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Excerpt from The Explosive Child
CHAPTER ONE: THE WAFFLE EPISODE:
Jennifer, age eleven, wakes up, makes her bed,
looks around her room to make sure everything is in its place, and heads into
the kitchen to make herself breakfast. She peers into the freezer, removes the
container of frozen waffles, and counts six waffles. Thinking to herself, "I'll
have three waffles this morning and three tomorrow morning," Jennifer toasts
her three waffles and sits down to eat.
Moments later, her mother and five-year old brother, Adam, enter the kitchen,
and the mother asks Adam what he'd like to eat for breakfast. Adam responds,
"Waffles," and the mother reaches into the freezer for the waffles.
Jennifer, who has been listening intently, explodes.
"He can't have the frozen waffles!" Jennifer screams, her face suddenly
"Why not?" asks the mother, her voice and pulse rising, at a loss
for an explanation of Jennifer's behavior.
"I was going to have those waffles tomorrow morning!" Jennifer screams,
jumping out of her chair.
"I'm not telling your brother he can't have waffles!" the mother
"He can't have them!" screams Jennifer, now face-to-face with her
The mother, wary of the physical and verbal aggression of which her daughter
is capable during these moments, desperately asks Adam if there's something
else he would consider eating.
"I want waffles," whimpers Adam, cowering behind his mother.
Jennifer, her frustration and agitation at a peak, pushes her mother out of the way, seizes the container of frozen waffles, then slams the freezer door shut, pushes over a kitchen chair, grabs her plate of toasted waffles, and stalks to her room. Her brother and mother begin to cry.
Jennifer’s family members have endured literally thousands of such episodes. In many instances, the episodes are more prolonged and intense, and involve more physical or verbal aggression than the one described above (when Jennifer was eight, she kicked out the front windshield of the family car). Mental health professionals have told Jennifer’s parents she has something called oppositional-defiant disorder. For the parents, however, a simple label doesn’t begin to explain the upheaval, turmoil, and trauma that Jennifer’s outbursts cause. Her siblings and mother are scared of her. Her extreme volatility and inflexibility require constant vigilance and enormous energy from her mother and father, thereby lessening the attention the parents wish they could devote to Jennifer’s brother and sister. Her parents frequently argue over the best way to handle her behavior, but agree about the severe strains Jennifer places on their marriage. Although she is above average in intelligence, Jennifer has no close friends; children who initially befriend her eventually find her rigid personality difficult to tolerate.
Over the years, Jennifer’s parents have sought help from countless mental
health professionals, most of whom advised them to set firmer limits and be
more consistent in managing Jennifer’s behavior, and instructed them on
how to implement formal behavior management strategies. When such strategies
failed to work, Jennifer was medicated with innumerable combinations of drugs,
without dramatic effect. After eight years of medicine, advice, sticker charts,
time-outs, and reward programs, Jennifer has changed little since her parents
first noticed there was something "different" about her when she was
"Most people can’t imagine how humiliating it is to be scared of
your own daughter," Jennifer’s mother once said. "People who
don’t have a child like Jennifer don’t have a clue about what it’s
like to live like this. Believe me, this is not what I envisioned when I dreamed
of having children. This is a nightmare."
"You can’t imagine the embarrassment of having Jennifer ‘lose
it’ around people who don’t know her," her mother continued.
"I feel like telling them, ‘I have two kids at home who don’t
act like this -- I really am a good parent!’"
"I know people are thinking, ‘What wimpy parents she must have...what
that kid really needs is a good thrashing.’ Believe me, we’ve tried
everything with her. But nobody’s been able to tell us how to help her...no
one’s really been able to tell us what’s the matter with her!"
"I hate what I’ve become. I used to think of myself as a kind, patient, sympathetic person. But Jennifer has caused me to act in ways I never thought I was capable of. I’m emotionally spent. I can’t keep living like this."
"I know a lot of other parents who have pretty difficult children...you
know, kids who are hyperactive or having trouble paying attention. I would give
my left arm for a kid who was just hyperactive or having trouble paying attention!
Jennifer is in a completely different league! It makes me feel very alone."
The truth is, Jennifer’s mother is not alone; there are a lot of Jennifers
out there. Their parents quickly discover that strategies that are usually effective
for shaping the behavior of other children -- such as explaining, reasoning,
reassuring, nurturing, redirecting, ignoring, rewarding, and punishing -- don’t
have the same success with their Jennifers. Even formal behavior management
programs -- sticker charts, contingent rewarding and punishing, and time-outs
-- and commonly prescribed medications have not led to satisfactory improvement.
If you started reading this book because you have a Jennifer of your own, you’re
probably familiar with how frustrated, confused, angry, bitter, guilty, overwhelmed,
worn out, and hopeless Jennifer’s parents feel.
Besides oppositional-defiant disorder, children like Jennifer may be diagnosed
with any of a variety of psychiatric disorders and learning inefficiencies,
including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders (bipolar
disorder and depression), Tourette’s disorder, anxiety disorders (including
obsessive-compulsive disorder), language- processing impairments, sensory integration
dysfunction, nonverbal learning disabilities, reactive attachment disorder,
and even Asperger’s disorder. Such children may also be described as having
difficult temperaments. Whatever the label, children like Jennifer are distinguished
by a few characteristics -- namely, striking inflexibility and low frustration
tolerance -- that make life significantly more difficult and challenging for
them and for the people who interact with them. These children often seem unable
to shift gears and think clearly in the midst of frustration and respond to
even simple changes and requests with extreme inflexibility and often verbal
or physical aggression. For reasons that will become clear, I’ve come
to refer to such children as inflexible-explosive -- not because I’m interested
in inventing yet another syndrome (there are plenty already) -- but because
I think it’s more accurate and descriptive and therefore gives us a better
idea about what they need help with.
How are inflexible-explosive children different from other kids? Let’s
take a look at how different children may respond to a fairly common family
scenario. Imagine that Child 1 -- Hubert -- is watching television and his mother
asks him to set the table for dinner. Hubert has a pretty easy time shifting
from his agenda -- watching television -- to his mother’s agenda -- setting
the table for dinner. Thus, in response to, "Hubert, I’d like you
to turn off the television and come set the table for dinner," he would
likely reply, "OK, mom, I’m coming" and would set the table
Child 2 --Jermaine--is somewhat tougher. He has a harder time shifting from
his agenda to his mother’s agenda but is able to manage his frustration
and shift gears (often with a threat hanging over his head). Thus, in response
to, "Jermaine, I’d like you to turn off the television and come set
the table for dinner," Jermaine might initially shout, "No way, I
don’t want to right now!" or complain, "You always ask me to
do things right when I’m in the middle of something I like!" However,
with some extra help (Mother: "Jermaine, if you don’t turn off the
television and come set the dinner table right now, you’re going to have
to take a time-out"), these "somewhat tougher" children do shift
And then there is Jennifer, Child 3, the inflexible-explosive child, for whom
shifting gears -- from her agenda to her mother’s agenda -- often induces
an unimaginable, intense, debilitating level of frustration. In response to,
"Jennifer, I’d like you to turn off the television and come set the
table for dinner," these children get stuck and often simply explode, at
which point all bets are off on what they may say or do.
Inflexible-explosive children come in all shapes and sizes. Some blow up literally dozens of times every day; others only a few times a week. Many "lose it" only at home, others only at school, some both at home and school. Some scream when they become frustrated but do not swear or become physically or verbally aggressive. One such child, Richard, a spunky, charismatic fourteen year old who was diagnosed with ADHD, began to cry in our first session when I asked if he thought it might be a good idea for us to help him start managing his frustration so he could begin getting along better with his family members. Others scream and swear but do not lash out physically (including Jack, an engaging, smart, moody ten year old, diagnosed with ADHD and Tourette’s disorder, who had a very reliable pattern of becoming inflexible and irrational over the most trivial matters and whose inflexibility and irrationality tended to elicit similar behaviors from his parents). Still others combine the whole package, such as Marvin, a bright, active, impulsive, edgy, easily agitated eight year old with Tourette’s disorder, depression, and ADHD, who reacted to unexpected changes with unimaginable screaming, swearing, and physical violence (on one occasion, Marvin’s father innocently turned off an unnecessary light in the room in which Marvin was playing a video game, prompting a massive one-hour blowup).
What should become quite clear as you read this book is that these children
have wonderful qualities and tremendous potential. In most ways, their general
cognitive skills have developed at a normal pace. Yet their inflexibility and
low tolerance for frustration often obscure their more positive traits and cause
them and those around them enormous pain. I can think of no other group of children
who are so misunderstood. Their parents are typically caring, well-intentioned
people who often feel guilty that they are no longer able to feel great love
for their children.
"You know," Jennifer’s mother would say, "each time I
start to get my hopes up...each time I have a pleasant interaction with Jennifer...I
let myself become a little optimistic and start to like her again...and then
it all comes crashing down with her next explosion. I’m ashamed to say
it, but a lot of the time I really don’t like her and I definitely don’t
like what she’s doing to our family. We are in a perpetual state of crisis."
Clearly, there’s something different about the Jennifers of the world.
This is a critical, often painful, realization for parents to come to. But there
is hope, as long as their parents, teachers, relatives, and therapists are able
to come to grips with a second realization: Inflexible-explosive children often
require different disciplinary practices than do other children. Unfortunately,
there is no bible on how to deal with these children, particularly if medication
and standard behavior management strategies fail to resolve their difficulties.
Thus, the parents, teachers, relatives, and therapists of such children often
aren’t sure what to do or where to turn.
What I’ve found is that dealing more effectively with inflexible and
explosive behavior requires, first and foremost, a new understanding of what
these children are about. Once parents have a better sense about why these children
behave as they do, strategies for helping things improve become clearer. In
some instances, helping parents achieve a more accurate understanding of their
child’s difficulties can, by itself, lead to improvements in parent-child
interactions, even before formal strategies are tried. The first chapters of
this book are devoted to helping you think about why these children adapt so
poorly to changes and requests, are so easily frustrated, and explode so quickly
and so often. At the same time, you’ll read about why popular strategies
for dealing with difficult children may be less effective than expected. In
later chapters, you’ll read about alternative strategies that have been
helpful to many of the children and families with whom I’ve worked over
If you are the parent of an inflexible-explosive child, this book may restore some sanity and optimism to your family and help you feel that you can actually handle your child’s difficulties confidently and competently. If you are a relative, friend, teacher, or therapist, this book should, at the least, help you understand. There is no panacea. But there is hope.
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