which include: following directions and task sequences (especially involving multiple directions), transitions, timing, focus, impulsivity, foreseeing outcomes or consequences, finding solutions to problems, expressing needs and concerns, understanding what is being said (intention and perception of others), managing frustration and emotional response to frustration and anger, anxiety and chronic irritability, argumentative, inflexible, cognitive distortions and biases, handling unpredictability and uncertainty, shifting from original idea or solutions, social skills, personal connections, group dynamics, interpreting social cues, inappropriate attention seeking, understanding how their behaviour affects others, empathy, accepting others perceptions, and understanding how they are perceived by others.
Considering the above difficulties these children face on a daily basis, no wonder life is so difficult for them. If parents of children who lack the above skills keep in mind that if their kids could do better, they would do better. Life could be easier for all with more acceptance and understanding.
Dr. Greene recommends acknowledgment of the lacks as explanations, rather than excuses, and to be mindful of quick judgments and labels from parents, family, teachers and society that are directed towards these kids like: 'they are looking for attention', 'they are manipulative', 'they want their own way', 'they are lazy or unmotivated', 'they have bad attitudes ', 'they are antagonistic', 'they are making bad choices' and so on. Dr. Greene goes on to explain that these lagging skills cause problems in daily living involving routines, sensitivities, homework, choices (food, clothing, gaming...), sibling interactions, hygiene, medication, cleaning bedrooms, boredom, chores and other household responsibilities, keeping a job, interactions at school with teachers and peers, bullying, inappropriate speech and interrupting, navigating hallways, school busses, lineups etc.
This is what often doesn't work with these kids (especially in the teen years): conventional parenting, direct instruction, natural consequences, bribes, rewards and punishment. This is because they lack the above-mentioned life skills and find navigating such problems very difficult.
People often look for a place to lay blame: circumstances or a spouse or themselves for being too permissive or too strict and rigid or inconsistent or for doing something wrong in their attempts at discipline or for being too stressed during pregnancy or a myriad of other reasons. Parents naturally go to guilt and self-judgment when faced with these kinds of challenges.
Other people who offer their (mostly unsolicited) advice suggesting what kind of consequences or punishments the child deserves should be ignored and their opinions discounted, especially if they don't have personal experience with children who suffer this way. Trust instead, the support that offers loving advice and the experience of what works and doesn't work in re-establishing and maintaining a loving lifelong relationship with our kids.
Parents of children with explosive personalities should work together to support each other with compassion, trust, non-judgmental acceptance, empathy and understanding. Parents of children who are emotionally challenging are in need of validation and loving support, as much as the children are.
It's one thing to have compassion and understanding of the emotional turmoil behind the behaviour, but what can be done to support the emotionally reactive children and help them get through their angst? If parents of these children recognize their lacking skills and anticipate predictable problems, they can learn to be proactive in their support of their children, rather than taking their child's behaviour personally and being reactionary. A worksheet listing typical lagging skills and life problems associated with them can be found at www.cpsconnections.com/paperwork, a website for exploring collaborative and proactive solutions for these challenged children.
Part 3 next week will cover some parenting suggestions and examples using the approaches outlined by Dr. Greene in The Explosive Child.
Claire Nielsen is a health educator and owner of Aunty Claire’s Elixir for Life Ltd. Questions? firstname.lastname@example.org