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Book review: The Explosive Child

The Explosive Child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children
Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.
HarperCollins, 2009

The Explosive Child by Ross Greene has been on my reading list for a long time. I regret that I didn’t get to it earlier, though reading it now, when many of the other difficulties in our household have been ironed out, has been good timing.

Greene, who is a clinical professor of psychiatry, starts with a simple thesis that many families with sensitive, twice-exceptional, ADHD, learning disabled, or emotionally volatile children figure out over time: the usual parenting strategies don’t work with these kids. Many of us have taken a journey in this regard. We start out looking for help from standard parenting manuals, friends with typical kids, or even professionals. They have great ideas, but for some reason our kids are different.

Greene speaks directly to parents who feel like they’ve tried everything, and he points out that most of the solutions we’ve heard about boil down to two approaches. What he calls Plan A is otherwise known as authoritarian parenting; this is the “Because I said so” approach. Greene notes that even milder-sounding terms like “consequences” are a form of Plan A, because they don’t take the child’s point of view into account.

What he calls Plan C is the opposite: just giving in and letting explosive kids get their way. This permissive approach often seems easier in the short term, and Greene acknowledges that sometimes it’s a necessary part of getting through the day. Though most parenting books don’t advocate permissiveness directly, they do often counsel parents to offer understanding and support to their children in the midst of a tantrum, without giving any guidance for addressing the root causes of the behavior, as typically developing children will usually outgrow tantrums without intervention.

Greene’s interest is in helping parents put together a plan that not only addresses the root of the problem but also helps the child learn valuable life skills in the process. Neither Plan A nor Plan C fulfills these criteria, and in fact, both approaches can damage a volatile child’s chance of developing into a healthy functioning adult.

Greene’s Plan B isn’t easy. First of all, he acknowledges that it pushes a lot of common parenting buttons. Most of us harbor deep suspicions about letting badly behaving children “get away with it.” Also, we have immediate goals, such as wishing our children to be polite in public, that Plan B will put off for a more distant time while we work on our own responses to our children’s behavior. And, he admits, Plan B can be hard for our extended community, such grandparents, teachers, and adult friends, to buy into.

But the great thing about this book is its watertight argumentation: no matter what your resistance to moving to this new—difficult—mode of dealing with your child’s explosive behavior, Greene has a thoughtful, empathetic response.

I can’t vouch for the longterm success of Greene’s approach in my own parenting life, as I just read the book and am working slowly to implement changes in my own responses to common situations in our household. But I can say that as I read this book, I kept saying, “yes,” “yes,” “yes,” as Greene outlined the difficulties of raising a volatile child, and solutions that are at once sympathetic, humane, practical, and based on the longterm goal that we all have: raising happy, well-adjusted adults.

Posted in Books, Parenting, Psychology.

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5 Responses

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  1. Lula B says

    Hi Suki, I love that you write the reviews I always think about but don’t get round to! (And you do it so well.) I read The Explosive Child recently too and loved it. I know what you mean about the watertight argumentation – I hope that will “sell” this approach to people who might not otherwise be “plan B” type parents.
    I’ve always thought of myself as a non-authoritarian, empathic parent so I was surprised to realise how often I do Plan A – I guess it’s the way I was brought up and how most of society thinks parenting should work. I’ve been trying Plan B with both my kids. After a day my (non-explosive) 9 yr old asked politely “why do you keep saying ‘that sounds really frustrating'” 😀 So I explained the approach to her (and how I was a clunky beginner at implementing it!) and she got it. It’s also worked very well with my SPD 8 yr old son.
    What I would REALLY like is a follow-up that gives strategies my son can use when I’m not around, as that’s where most of his explosions happen. We homeschool, so school isn’t an issue, but he’s been asked to leave many clubs (gymnastics, Cubs, swimming) because of his outbursts, which is so sad because he made good friends there and the activities are great for his sensory processing. I’m sure the book I want is out there somewhere!

  2. Suki says

    Hi Lula, I agree that the book is a real eye opener. I definitely don’t tend toward authoritarian, but once I read his point of view and started to think about how my child would perceive something I’d just said, it really changed how I view our interactions. It’s hilarious that your 9yo said that! I also talked to mine about a change of approach because I think that it will work most effectively if she is a partner. As to dealing with problems when you’re not around, it seems to me that Greene’s approach is really about teaching our kids emotional intelligence. If they practice problem-solving with us and know that they’re in a safe environment to do that, they will eventually have the skills to do that with other adults and in other situations. In our situation, I always talk to teachers ahead of time about issues that may come up and how it’s best to handle them. So you might want to find a sympathetic teacher of an activity your son really loves, and see if s/he will partner with you in trying to help get him through his blow-ups. I have also seen that when kids start to notice that they are perceived in a certain way (“the bad kid,” “that kid who always melts down”), they seem to respond by doing what is expected. If a teacher is willing to work with him to go past that, perhaps he can start to feel more empowered to control his outbursts. Good luck!

  3. Lula B says

    Thanks for your full reply, Suki. Lots to think about! When I first read it I wondered where on earth I would find a sympathetic teacher like you describe. Then last night we had the loveliest meeting with some senior Scouting leaders about our son joining Cubs (he had to leave Beavers after an incident that was very badly handled). They listened, and understood, and for once I didn’t feel “difficult” or apologetic but respected and valued (and felt that they were being respectful of my son, too, albeit in his absence). They were also very apologetic about how things at Beavers had been handled. So … we shall see! Thanks again for the chat, and for your great blog 🙂 Lucinda

  4. Vanessa G says

    So glad I came across this post. The audiobook version is on my amazon wishlist now! The older Adrian gets the more I’m realizing his fire breathing is more his nature than “terrible twos.” I’m in need of some parenting inspiration and hope I can find some in this book ; )

    • Suki says

      I think Greene’s approach is one that all parents could use successfully, whether their children are particularly willful or not. Good luck!

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