The Inflexible Child’s “Vapor Lock”

In the last blog, we ended with two important guidelines for adults relating to inflexible-explosive children. The adult needs to maintain a calm voice while repeating instructions and be willing to negotiate with the child. Failure to do these two actions will most likely cause mutual escalation resulting in painful meltdowns.

When an adult makes a request or demand of the inflexible child, the child experiences immediate inner tension with an increase of adrenaline and cardiovascular arousal. Clinicians refer to this arousal state as the “fight-flight” response which is often manifested by angry reactions.  If the interactional conflict between the adult and child increases, the child enters into a “vapor lock” phase, in which the intensity of negative emotion becomes overwhelming and the precortex and frontal lobes of the brain functioning are compromised. Thus, the child feels emotionally stuck, tense, is unable to think clearly and is flooded with negative affect. The reasoning capacity is short circuited. The child needs to cool down before he or she can make a rational choice.

When the child is experiencing “vapor lock”, the most effective strategy for the adult is to calmly acknowledge the child’s feelings. For example, “I know you are upset right now. Take a little time to calm down and breathe deeply. Prepare to make a change so you can later do what I ask you to do.”  The adult should be directly present with the child, make eye contact and perhaps gently touch the child affirmatively.  The most important task in that moment is to help the child re-balance emotionally and prevent escalation toward meltdown. At that point of “vapor lock”, the primary goal is not for the child to obey your request, but to find a way to self-soothe and reduce the escalating tension. This may take a few minutes.  The adult and child are at a crossroads. If the adult becomes angry, yells, demands or threatens, the child will most likely enter meltdown, when the emotional brain “hijacks” the rational brain and rage erupts.

At the crossroads, the adult helps the child to calm down and allows time for the child to make the transition.  The child needs to feel some self-control and emotional security before being able to make an acceptable choice.  The adult can then offer two options regarding the original request.  For example, “Would you rather do “X” or “Y” at this time?”  The adult has to be mature enough to accept some compromise in this situation. The child is not likely to fully comply initially until the emotional arousal phase has been effectively reduced.

Remember, in most cases, the child is not rebelling or trying to defeat the adult. The child’s refusal to comply is correlated with the internal emotional state. Thus, if the adult stays calm, helps the child self-soothe, and verbalizes two options, the child will usually comply and a meltdown can be prevented. The adult can suggest a compromise and discuss together until the child makes a decision.  This process is inconvenient and time consuming, but in the end, both adult and child experience successful outcomes.

A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. (Proverbs 15:1, NLT)

A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even tempered. (Proverbs 17:27, NLT)

In the next blog, I will discuss further parental interventions for the inflexible-non-compliant child and the use of logical consequences.

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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.