Parenting an Inflexible-Explosive Child

Parenting an inflexible-explosive child can be very frustrating and exhausting.

Consider the following example. The family consists of three elementary age children with both parents. The children are doing their own thing in play when Mother calls them for supper.  Two of the children leave their activities and go to wash hands; one does it with some verbal complaining.  The inflexible child ignores mother’s request and continues playing with Legos.  Mother calls the child by name; raises her voice a decibel and repeats the command.  The inflexible child yells back, “I’m coming” but does not move and continues to play.  After several minutes, Mother comes to the child, and loudly commands immediate action with a threat of punishment.  The child screams back, “Alright.  I’ll be there but I got to put this together!” and remains with the Legos.  The child and Mother are locked into a power struggle, both escalating in anger toward a meltdown and explosion of rage.

This type of scenario can occur several times a week or on a daily basis.

Psychologists have identified that the executive functioning skills located in the precortex and frontal lobes of the brain are compromised in inflexible children.  (Russell Barkley; Daniel Connor; Ross Greene).  The child’s ability to identify and label feelings is very limited. The capacity for delayed gratification is poor. The child can’t comprehend cause-effect consequences nor use effective problem solving in choosing options. Such children experience emotional dysregulation and quickly escalate from frustration to rage.  One psychologist uses a metaphor to describe the inflexible child as “cognitive wheelchair”.  (Greene)  Unfortunately, these children often get labeled as “bad”.  Adults falsely conclude that such children are intentionally trying to humiliate parents and teachers.

In the example above, the inflexible child is intently focused on completing the Lego pieces, and cannot let go.  The call to supper is an intrusion and the child lacks the normal flexibility to adapt in the situation. If the parent raises her voice or threatens punishment, the interaction becomes tense. The inflexibility of the child and the inflexibility of the parent results in a meltdown, which is emotionally painful for everyone. Punishing the child after things cool down is not effective. The challenge for caretakers is to intervene before the escalation and to help the child make a wise choice. This approach requires two actions on the parent’s part:

  1. It is crucial that the parent maintain a calm, even voice. Yelling almost always makes things worse and escalates toward a meltdown.  Thus the words of Proverbs 15:1:  “A gentle answer turns away wrath; but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
  2. Be willing to compromise and negotiate. Anticipate that the child will seldom comply immediately to demand, and needs to be presented with simple reasonable options.  Consider the words of the Proverb and be open to negotiating with your child:  “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out.” Proverbs 18:15.

In my next blog, I will discuss some specific strategies for effectively parenting inflexible children. Remember, the parent’s attitude is vital in setting the tone for reasonable problem solving with the child.

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Dr. David R. Leaman

Dr. David R. Leaman is a licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania and Maryland. He had been in private practice in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania 1981-2013. Dr. Leaman is a frequent lecturer and professional trainer, nationally and internationally. He conducts workshops and seminars on a variety of mental health issues.

Book CoverDr. Leaman is the author of numerous professional articles as well as two books -- Making Decisions: A Guide For Couples; and MY CHILD IS ANGRY...AND SO AM I: Guiding Youth in Expressing Anger Constructively.

Using humor and cogent illustrations, Dr. Leaman presents vital principles for experiencing an emotionally healthy life.  Whether listening to Dr. Leaman as an event speaker, or attending one of his in-depth training seminars, you will enjoy learning about yourself in a gentle way and developing valuable insights for life.

Dr. Leaman and his wife, Joyce, are a dynamic counseling duo. They have been creating and leading family seminars and marriage enrichment weekends for over 35 years. Visit Dr. Leaman's website for more information.