The Explosive Child

Just when I think I am wasting just a little too much time online, trying to find answers that don’t exist to help me understand my child, I get lucky and stumble upon a goldmine of information.

I know my 5 year old very bright, highly sensitive daughter is selectively mute in her community preschool.  I know that aside from not speaking in certain social settings due to anxiety and fear of social embarrassment, there are other associated behaviors, such as negativism and oppositional behavior, and temper tantrums, and meltdowns particularly at home.

What I haven’t been able to understand is why.  In May of 2008 the neuropsychologist I took my daughter to had given me the diagnoses of neurodevelopmental delay in a specific area of cognitive functioning – her limbic system of her brain.  There were specific neuropsychological tests that she took that helped pinpoint the right area.  These were targeted by certain activities of the McCarthy Scales of Children’s abilities and answering questions from the NEPSY test.

Over the summer, things improved dramatically enough so that I didn’t think I’d need to start the therapies suggested by the neuropsych.  There were few meltdowns, barely any oppositional behavior, and an overall happier child.  We spent lots of time at the park and outside.  It was that way for 2.5 months, until school began again.

I have heard of the book, The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene before, but really didn’t know if it would apply to my five year old, because I thought the book was for more extreme cases of oppositional behavior (you know, the kind where kicking and hitting were more of a problem).  I didn’t realize that there was a lot of things to apply to a child like mine, where anxiety was a problem at school, and emotional meltdowns, lots of tears, minor (but very annoying) outbursts of anger was happening not just once a day but multiple times a day.

A friend of mine sent me this link to a care-giver handout that accompanies the EC book.

It goes a long way to help me understand why my daughter is having so many emotional upsets lately. Her neuropsych did explain to us that she did have a neurodevelopmental delay in the area of the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain), but I really didn’t understand what all that entailed. This handout really explains what’s going on, particularly under the heading Emotion Regulation Skills and Cognitive Flexibility Skills.

“Because of a variety of factors, most of these children lack the crucial cognitive skills that are essential to handling frustration and demands for flexibility and adaptability, or have significant difficulty applying them when they are most needed.”

This refers to the cognitive skills one uses to control, modulate and regulate emotions, outside of the context of frustration. It is important to note that this is different from separation of affect (our ability to put feelings aside so we can think clearly in the midst of frustration).

What do we see with children who have difficulty in this domain: chronic grouchiness, irritability, fatigue, anxiety and agitation. These chronic states make dealing with frustration difficult. These children can often find the energy to look good in certain situations, only to fall apart later.


Children who have difficulty in this area are wired in rigid, black and white ways. They are literal and concrete in their thinking and see things as their way or the highway. They often adhere to predictable routines/rigid/inflexible rules in order to feel ok. They become totally lost when things don’t go just as they expected or the way they went the last time. Although they may be very bright verbally, they have poor skills when it comes to handling the “grays” of the world.

Children who demonstrate these difficulties typically have great difficulty in the social arena. There is no area that requires the ability to see the “gray” more than social situations.”


My daughter is just like this above. I know now that I can’t ever say we are going to do something fun unless I’m 100% positive we are going to be able to do it. Otherwise she really feels I broke my promise. The way I see it, she IS inflexible at times, and can’t roll with the changes. It’s also why I have to be careful what I tell her, otherwise she will believe it to be written in stone just because I said it.

Anyway, I just had to share my discovery. I plan on getting the book the Explosive Child from the library. For now, I printed the pages out to help my husband and myself understand her meltdowns better.

On a positive note, I took her with me when I got her younger sister evaluated for speech issues at the preschool screening (and this was also after I found that link and read the information). She was at first happy to see that Ms B, the teacher’s aide in class, was there. But then my 5 year old became angry that her younger sister E got to spend a lot of time at Ms B’s table, and she just had to sit there and watch. I thought she was going to have a meltdown right there, but I was able to talk her through a little bit of her feelings, and we avoided a major problem. She still complained a little bit, but she was able to use her words and we were able to solve the problem rather than have her throw a fit. She was feeling happier after I suggested she give a picture she drew with crayons to Ms B.

It’s a lot harder than it seems to actually help her through the emotional upsets. Anger is trickier for me to handle than sadness, because I can always hug the sadness away and let her cry in my lap. But anger is harder, because I can’t just hug it to make her feel better. I actually have to try and allow her to have her feelings, make sure she isn’t disruptive while having them, and actually try to solve the problem so that the situation is defused. Especially in a situation where I really can’t leave the premises, like yesterday. If I were to leave the building, E would have been freaking out. Fortunately, things resolved to her and my satisfaction. It’s probably the first time I actually solved her problem without resorting to leaving a situation or making things worse. That handout actually helped me stay able to focus on finding a solution she could live with and not get upset myself with not knowing what to do.

So anyway, I just thought I’d update and share what I learned. Maybe it would help others too.

This entry was posted in emotion coaching, explosive child, highly sensitive child, selective mutism, spd and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Explosive Child

  1. Deb says:

    Wow…yours is the first story I could really relate to with my child. My daughter is 8 and gifted, esp. in reading. We like to say she was born kicking. With two obstinate parents, we thought we knew what we were getting ourselves into. But we had no idea.

    After a lot of discussion, we decided to go ahead and let her skip a grade, despite her “issues.” Overall, I still think it was the best option, but of course, I will always second guess. It’s what we moms do, right??

    Some things have gotten better over time, but as she gets better and better at reading, she gets more and more frustrated about any other area that she doesn’t grasp quite as quickly. In fact, any source of frustration is met by an immediate explosion, so any chore we ask her to do, any new addition to the routine, pretty much anything that she doesn’t want to do, is met by a negative reaction. But right after she reacts, she starts calling herself stupid for not being able to control herself. Sometimes she event hits herself or bangs her head against the wall–which of course gets her more upset and more agitated. It’s incredibly frustrating to US as parents, and of course, so very hard to watch when we KNOW that our child is so talented and amazing if she would just believe in herself. As you said, the sadness is the hardest of all to bear.

    We have tried boosting her self-esteem through various methods, and we’ve read all the books. Pubishment doesn’t work at all, and reward has spotty success. We’ve also tried counseling, which seemed to helped a bit, but that requires a rational response, and she is not rational in her behavior when she’s upset. So we have started down a path of OT for sensory processing disorder, but while I can see the connection, I’m not completely convinced about the therapy’s potential. But then we have just started and I need to be patient. We are also now seeing a behavioral pediatrician to try to rule out any organic causes for our problems.

    In short, we are desperate. Our daughter’s tantrums are definitely causing problems in our home life and our marriage. We love and admire our daughter so much, and the good days are simply golden–but unfortunately, too few and far between.

    We too read The Explosive Child and found it helpful, but we–especially my husband–are having a hard time getting on board with the techniques. We are both “gray” people and have trouble relating to our “black and white” child. After reading your blog and the handout, I plan to revisit the book, though.

    Thanks for sharing your situation and helping me think through ours. I look forward to hearing more about how you are managing.

  2. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Deb – I think (and this is just my opinion), that when therapies are started later in the child’s life, it might take LONGER to see results, but only because the child has some ingrained habits that will need to be unlearned.

    Have you sought family counseling with a therapist who is trained in gifted issues? It seems to me that it would help having someone to help support you and she through some of the rough spots.

    Because dd2 did go to an early intervention preschool, I was able to talk with her teacher and the social worker at school to help give me ideas of how to work with her.

    I created a children’s problem solving binder for her, using social stories. It’s here:

    We use the binder to talk about the strong emotions she has when she is not upset (because no learning will happen then).

    I think, for a child your daughter’s age, you might find some really helpful information regarding emotions here: (which covers a multitude of feelings) and this one, dealing with conflict resolution –

    I think, especially for a gifted child with emotional regulation issues, it’s incredibly important for the child to know that they can express their feelings, but that they need to express them safely.

    Happy is not the only acceptable emotion, but in expressing frustration, anger, and other negative emotions, there should be some mutually agreed upon safe outlet for them. Usually physical exercise of some sort disperses some of the negative energy.

    But even before those emotions reach critical mass, if you teach her to recognize the negative emotions when they are small, it’s easier to handle them before they spiral out of control. Same goes for mom and dad too.

    When I validate dd’s feelings when she is a little grumbly, or pick her up, or hold her/hug her and am sympathetic towards when she’s starting to get upset, I can head off the downward spiral of emotional outpouring. I’m not always able to do that, especially when she has days where everything seems to go wrong for her…but it’s worlds better than it used to be.

  3. Deb says:

    Your binder idea is amazing! S’s school counselor has been an incredible ally over the years by giving S some strategies for putting words to emotions and for establishing and keeping friendships.

    Early on, we recognized that part of the reason S was crying so much as a baby was because she was trying to communicate. When we introduced some simple sign language, it got a bit better. I think the emotional problems are similar–all of her reading is presenting emotional issues that, developmentally, has is not yet wired to handle. I sort of see it as analogous to computer software that is way more powerful than the hardware can handle.

    It is definitely true that her ingrained habits are our adversaries now. It was our family counselor who suggested The Explosive Child last summer. I’ve been rereading it and reevaluating our current situation using those techniques. I wish we had latched on to that counselor earlier, but it wasn’t until our child was identified as gifted and we started to research it that we really had an understanding of the true complexity of what we were dealing with. Before then, we knew she was smart, but didn’t have a frame of reference, and had thought she was “spirited” and “intense” and that we were failing when the usual techniques to set limits, etc., didn’t work. Greene’s book really does come closer to nailing the problem on the head than we’ve ever come before. We have just started with an OT and a behavioral pediatrician to work on her sensory integration issues and give us some strategies for dealing with anxiety and emotional modulation.

    I agree wholeheartedly that trying to nip the negative emotion in the bud is our primary goal. So far, she seems to have problems interpreting signals from her body that she is getting hungry or tired or anxious (and thus more prone to frustration), but I think she’s getting better at is as we talk about it. For one thing, she’s tolerating talking about it more, which is a good sign. I do wish we’d had a better handle on all this before she tried to tackle multiplication tables, though.

    I’m coming to realize that, smart as she is, she has created a whole series of adaptive avoidance behaviors to try to help herself. Unfortunately, this has created other problems. For example, defiantly avoiding doing ALL homework when only certain parts are frustrating. But now that we have identified this behavior, we can start to dismantle it.

    My daughter has been lucky to have wonderful teachers and an amazing school counselor to provide her with an understanding atmosphere and some solid strategies to use to curb her frustration. I can just see how a child like this with less of a support network could come to be completely alienated from school, and from the world. In the past, she would have been beaten for her wanton misbehavior, and that precious spirit broken. That very spirit is what is going to get her through all this, and I’m thankful that we found resources to help before it was too late.

    When I really stop and reflect on the last eight years and flip through my journals, I can see how far we really have come, and I’m proud of our continuing efforts to understand and appreciate this complicated, rainforest mind. But her dad and I are limited by our own longstanding “issues” of being gifted without that support network. After 40+ years, we’ve figured out our own adaptive behaviors–some good, some bad. Acknowledging those is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

    I’m much more patient than I ever thought I could be, but I have a ways to go in recognizing that although the similarities are remarkable, my child is not wired exactly like I was, and I have to approach teaching in a different way. It’s an extraordinary learning experience.

    Again, thank you so much for sharing all of your experience and knowledge with us, and for tolerating my ridiculously longwinded posts!

  4. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Deb – I really admire your willingness to work on this. I commend you for it, because I know it’s not easy. It takes a LOT of hard work to and patience to work on this. And, it takes a lot of strength to remain neutral through it. I know that I’m a highly sensitive gifted mom too, and my daughter’s whines and wails cut through me at times and it’s really like nails on a blackboard. If I was exhausted, or tired, or had a series of bad days, I would really lose ground. I used to struggle a lot more before I had outlets to diffuse some of my own frustrations and get support from others (like this blog!).

    As far as body signals for eating goes, the best I could suggest is making sure she has plenty of protein and complex carbs. There is a link between giftedness and reactive hypoglycemia. I haven’t been able to have her checked for it (because the standard used to be a 5 hr glucose tolerance test, though now they suggest testing for blood sugar when a person shows behavioral changes).

    You can read about giftedness and reactive hypoglycemia in James T. Webb’s Misdiagnosis and dual diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults.

    Here is the excerpt from google books

    About 6% of highly gifted children, especially if they are slender, have reactive hypoglycemia.

    K is the only child of mine who is slender and has behavioral changes like Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde, the other two are more filled out. And she is reading at a second grade level and she’s not even in kindergarten yet. So, yeah, I think for her, there is a link.

    I wish you the very best in your journey to help your daughter. I agree, in another time, our daughters would be lost and would probably learn very dysfunctional coping strategies. We offer them a better future because we care enough to research what is going to have the best long term outcome.

    Take care and always feel free to share as much or as little as you like, because it helps us to know we are not alone in our struggles.

  5. Deb J says:

    The behavioral pediatrician ordered a series of tests, which ruled out allergies, thyroid, or other health issues. She did find a low blood sugar, which of course didn’t surprise us in the slightest, and we will be going back for further testing. Your idea about reactive glycemia is intriguing, and I really need to get a journal going.

    It’s so incredibly frustrating that even at age 8, I can’t seem to get her to take responsibility for her own body and try to head off some of these issues by simply eating a bit of something. Her body craves sugar, while I’m trying to push protein. I try to give her a little sugar, in the form of apple juice or a cookie, to tide her over, but she inevitably wants more and a tantrum ensues. It’s crazy-making and exhausting!

    Last night, she had a sleepover with a parent who just didn’t understand her issues. She held it together for almost 24 hours and when I picked her up, I received the lava that had built to that point. It’s such an emotional roller coaster, for all of us!

    I just know all this is related to the giftedness in a variety of ways. Our bodies are so complex!

    Thank you most of all for listening and sharing your own experiences that have helped tremendously.

  6. raisingsmartgirls says:

    I completely agree, our bodies are incredibly complex and UNIQUE. I think the hypoglycemia issues can be helped with slight tweaking.

    Hmmm…troubleshooting time.

    Having no allergies makes it much better.

    Have you thought about making homemade treats that have both complex carbs and protein in them?

    Make cookies/muffins from scratch and whatever amount the flour calls for, substitute half of it for whole wheat flour.

    I have a “toddler muffin” recipe that my older girls love

    Toddler Muffins

    3/4 c. applesauce
    1/2 c. brown sugar
    1 egg
    1/4 c. veg. oil
    1 tbsp blackstrap molasses (optional, tends to darken the muffin and make it taste less sweet, but it is high in iron)
    1 c. grated carrots
    1 c. grated zucchini (you can puree the veggies so the kids won’t be turned off by orange & green chunks!)
    1 c. whole-wheat flour
    3/4 c. all-purpose flour
    2 tsp. baking powder
    1 tsp. cinnamon
    1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
    1/2 tsp. salt

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, whisk oil & sugar. Beat in egg & applesauce. Stir in carrots & zucchini. In another bowl, whisk flours, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg & salt. Fold dry into wet, until just mixed. Grease muffin tray. Spoon in to tops of cups. Bake 18 – 20 minutes.

    Fruit smoothies – you can make with frozen blueberries/raspberries/strawberries. Use vanilla yogurt (or plain, but it is more tart) and a little milk or orange juice. You can add 1 scoop whey protein powder to it and wheat germ. Experiment with the amounts – I usually just throw stuff in until it’s how we like it. It can be frozen and eaten like ice cream.

    Protein pancakes – 1 cup whole wheat pancake mix and 1/2 c of uncooked oatmeal (you can chop finer or blend if you like). Add 1 scoop whey protein powder. Add wheat germ to it if you’d like. Check the box of pancake mix to see if you need to add eggs or oil (some do, some don’t). You may have to adjust the amount of liquid – whey protein tends to make the pancake mix a little runny, but the oats and wheat germ might compensate for that. Make them on Sunday and make a double batch of pancakes. Freeze the leftover pancakes and toast them (or microwave them) for breakfast during the week. You can top with blueberries and raspberries.

    I’m thinking I’m going to start experimenting with some recipes to fortify them for the reactive hypoglycemic.

    Misc snack ideas
    Trail Mix – m&ms, with peanuts, raisins, almonds (sweet and protein).

    cheese chunks and crackers

    cottage cheese and pineapple

    bananas/strawberries/blueberries and yogurt

    carrots and peanut butter

    apples and peanut butter

    peanut butter on toast for breakfast – mmm, warm gooey peanut butteryness.

  7. Heather says:

    I have started baking with buckwheat flour. It is really high in protein, fibre, and iron and I find it one of the only ways to get protein into my son – make muffins/ cookies with it, yogurt and milk instead of oil, and with some dried fruit – ready to roll. It’s been my life-saver.

  8. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Ooh, that sounds yummy.

    I’ll have to give that a try.

    Thanks Heather,


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