Natalie Frank, a Ph.D in clinical psychology, specializes in pediatrics, health psychology, and behavioral medicine.
Many children appear happy, obedient, and even helpful as long as they are getting what they want. Until your child is faced with a situation in which they do not get their own way, you may not realize there is another side to them. Young children aren’t able to problem-solve effectively, shift from what they are doing to what they are expected to do, or accept that they can’t always have what they want, and these situations often result in temper tantrums. Despite parents becoming concerned as well as exasperated by such behaviors, these are normal characteristics that define what is often called the “terrible twos.” However, if your child does not grow out of this stage or, to the contrary, the behavior becomes worse as they age, you may have an inflexible-explosive child.
There is no single definition that applies to all children considered to have “inflexible-explosive” qualities. Overall, the two primary signs that indicate such a condition are low frustration tolerance and a striking degree of stubbornness. Yet how and when these characteristics are expressed may differ markedly.
Some children may blow up numerous times a day while others may only do so once or twice a week. Some may have problems only in a single setting such as home or school while for others their behavior is equally problematic regardless of setting.
When frustrated, some children may scream, swear, and become aggressive or violent. They may also exhibit any combination of these reactions. The loss of control exhibited by such children in reaction to their sense of helplessness when faced with frustration leading to a loss of control makes life extremely difficult for them to navigate along with those who are part of their life.
We Use the Behavioral Techniques We Were Taught – What are We Doing Wrong?
Parents who have an inflexible-explosive child and use behavioral consequences but perceive no noticeable improvement are likely doing nothing wrong. Perhaps you have attended a parent training course and you were taught standard behavioral management procedures. This type of approach is extremely effective for many families. However, the method is based on certain core assumptions that may not hold true for your particular child. These assumptions are:
Increasing positive attention for good behavior and ignoring bad behavior will improve my child's behavior. This will reverse the contingency where we weren't reacting to our child's good behavior since we believed that was how they should act but instead providing attention for bad behavior in an effort to correct it. This reinforced bad behavior and failed to acknowledge their good behavior.
- Using clear, short commands will help my child better understand and remember what they are expected to do.
- Using consequences properly including rewards and punishment will teach my child that they are expected to comply with parental commands in a time-appropriate manner.
- Always being consistent will help my child learn we won't back down even when confronted with extreme tantrums.
These are important assumptions in general that can be used for guiding parenting behavior for the reasons stated. However, if your child is unable to alter their behavior from acting in a way so as to get what they want instead of what others expect of them, or they can’t tolerate frustration, they may not be able to think clearly enough to recognize anything different is occurring. They are not being intentionally oppositional. They simply aren’t in a state of mind to be able to recognize your attempts to alter their behavior.
Consequences are most effective for teaching a child what is acceptable and what isn’t, and to motivate the child to act differently. However, the vast majority of these children are quite clear on what behaviors their parents like or dislike, so there is no need to teach them this information.
In addition, children don’t want to continuously lose control of their emotions and actions or feel frustrated all the time. In other words, they are also already motivated to alter these behavior patterns, they just don’t know how to do so. It is also not a matter of identifying effective consequences—no consequences you impose will enable them to shift from their agenda to yours.
These characteristics are not exclusive to children with this problem. No one is immune to becoming overwhelmed by extreme negative emotions they can’t control at various times or around specific circumstances and there is no consequence that rewards or punishes enough that it will enable anyone to do something of which they aren't capable.
For example, if a promoter offered the average person the equivalent of Madonna’s yearly earning to travel the world and give concerts, I would be incredibly motivated. I would hire a voice coach and practice endlessly despite knowing I’m tone deaf. Maybe I’d learn a few strategies to help me stay on key once in a while but I’d never develop the vocal ability to gain a following. If despite knowing this beforehand the promoter punished me for not singing like Madonna, I’d likely get frustrated wondering why I had to meet his unrealistic expectations of what I was capable of. If the promoter continued to punish me because my performance didn’t improve, that still wouldn’t change the fact I cannot sing like Madonna. It would, however, likely result in increased anger and hostility on my part. The fact is that even if I weren’t tone deaf there would be practically no possibility I could sing like Madonna.
Why Aren’t Consequences Effective for Inflexible-Explosive Children?
A consequence, by definition, is something that occurs after the fact. A consequence won’t be effective in altering a child’s future behavior unless they are able to access knowledge related to the consequence the last time it was imposed. They must also find the consequence meaningful enough that they are willing to act differently during the current episode. When a child is easily and quickly frustrated, they are unable to think coherently and often experience a poverty of thought, moving into a reactionary state based on negative emotion alone.
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When a child is unable to tolerate or control their rapidly escalating frustration, they are unable to think rationally in order to evaluate their actions such that they can recognize impending misbehavior. Even more so, they cannot predict potential consequences for any misbehavior they might engage in. When the child is in the midst of a meltdown their frustration often worsens in response to parental instructions. This prevents them from recognizing that complying with the instructions is what is expected of them, This makes it almost impossible for them to form an association between compliance and positive consequences or non-compliance and negative consequences. Inflexible-explosive children have little capacity to focus on and form memories of penalties imposed while they are enraged or to remember previous consequences for non-compliant behavior. This means that they are incapable of learning from experiences that are related to the relationship between their behavior and the responses made by their parents.
How Can I Decrease my Child’s Frustration and Control their Outbursts
The most critical strategy for helping the child manage their frustration and prevent explosions is to shift from a consequence-based mindset to one based on antecedents.
Although your child’s outburst may seem to come out of nowhere, this is not the case. There are events or situational factors which are precursors or that power the explosion. These are antecedents and learning to recognize the early warning signs that an outburst is imminent is the crucial first step to helping your child.
- You need to catch the moment when your child begins experiencing frustration.
- Notice when your child seems to be having difficulty thinking clearly as indicated by disorganized speech, a subtle lack of coherence or rationality.
- At this point, they may still be able to compromise or reflect upon alternative options with your assistance.
Other strategies to pre-empt a rage or address the initial stages of one to restore coherence include:
- Empathizing – Gain an understanding of what events or situations upset your child. When you sense an episode may be beginning, show that you are aware of their difficulties and how hard it is for them, and help them label what they are feeling.
- Distraction – Use humor to dispel some of the tension or encourage them to take a break and do something they enjoy that will take their mind off of their distress and let them avoid the cause of the frustration for a period of time. Social support can be extremely helpful so arranging to spend time with friends can go a long way to helping them decompress. Once they are calm you can help them work on strategies to cope with what was frustrating them so they can approach the task again with an added layer of resiliency.
- Avoid Deadlock – Don’t continue to pursue a topic or attempted negotiation when the child is angry and the interaction is going nowhere. No one can think when they are in a fury. Remain calm and let the child know you understand they are upset and let them take a break. If they run from the room don’t pursue them – give them space.
- Don’t Take Things Personally – Your child will likely say things that may seem intended to hurt you. Remember they are not thinking coherently and cannot consider potential consequences, which includes the consequences of what they may say. They are reacting based on emotionality, not rational thought. Model calm behavior in order to show the child that it is possible not to become enraged when someone becomes verbally aggressive during a contentious conversation.
The most important things to remember about helping an inflexible-explosive child are:
- Consequences generally do more harm than good.
- The best way to help your child regain control is through demonstrating methods for doing so yourself until they begin to adopt these methods and utilize them on their own.
- The most effective way to teach your child to identify escalating emotions is by clearly modeling and verbalizing how to recognize the early signs (antecedents) of an impending episode.
- Prompts are a non-intrusive means of cueing a child when they aren’t yet consistently using adaptive self-help strategies. Suggest different ways your child can establish distance from their frustration until they are able to process and address it in a positive manner. Assist them in practicing these strategies when they are calm so they become ingrained. This will allow the child to instigate them with little thought when they sense the impending onset of an episode.
Curtis, D. F. Curtis, DF, Elkins, SR, Areizaga, M., Miller, S., Brestan-Knight, E., & Thornberry, T.(2015). Oppositional Defiant Disorder. In Kapalka, GM, Disruptive Disorders and Behaviors: A Concise Guide to Psychological, Pharmacological and Integrative Treatments (pp. 99-119). New York: Routledge.
Ollendick, T. H., Greene, R. W., Austin, K. E., Fraire, M. G., Halldorsdottir, T., Allen, K. B., & Noguchi, R. J. (2016). Parent management training and collaborative & proactive solutions: A randomized control trial for oppositional youth. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 45(5), 591-604.
Maikoetter, M. (2015). Transforming an Old West Town into a Therapeutic Community. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 23(4), 44.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Natalie Frank
Leanna Boyle on May 25, 2019:
Is it common for kids with Asperger’s syndrome to melt down when they are given consequences? I am a 30 year old woman and I have this condition. Every time I was given a consequence such as something being taken away me, I would have a big tantrum thinking whatever was taken would be gone forever and I was devastated.
Shannon Henry from Texas on September 11, 2017:
You may have helped me.finally make sense of something I haven't found an answer to yet. Something to ask a doctor about because you just described my child. But I know nothing about this, just behaviors I deal with and only some of the triggers. Definitely no negotiating when he has an outburst and no clear thinking on his part. He knows the consequence, yet doesn't accept them. In fact, he becomes even more contrary. If this is what I am dealing with, you just have me hope that it is manageable for his sanity and everyone else's. This is the first I have heard anything about it, though. I will also have to research more.
Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on September 11, 2017:
I'm so sorry you went through this. It's hard enough when a child has no extra difficulties as the parent will often see problems where there aren't any. When there are even minor difficulties it becomes a major problem and the child rarely understands why they are being treated that way. They just get used to it. I hope you were able to see it for what it was and find a way through it to the other side. All the best.
Steve Burstein on August 31, 2017:
Hoo Boy, you want to talk about consequences? My Father suffered from Paranoid Personality Disorder, and he mistook my IED for a lack of respect and an absence of values. He was always taking TV away, spanking me, and even slapping me once because "You didn't respect me". He wanted to be a good Father, but his constantly aggressive communication style, outbursts around the house, and punishments, plus lack of empathy for my disorder, drove me into a fantasy world and a kind of early teen(13)depression(well, there were other factors as well).