Blog Post

the-explosive-childRoss W. Greene, PhD (Harper Collins Publishers, 2001)

Often, children’s skills develop unevenly. They may be doing well with some, while other skills appear to be lagging. Most often, if a particular skill is not acquired at the age when it is expected to be present it is not a sign that the child is not willing to learn. It is much more likely that he is not yet ready for that skill, most often because a critical element is missing or is underdeveloped.

Flexibility and frustration tolerance are skills we expect to develop in children as they grow past the toddler years.” p. 10

This happens because the children express their needs more effectively, “shift gears” when things do not go as they expect, learn to delay gratification, and tolerate inevitable frustrations.

If the child turn out not to be able to be flexible enough and tolerate frustrations effectively it is not a choice.

“A major premise of this book is that these children do not choose to be explosive and noncompliant – any more than a child would choose to have a reading disability – but are delayed in the process of developing the skills that are critical to being flexible and tolerating frustration (or having significant difficulty applying these skills when they most need to).”

The parents are encouraged to see their child’s inflexible-explosive behaviors as reflecting an objective developmental delay rather than to see them as “planned, intentional and purposeful”. The main reason is that if the parent feels that the child’s negative behavior is purposeful, it is more likely that the actions to try to bring this behavior to an end will be more inflexible, rejecting and adversarial.


Low frustration threshold

The child is easily frustrated by events that leave most of the other children unaffected. Many or most of the requests to do something they may not like, disagreements, changes in plans, demands to “shift gears” lead to intense frustration.

Low frustration tolerance

In addition to perceiving frustration, the child reacts to frustration with intense emotions leading often to agitation, disorganization of behavior, verbal or physical aggression.

Limited  flexibility and adaptability

The child seems unable to shift gears in response to commands or changes in plans.

Concrete, rigid, “black-and-white” thinking

… with significant cognitive distortions

  • generalization – “You’re never on my side!” –
  • paranoia – “Mrs. X hates me!” –
  • magical thinking – “wishful”, simplistic focus on minor details ignoring the big picture.

Not learning from experience

Inflexibility and poor response to frustrations persist despite powerful consequences (the child does not seem to learn from mistakes).

Episode severity is more than one would expect given the circumstances

Explosive episodes may happen “out-of-the-blue”, the child may seem to fall apart despite only minor frustrations.

During the episode there is little or no rational, logical thinking

The child cannot think rationally in the midst of the frustration and cannot explain logically his actions. Asking “Why do you do this?” is rarely useful to produce much more than “I don’t know”. In turn will increase the parent’s frustration and may prolong the child’s meltdown.

The behaviors tend to bring the child and the parents in conflict with each other

“Then I start doing things I wish I didn’t do and saying things I wish I didn’t say… then you guys get even madder and punish me, and it gets really messy.”

As the child cannot think rationally during the episode the parent has the choice to act towards communication, collaborative problem solving and resolution or towards further deterioration

The meltdown, the rage is an incoherent state

The parent’s attempts to get the child to “stop” will likely fuel the frustration even further.

Often, after the episode, the child will act as if he or she has no recollection of the events

Often, after the dust settles the children express remorse, although they may have difficulty recalling the events that occurred during the meltdown.

REACTIVE INTERVENTIONS are often ineffective

“Many parents of inflexible-explosive children put most of their energy into intervening during and after the meltdown phase”.


By learning to anticipate and recognize the situations that routinely lead to explosive episodes one can have PROACTIVE INTERVENTIONS, or before the child is at his worst.

About consequences

There are strong public beliefs that bad behavior should receive consequences, usually some form of punishment. Also, positive behavior is to be rewarded.

“Motivational strategies don’t make the impossible possible; they make the possible, more possible”

The behaviors that can be modified with consequences are behaviors that depend on skills that are available to the child consistently. Note that mastery or consistent availability is different   from occasional availability (usually in ideal circumstances)



  • A “user friendly environment” has fewer demands for flexibility and frustration tolerance.
  • Be realistic about what your child can handle
  • Try to learn to see the world through your child’s eyes – this can help you spot the situations that might be a problem before you get there
  • Don’t take it personally
  • Once the child gets stuck or is in a “vapor lock”, as Dr. Greene calls it, you are the only person in the room that may contribute to avoid a more unpleasant outcome.
  • The first thing to focus on is to meet the child’s INFLEXIBILITY with FLEXIBILITY and strategic thinking.
  • Feeling that you need to “make a stand” when the child is on the verge of a meltdown more often will lead to a full blown meltdown.
  • Read the “warning signs“!!
  • If the child’s behavior gets incoherent don’t try to reason, argue, explain, get the child to understand, accept, and change in the moment.
  • If you find yourself and the child going through the same steps again and again you are likely too inflexible in your approach.
  • It is likely easier for you, the parent, to respond differently than it is for the child to be flexible.
  • Are you sure that what you are trying to enforce at that point it’s worth going on that path?
  • Are you sure that what you’re doing is not adding to the problem?


Dr. Greene recognizes that it is not enough to avoid the meltdowns. Moreover, certain situations are too serious to postpone or “let go”. For example a safety situation may require decisive intervention from the parent even if this will lead to a meltdown. On the other hand, inflexible-explosive children often engage in problem behaviors. If all these behaviors would be sanctioned the result would be too many meltdowns. What is the solution?

Like in other life situations, a balanced approach tends to be preferable. The idea is that frequent, prolonged meltdowns are detrimental in themselves, the child typically does not learn much, it is exhausting, takes a toll on the parent-child relationship just to mention some of the reasons. Therefore the parent is asked to consider when confronted with a problem behavior if it’s worth “inducing and enduring a meltdown” for it.

The rule suggested in the book is not bringing a new idea but is elegant and effective.

Parents are encouraged to think of a list of problem behaviors. Sometimes keeping a log over a week or two may identify the most frequent types of problems. These problem behaviors are suggested to be placed in one of the following “baskets”.

  • Basket A – “behaviors important enough to induce and endure meltdowns over” – the smallest basket – just a few behaviors that are non-negotiable and you should always challenge them, including when you are exhausted. Not much is learned as the child most likely will have a meltdown but established the parent as an authority figure. Unsafe behaviors are the typical ones assigned to Basket A.
  • Basket B – behaviors that are important but it not worth going through a meltdown for – the next in size but still not too large. All these behaviors are important but when they occur, instead of challenge at the risk of inducing a meltdown should be just talked about. The purpose is to teach flexibility and frustration tolerance.  It is very important that the parent chooses the words wisely as the purpose is not moralistic but to “communicate, problem-solve, create a roadmap and work it out”. Staying reasonable and rational while working through a problem behavior is difficult for both the child and the parent but within this model it is assumed that it is harder for the child than for the parent who needs to be more flexible even at the cost of their initial opinions.   The key skills the parent needs are patience, empathy, diplomacy. It is one step forward inviting the child to reason about the situation then if the child gets in “vapor lock” pull back, soothe, encourage, wait for a while then push again. (More about this method, what to do specifically can be seen in the try about Mentalization).
  • Basket C – behaviors that might be considered problems but it is not even worth talking about – forget about it, be aware of your child limitations and about how many issues you can “work on” at a given point in time. If some issues from Basket B are getting corrected, mastered, you can move some behaviors from Basket C to Basket B. But remember, nobody can work on too many things at once.


  • We use the 3 basket method, and find that it helps put things in perspective. Many minor behaviors go in “Basket C”, a few behaviors are for “Basket B” and only major behaviors go in “Basket A”. Using this method to “Pick your Battles” has been helpful with all of our children, inflexible or not. Often times parents and teachers need to change THEIR approach, rather than expecting a child to change their traits.

  • It is interesting that often, our natural response to inflexibility is to be inflexible. It doesn’t work very often though.
    Changing one’s response to a challenge after previous attempts failed, considering alternatives, even when they might interfere with some of our own habits, is doing the hard thing but may be the right one.

  • Just as Dr. Greene states that “Kids Do Well If They Can”, the same is true for their parents, “Parents Do Well If They Can”. I would imagine, one of the biggest barriers to treating a child with these types of issues, is that many parents (and teachers) are not equipped with the knowledge and the skills to help them. As much as I wanted to help my own son, I had to acknowledge that I was part of the problem, rather than the solution. After seeing so many teachers, coaches and family members without the skills to help him (instead they were damaging), I became more determined not to fail him myself. Accepting what cannot be changed in him and tailoring my own parenting style to his needs, has been the most challenging part of his treatment, but it has also been the most rewarding.