Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Explosive Child - Understanding Why Conventional Parenting Strategies Don't Work for Some Unconventional Kids

My parenting philosophy has always included a system of rewards and punishments that are intended to teach my son to behave the way I wanted him to. If he did well, he would reap the rewards; if he did not, he would suffer the consequences.

My parents employed a system like that (well, more heavily on punishment and light on rewards in their case), and I'm guessing that most of you were brought up on a similar system as well. If it worked with us, surely it would work with my son.

Years ago, we set up a formal system of rewards and punishments at home. Mimicking Kai's therapeutic elementary school, we opened our own "point store" where he could trade in the points he earned for good behavior for preferred items such as small Lego sets or new apps. Conversely, whenever he had a major incident at school, Kai would lose his iPad time at home.

This system certainly provided strong incentive for Kai to do well. But when his actions didn't follow his motivations, we grew frustrated.

We increased punishments. Another ripped up shirt? Double the time he would not be able to use the iPad! Surely that would get him to behave better.

Except it did not.

When Kai fell short of the goals we had set for positive rewards, he became very discouraged. When he had an incident at school, the anxiety over losing his iPad time increased his stress and brought on further dysregulation.

Our strategies were not working. What were we doing wrong? Were we just really bad parents?

It has only been in the past few weeks that it has really started to sink in as to the problem has been.

Earlier this summer, we started to see a new private therapist for Kai. In our first meeting, he recommended a book for me and my wife: The Explosive Child, A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.

On our flight out to and back from New England last month, I finally had time to begin reading.

The author posits that children like my son are already motivated to do well, but they lack the critical skills of flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving that enables them to do so. The book explains that the reason why reward and punishment strategies don't work for kids like Kai is because they don't teach these skills that they lack.

These thoughts resonated with me.

There is certainly no greater motivator for Kai than the threat of not being able to use the iPad. Yet, that appears to have no impact on his ability to control his behavior. In the heat of a frustrating situation, he doesn't control his behavior. It's not because he doesn't want to - he is certainly well motivated to - rather, it is because he lacks the skills to do so.

The author argues that rewards and punishments are not what behaviorally-challenged kids need. If all those consequences were going to work,they would have started to work years ago. Rather, he makes the case that a new approach is needed, one that focuses on solving problems collaboratively with your child rather than the imposition of adult will.

The author goes on to describe how that can be done. I won't go into the details here. I will say that it seems that it will be a long, difficult process. But after years of trying it the old way, I think it makes sense to explore a different approach.

Let's see how it goes.


  1. I've been reading your blog over a year and cheering for your family. I especially enjoy reading about your trips.

    I have a young daughter with autism, somewhat like Kai, and in the last few months I have been reading The Explosive Child (also Lost at School, by the same author), and trying to implement these strategies. It is not magic, but it has helped. A few weeks ago, I thought, I wonder how that approach would work with Kai! So I'm glad you discovered the book.

    There is a Facebook page called The B Team for people who are trying to follow Ross Green's approach.

    Good luck and best wishes!

    1. It is great to hear that these strategies have helped with your daughter. Thanks for the tip on the Facebook group; I've just requested to join. And thank you for commenting and the well wishes!

  2. How interesting! And that line of reasoning makes perfect sense to me....I hope you will continue to post about the book and any new strategies you try....

    1. I'll try to post on the topic as we get more into the strategies. The reasoning makes sense, but it is not going to be a quick solution - it will be challenging and take time.

  3. Very interesting! I hope these strategies will be helpful with Kai!

  4. It sounds very reasonable. I hope it starts a new trend with Kai.

    1. Thank you. It won't be easy but if we can make a little progress at a time, that will be worthwhile..

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