If you’ve worked with me for any period, you know that I absolutely love The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene as a launching point for changing the way you are parenting. Although the title can sound intense if your child’s behavior is less than “explosive,” the concepts in this book can be used for a wide range of ages and behaviors.
The overall goal of this book is to help you and your child become collaborators for change. Typical parenting practices focus on solving a problem or increasing obedience. For example, parents will ask for help getting their children to listen to them and show them respect. More traditional models will solve this problem by teaching parents how to be assertive, firm, and consistent. Unfortunately, these methods can very quickly turn punitive and punishing.
The other side of parenting types are parents who are so worn out by the problem that they just give up. The child becomes the one in complete control of what happens to them. Children were not meant to have all of the power, and this can lead to a cycle of parents feeling like they have to “walk on eggshells” just for a bit of peace. The child, in turn, becomes the punitive and punishing one.
In The Explosive Child, Dr. Greene gives parents a third option. One where parents and children meet as equals-- partners in solving daily problems.
I’ve spoken with parents who believe that their child behaves poorly all the time on purpose. “He’s always doing that just to mess with me,” they’ll say. The theory behind Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) is that children do well if they can. Let’s talk about this for a minute. I do believe that children are pretty intelligent and highly intuitive. They can tell when they are doing something that pushes our buttons. What Dr. Greene is getting at is that children may (most definitely will) test our limits, but there is a reason for that.
His reasoning is that these kids have not developed specific skills that they need to go about responding to situations appropriately. He calls these “Lagging Skills.” For example, let’s say Bobby has difficulty controlling his feelings when he is told “no.” This word always leads to a tantrum, begging, pleading, tears, and lots of anger. Bobby’s parents see these behaviors and assume Bobby is doing it on purpose. They believe he knows how to control his emotions already; he just isn’t trying.
The reality of behaviors, though, is that they are a symptom, not a cause. What’s really going on is that Bobby has a difficult time understanding the perspective of others, he hasn’t completely grasped the concept of time, and he doesn’t have the vocabulary to negotiate. Bobby isn’t able to stay calm long enough to work through what’s happening to him. He’s learned to associate the word “no” with life-threatening danger, and his body responds in kind.
This is a fascinating concept because a lot of the work I do is to shake up what has been ingrained in a child’s unconscious mind. The associations they have made as they experience their world and understand their place in it. Our emotions again are a symptom. They’re a clue to how we are experiencing the world around us. However, our understanding of our world, especially when we are children, is often skewed.
Say, for example, Bobby experienced a traumatic incident at birth, such as getting his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. The sensory experience of tightness in his throat and chest when he hears the word “no” is unconsciously linked to a life or death situation that he no longer remembers. Really, he is just feeling frustrated, but his body remembers those sensations as dangerous.
When we look at Bobby’s experience from this direction, we begin to see that his behavior is not purposeful. He has no idea why he is acting this way; he just behaves in a way that anyone would if they felt that they were being attacked and were in danger. He fights, which on the surface looks like a developmentally inappropriate tantrum.
Now your child may not have experienced a trauma like in my example. Still, the concept I’m getting at is that a connection was made that these negative behaviors were the best way to respond to the situation. Now your child is in the habit of reacting this way, even if it doesn’t help him anymore.
So how do we help our children change these behaviors? According to Dr. Greene, we create change when working together (parent + child) using a 3 step model called Plan B. Firstly, you would identify your child’s lagging skills or the areas in which they are still developing. Then you would identify problems that keep coming up, usually the same issues that would bring you into therapy. Finally, after connecting the skills they need with the problems to be solved, you are ready for Step 1.
Step 1: Empathy
In the first step, your goal is to listen and focus on trying to understand your child. Next, you want to gather information from them until you feel like you’re “walking in their shoes.” Then, you want to know what they think the problem is.
Step 2: Define the Problem
In this step, it is your turn to talk about what you see as the problem. The key to this step isn’t to blame, judge, or point fingers, but openly and honestly discuss your concerns.
Step 3: Invitation
The final step is an opportunity for you and your child to work together and solve the problems. Ideally, you both walk away from the situation feeling like you have been heard and understood by one another. You also have a tentative plan of action. What I think is the coolest part is that this process automatically will teach your child the lagging skills you are trying to address in the first place.
I highly recommend this book if you are looking for a new way to communicate with your child, especially if they are strong-willed rigid thinkers. Once you can grasp the concept of this 3 step model, you’ll have a potent parenting tool that you can use repeatedly.
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