Riley (The Defiant Child and The Depressed Child) offers answers as to why some children are especially prone to violent meltdowns, paired with techniques that train a child to avoid such outbreaks. According to Riley, a clinical psychologist, there are several reasons a child may explode: a kid with "road map issues" may become unglued when confronted with anything unexpected, while a child with unknown allergies can be adversely affected by certain foods. A child may be defiant and in need of discipline, or suffering from ADHD and in need of special handling. Once parents determine why a little one explodes, the book offers appropriate solutions for modifying the behavior. Riley's approach for dealing with explosive children is sympathetic without being overindulgent. A certain amount of hard work is required by the parents, who will generally have to change the way they respond to their offspring's outbursts. That said, Riley is not a particularly charismatic writer; even his case studies of epically explosive children read rather drily. Still, his sensible, well-structured, age-appropriate advice may be able to help many frustrated parents. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
What Your Explosive Child Is Trying to Tell You: Discovering the Pathway from Symptoms to Solutionsby Douglas A. Riley
From the author of the groundbreaking The Defiant Child comes the first book to connect explosive behavior—when kids go from Jekyll to Hyde and back in the blink of an eye—with its underlying causes Does your hitting, kicking, screaming child explode with so little provocation that you can't help but wonder if he’s possessed? Are
From the author of the groundbreaking The Defiant Child comes the first book to connect explosive behavior—when kids go from Jekyll to Hyde and back in the blink of an eye—with its underlying causes Does your hitting, kicking, screaming child explode with so little provocation that you can't help but wonder if he’s possessed? Are his extreme tantrums becoming the stuff of playground legend? And are you about to lose your job because his daycare or school repeatedly asks you to pick him up early? Dr. Douglas Riley’s ear-to-the-ground insights will give much-needed help to desperate parents who have one overriding question: Why does my child act like this? This compassionate yet no-nonsense therapist explains that explosive behavior is the mere tip of the iceberg. Instead of using a one-size-fits-all strategy, Dr. Riley identifies the eleven most common causes of explosions and accordingly tailors his treatment strategies to address the underlying cause of the behavior. What Your Explosive Child Is Trying to Tell You is a lifeline for parents who are at their wits’ end. DR. DOUGLAS RILEY is a clinical psychologist whose practice focuses on children and adolescents who are explosive, oppositional, depressed, or have difficulties with concentration and learning. He is the author of The Defiant Child: A Parent’s Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder as well as The Depressed Child: A Parent’s Guide for Rescuing Kids.
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Read an Excerpt
I AM NOT A BRAT, JUST A CHILD WHO NEEDS HELP
Imagine the child you see at the supermarket, the one who makes you want to drop to your knees and shout out loud, “Thank God he’s not mine!” We’re talking about the hitter, the kicker, the spitter, the fit thrower, the screamer, the child who attacks parent and peer with so little provocation that you can’t help but ask if he is possessed. The problem comes when you can’t just walk away, privately shaking your head and wondering where his parents went wrong, because you are the parent, he is your child, and he’s going home with you — just as soon as you can drag him out to the car and find a way to keep him buckled in. What is a parent to do?
Why Does My Kid Act Like This?
When parents call my office to make an appointment for a child who is about to get kicked out of kindergarten, or a child who has brought them to within half an inch of social isolation from neighbors and friends because of behavior problems, they have one thing on their minds: “Why does my kid act like this?” Parents — mothers in particular — are natural scientists when it comes to this question. They spend hours developing hypotheses about why their child acts the way he does, pondering and worrying themselves sick. What mother, way down inside, doesn’t suspect that her exploding, tantrum- throwing, melting-down child is just a brat? But if you are one of those moms or dads whose child’s tantrums are the stuff of kindergarten legend, simply labeling him as a brat does nothing to quiet those nagging suspicions that something deeper is going on. The problem with the “B” word is that it fails to tell you why. That why is the itch that has to be scratched if you are to come to a true understanding of how to help your child. As you will soon learn, the answer to why children explode is far more interesting, and far more complex, than the brat hypothesis.
The first step toward arriving at why is to come to an understanding of the different types of explosions that children display. While most dramatic tantrums may look and sound pretty much the same to the overwhelmed parent who is standing there watching, all explosions are not created equal. I will demonstrate this to you briefly. Before I do, though, I want to ask you to do your best to avoid falling into either of two traps. The first one is confusing symptoms with causes. When working with children who explode, you might be tempted to think that the explosions are the problem, or, in medical terms, the disorder. Common sense should tell you, however, that children do not sit happily playing and then Bang! explode for no reason. There is something hidden, something working beneath the surface that sets them off time after time. The second trap is lumping all of the possible causes of childhood explosions into one heap and claiming that there is a universal technique that can be used to treat them. Such thinking is like saying that a pain in your head must be caused by the same problem as a pain in your leg, your stomach, or your shoulder and that all of them can be treated with an aspirin.
Steven and Henry Think of explosive outbursts as icebergs. The observable part, that one-tenth that sticks up above the surface, is the yelling and screaming, the bulging eyes and flailing arms, the spitting and kicking and cursing that exploding kids let fly in the midst of their fits. The nine-tenths that we can’t readily see are the actual causes of the explosions. This is where we become detectives, entering into the mystery of incredibly powerful forces. Once you learn to consider all of these forces, you will begin to understand why your child is responding to the world in a very specific manner and the blowups will begin to make sense to you. This is not to suggest that you will like or condone your child’s explosive behavior. You will, however, understand what makes it happen and be more able to respond in a way that will decrease the explosions. The following two examples will show precisely why the iceberg analogy is useful. Steven and Henry were both first graders, and both were assaulting their peers. Steven did it at the bus stop. Henry did it mainly in the school cafeteria, but also sometimes in the hallways or in the school library. Before coming to my office, the parents of both children had tried time-outs, loss of privileges, rewards, and talking/lecturing/yelling/spanking/bargaining/bribing/ counting, all to no avail. The assaults simply continued. Both boys were in danger of being placed into alternative educational settings. Their schools and other parents had begun to label them as oppositional and explosive and were demanding that something be done quuickly. Steven would strike most parents on first glance as quiet (mousy actually), anxious, and certainly not prone to display the in-your-faaaaace, coequal-with-the-parent attitude typically seen in oppositional children and adolescents. At the bus stop, though, he would climb onto the backs of the other children and pull their hair, or pull them backward off the steps of the bus by their coats or belts. On one occasion, he clawed a child’s face so badly that she had to be taken to the doctor’s office. Henry, by contrast, was a beefy little guy with a chronic frown. It was easy to believe that he could be an angry actor. His method of assault was more straightforward than Steven’s. He would punch the kid he was mad at right in the face. Being roughly a third bigger than most of his peers, he could do a lot of damage. What I found when I got to know Steven better was that his thinking had a marked obsessive streak. He had developed the belief that he had to be the first one on the bus every day. As he walked to the bus stop with his mother, he would begin to whine anxiously if he saw that another child had arrived there before him. The battle that his mother fought with him every morning was precisely the opposite of what goes on in most homes. Most kids have to be threatened to leave in time so as not to miss the bus. Steven would have gladly left an hour early if his mother had been willing to put up with it, and his need to get there first created tension at the breakfast table every morning. Steven believed that he had to be the first one on the bus in the same way that you or I believe that we have to breathe air. The power of this belief caused him to assault any child who tried to get on before him. From his viewpoint, being first was a life-and-death issue.
Now, back to our friend Henry. He had what is referred to as sensory processing disorder. He wasn’t a worrier and he wasn’t compulsive in any manner. Instead, he had an exquisite sensitivity to touch or pressure. Tags in his shirts bothered him horribly, and when he was younger, he was guaranteed to pitch a world-class fit if the toe seams of his socks were not lined up just so. He always complained that his clothes were too tight. He would stretch the necks of his T-shirts out so far that they would almost slip over his shoulder. Along with all of this came an exaggerated need for personal body space, because anyone brushing against him, even lightly, sent him into orbit. The bane of children like Henry is the fact that young kids spend lots of time standing in line at school. When other children bumped into him or rubbed against him, he felt assaulted. He hit back out of what seemed to him to be self-defense. The chronic frown on his face was there because he believed he lived in a world in which he was constantly being attacked by others. By identifying the causes of each boy’s meltdowns, the solutions became clear, and I am happy to report that Steven and Henry and their parents are now all doing quite well. But it wasn’t without some initial head- scratching about the causes of their behavior.
A Taxonomy of Tantrums All kids have tantrums, meltdowns, and explosions. It is simply part of being a kid. Some of these tantrums and meltdowns come under a heading that I use frequently: painfully normal. What parent hasn’t had the experience of dragging a child out of a store, the child engulfed in tears and rage over not getting some particular toy? Incidents like this mean nothing about a child’s psychological operations, other than that they are normal. Tantrums, meltdowns, and explosions rightfully become a concern, however, when your child takes them much further than other kids. You are correct to worry when you realize that your child is a powder keg compared to his or her peers. At some point, if it be comes clear to you — in the comments you hear from relatives or neighbors or your child’s teachers, or in the way other kids avoid your child — that something is not right, you need to take action. In this book, I will ignore the painfully normal fits and tantrums that every child experiences, because with time and maturity, they simply go away. Instead, in each of the following chapters, I will focus on the causes and appropriate treatment of these tantrums and explosions that are sure to be detrimental to your child’s happiness and success.
I believe that the primary cause of highly explosive behavior in children (and frankly, even in adults, which makes it all the more important for your child to receive treatment early in life) is what I refer to as road map meltdowns. Explosive children are prone to make assumptions about what is going to happen in the near future. These assumptions — their mental road maps of the future — can be like little “movies” of what they think is going to happen next. Road maps get elevated in their minds to the status of 100 percent certain, totally gonna happen probabilities. When what the child believes is about to happen does not come to pass, his road map disintegrates. Parents who say that their child behaves as if his world has ended because they stopped at the drugstore when the child thought they were going straight to the grocery store do not understand just how right they are. When a child’s road map does not come true, his world does cease to exist for a few moments. The resulting dramatic tantrum shows us how overwhelmed some children can become when faced with anything unexpected. I will say much more about this issue in chapter 2.
There is also the issue of defiant behavior versus explosive behavior. I find that there is an alarming confusion among parents, teachers, and others who work with children about the terms “defiant child” and “explosive child,” in that they believe these terms to be interchangeable — just different words for the same behavior. In reality, these are two distinct sets of issues. While it is true that children who are “defiant” can be explosive, and children who are “explosive” can be defiant, the underlying personality characteristics of the two groups are entirely different and require different treatments. In my experience, most explosive children — the ones throwing punches in kindergarten or the ones who get down on the floor and throw massive fits — tend to suffer from the road map meltdowns just noted above. The truth is that their explosive behavior can also be caused by any of the issues that are discussed in this book. Defiant children (also referred to as “oppositional children”) aren’t particularly nervous or anxious, and aren’t particularly bothered by unexpected changes or events unless they prevent them from doing something they were strongly looking forward to, much as any of us would be. Instead, defiant children are exquisitely sensitive to the issue of power — who has it, how much they have, and how to demonstrate that no one can make them do anything. From a remarkably early age, they do not like to be told to do anything by anyone. They act the way they do in an attempt to pull equal with their parents and other adults regarding power and influence.
Another prime cause of explosive behavior has both nothing and everything to do with psychology. In chapter 3, I go to some length to discuss the part that allergies and food sensitivities can play in childhood explosive behavior, particularly in the age group I concentrate on in this book — three- to ten- year-olds. The fact that we rarely think about allergies and food sensitivities in relation to behavior tells us just how shortsighted we have become. Parents and professionals alike are apt to launch into complex behavior modification programs or commit to long-term use of mood-stabilizing medications before considering the simple notion that what children eat or drink or breathe just might be having an impact upon their behavior. Allergies and food sensitivities must be ruled out if the true desire is to treat causes, not symptoms. There is considerable dissension even among allergists over this issue. Suffice it to say that over the years, I have become keenly aware that a remarkable number of the exploding, irritable children who get referred to my office for behavioral treatment have bags or circles under their eyes, ruddy ears or cheeks, a chronic runny nose, a history of ear infections, or a history of bouncing off the walls after consuming certain foods or food additives. I am also too aware of the children I see who have been given diagnoses as serious as bipolar disorder, only to have their symptoms greatly diminished after being treated for allergies or food sensitivities.
There are other equally important issues that we should not ignore regarding explosive behavior. For example, two of the causes of explosive behavior are generalized anxiety disorder and depression. Anxious or depressed children are not just miniature versions of anxious or depressed adults. They act differently. In fact, cranky, explosive behavior can be one of the main symptoms that alert us to these underlying issues of anxiety and depression. There is also the issue of childhood bipolar disorder, which is discussed briefly in chapter 8. Children who suffer from it can be notoriously volatile and unpredictable. There remains, however, considerable disagreement about whether this diagnosis should even be used with young children. Some of this disagreement revolves around the absence of observable periods of manic behavior in children, believed by some theorists to be one of the symptoms necessary to make such a diagnosis. Others argue that edgy, agitated, explosive behavior is the leading edge of childhood bipolar disorder, a predictor of what is to come. It is a difficult diagnostic call to make, because bipolar disorder seems to unfold over time. Its symptoms emerge gradually, until finally it be comes obvious that bipolar disorder is indeed the correct diagnosis. Along the way, bipolar children are almost invariably misdiagnosed as being depressed or as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or oppositional defiant disorder. No doctor has a crystal ball, yet I find that today many try to diagnose bipolar disorder too early, and use medication to treat it before fully exploring other causes.
What about the relationship between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and explosive behavior? Children who have ADHD, though often highly creative and imaginative, can be disruptive to an entire classroom, and their impulsivity and inability to anticipate the consequences of their behavior often leads to explosions and altercations with adults. There is growing evidence that sleep problems and sleep- disordered breathing can result in explosive behavior, and children with these problems frequently get misdiagnosed as having psychological issues. Sometimes, simply having tonsils and/or adenoids removed can make all the difference in how a child behaves. Maturity also plays a role in explosive behavior. It is a mistake to believe that a child’s intellectual development and emotional development unfold at the same pace. Yet how often have you heard an adult say about a child, “She’s so smart. Doesn’t she know how to act better than that?” Emotionally immature children explode for reasons that have nothing to do with being oppositional and little to do with road maps. Their treatment needs to revolve heavily around learning social skills, to a degree that is quite different from the needs of other exploding children. Children with an expressive language delay, a different sort of developmental issue, are easily frustrated by their inability to communicate with others. They are often pointers and grunters during their early lives and can be explosive when you fail to understand what they are attempting to communicate to you. Children with language delays are known to have more problematic behavior than children without language issues. Children with learning disabilities and processing issues can become immensely frustrated with their inability to master classroom tasks that they see their friends mastering with apparent ease. Often thought of as explosive, oppositional, or defiant when they refuse to take part in classroom activities, they are really just attempting to protect their own dignity by not publicly exposing their academic weaknesses. Sometimes it is more important to be concerned about what the world has done to an explosive child than about what the child has done to the world. Children’s explosions may be related to bullying, family instability, negative parenting practices, and the like. None of us should be surprised by how a child acts when he has lost his sense of safety, when the frustrations of an unsafe world become just too much to tolerate.
Why Ask Why?
There is compelling evidence that we are playing for large stakes, that we must find and treat the causes of explosive behavior early in a child’s life in order to prevent lifelong problems. One study of individuals who were followed from birth until around the age of forty found that the lives of ill-tempered boys, in comparison to their more even-tempered peers, were marked by lower levels of work success and career satisfaction, lower rank in the military, and higher unemployment rates. Ill-tempered girls tend to marry less successful men, and ultimately became ill-tempered women and mothers. Given how varied the causes of childhood explosive behavior are, we should never again be tempted to think of a child’s explosions in simple terms. In this book, I delve deeply into the lives of children to find what is not easily seen — the causes of their explosions — in an attempt to free them from a downward spiral. The good news is that after parents uncover the factors affecting their child, the fixes are often quite straightforward. This will become clear as I dissect explosions into their many forms and causes, as I did earlier with Steven and Henry. Eskimos are said to have many different words for the concept of “snow,” as do the Irish for the concept of “green.” We must develop the same mindset to truly understand the meaning of the word “explosion.”
People frequently ask me why I am so fascinated by explosive children. If I survey my career, I realize that explosive children have always been the ones who have puzzled me the most. Like those parents I spoke of earlier, I want to know why. If my almost thirty years of working with children have taught me anything, it is that there will never be a simple explanation for why children explode. The causes of their explosions, mostly hidden, are exceptionally varied and come from all over the medical and psychological map. But we live in a society that often sees these children in simple terms and does not acknowledge the complexity of their struggles. No child should end up stigmatized and rejected, particularly for the hidden causes of explosive behavior that we will explore. You will quickly learn that the forces behind a child’s explosive behavior are so strong that your help and insight will be needed in order to help the child gain control. In addition, you will soon become much more sympathetic in your view of what any explosive child is going through. No parent wishes to measure his or her family’s happiness by how long it has been since the last explosion. Neither does the child, whether she is three or eight or ten or even older. This child, like most children, is desperate to earn praise and acceptance. Children who have massive blowups do not like the way they feel after they erupt. They end up in trouble at home and at school, and their peers begin to avoid them. When all is said and done, they begin not to like the lives they are leading. There is no more compelling reason than this to begin your search for the hidden cause of your child’s explosions.
Meet the Author
Dr. Douglas A. Riley is a clinical psychologist whose practice focuses on children and adolescents who are explosive, oppositional, depressed, or have difficulties with concentration and learning. He is the author of The Defiant Child: A Parent’s Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder as well as The Depressed Child: A Parent’s Guide for Rescuing Kids.
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