Nurturing Self-Discipline in Explosive Children

My son has very little tolerance for frustration and melts down or tantrums anytime I try to say no to him. It has always been this way but lately I feel like I am walking on eggshells. Help!

Shondra, IL

Child looking very angry and frustrated

Shondra, It can be difficult to set limits and consequences with children who have difficulty regulating their emotions. All kids go through stages where they push our buttons and make setting limits and consequences difficult. Some kids, however, are “wired differently.” For these kids, self-regulation can be a real, ongoing challenge. This means that they don’t choose to be rigid, defiant, or angry, their brains simply need a lot of extra practice regulating their powerful emotions.

I wrote a post last year describing a model for setting limits with explosive kids. It involves an image of a cliff and the universal signs of red, yellow, and green. Check it out if you would like to read more about how it works and let me know if it is helpful at all.

Here are some additional suggestions for setting limits with a child who struggles with self-regulation.

  1. Identify “red, yellow, green” behaviors so that you know in advance where you want to put your energy.
  2. Learn which triggers send your child or teen over the cliff of uncontrollable behavior.
  3. Have diversions lined up in case your child starts to head towards the cliff.
  4. Give your child the words to say to express his emotions. Say, “It looks like you are feeling very frustrated. It can be frustrating to have to stop playing video games.”
  5. If you see your child start heading towards “the cliff,” practice strategies for calming down together. “We are going to take five deep breaths together and calm down our bodies.”
  6. Establish eye contact with your child and get to their level when you want to get his attention or cooperation.
  7. Provide frequent and immediate rewards for good behavior. “Thank you for taking out the garbage,” for example.
  8. Try to have the positive statements outnumber the negative.
  9. Identify your child’s strengths and play to them.
  10. Break directions into small steps. For example, say “We’re going to clean up the family room for company. Let’s start by putting away the LEGOs.” When they LEGOs are away, say, “Good. Now let’s collect the books and put them on the shelf.”
  11. Try using humor and touch to get your child’s attention.
  12. Give choices rather than commands. Say “What do you want to do first, wash your face or brush your teeth?”
  13. Try not to nag. Say what you need to say and let it go.
  14. Instead of “time outs,” insist that your child take some “quiet time.” It is the thing but the message is different.
  15. Avoid setting yourself up for battles. For example, if you have to leave the house in twenty minutes, don’t let your child watch a video that lasts thirty minutes.
  16. Don’t spank children with regulation challenges. It doesn’t work well with any kids, but it can ignite defiance in explosive children.
  17. Try not to spring sudden changes. Let them know in advance when change is going to happen. Say, “It will be time to go home in ten minutes,” instead of “It is time to go now.”
  18. Avoid assigning chores that she cannot do. Pick jobs that are challenging but that you know she can do so that you can give her legitimate praise.
  19. Take a break if you need to and find support from friends or professionals if needed. Parenting children with difficulty regulating their emotions is hard work.
  20. Identify your own emotional triggers and come up with a plan if you find yourself heading towards “the cliff.”