Parenting Corner: Navigating Explosive Behaviours in Children: A Parent's Guide

Written by Susi King, Te Whai Occupational Therapist  

Parenting is a journey filled with joy, challenges, and moments that test our patience. A common challenge many parents face these days is managing explosive behaviours and meltdowns, particularly at this stage of the term when the novelty of the new school year is wearing off, and fatigue starts to set in. Persistent explosive behaviours and meltdowns can occur for a number of reasons and they can leave both parents and children feeling overwhelmed. Here we discuss some of those common reasons, direct you to some resources for more information and suggest  some strategies and resources for navigating these situations.

Is it Sensory? 
Oftentimes sensory sensitivities and processing difficulties contribute to a child's BIG reactions and the common tendency to “fall apart” especially before or after school, or situations which are hard for them. When delving into the realm of sensory sensitivities, it's crucial to understand your child's unique sensory profile, what their sensory preferences and sensitivities are, along with their thresholds for gaining enough stimulation or becoming overwhelmed. We also need to understand  what helps sooth and regulate their nervous system.  Just like adults can feel drained or overwhelmed after a hectic busy, noisy, unpredictable day, or bored after a day of sitting in traffic or meetings, our children can feel either underwhelmed or overwhelmed by the sensory input of everyday life – from noisy classrooms to sitting on the mat,  busy playgrounds, life with siblings, long car rides or  noisy, colourful, flashing screens. Children are highly exposed to sensory input in our modern world and this has a big impact on their developing nervous systems. They may end overwhelmed and overstimulated or craving  and wanting more or not being satiated in certain areas whilst feeling overstimulated in others. Effective sensory processing involves making sense of multiple pieces of sensory information coming in through multiple sensory channels at the same time, similar to an orchestra playing, and without proper coordination, it can resemble a sensory traffic jam rather than a symphony.  When we add to this the cognitive load of learning new things- like reading and writing, sustained  attention, following instructions, managing social interactions, not being in control of their body and making sense of all the things that have happened in their day- we have a recipe for explosive behaviours. The tricky job for parents and teachers is understanding each person's unique sensory needs (including our own) and being able to implement strategies that help everyone to feel adequately regulated & stimulated, anticipate situations that might trigger overstimulation and identify strategies that can help to support self-soothing and regulation. 

By gaining a deeper understanding of sensory-seeking and sensory-avoiding behaviours, as well as identifying triggers, parents can provide more effective support to help their children regulate their emotions

Do THEY have the skills?
Does your child have the skills they need to manage the situation or  regulate their emotions? Majority of the time children will do well if they can. This philosophy comes from  Ross  Greene, author of  "The Explosive Child". Greene wants adults to rethink the way they support children who struggle with their behaviour. He offers two reasons for why children behave in unexpected ways:

  • Lagging skills

  • Unsolved problems

Lagging skills are grouped into 5 areas: executive function (e.g. limited working memory, poor impulse control), emotion regulation (e.g. emotional reactivity, chronic irritability and/or anxiety), language (e.g. limited expressive language, difficulty with language processing), and social skills (e.g. poor perception of social cues, difficulty starting conversations). Greene says about 80 percent of problem behaviours at school are due to academic struggles and the rest are related to social inadequacies, which can lead to frustration and outbursts. Greene suggests that traditional disciplinary approaches may not be effective in addressing explosive behaviours, because kids need the support to develop the skills necessary to manage their behaviours. Instead, he advocates for collaborative problem-solving and empathy to help children develop these necessary skills. 

Are their brains integrated? Understanding upstairs brain and downstair brain operation: 

Our children's brains are still a work in progress; they're not fully developed yet. So, it's no surprise that their behaviour isn't always governed by reason and logic. OUr brains are made up of two hemispheres – the logical, rational "upstairs brain" and the emotional, reactive "downstairs brain". When behaviour management strategies rely heavily on language, rules  or logic they may not be effective if the child is operating primarily from the emotional, reactive "downstairs brain." This is because the downstairs brain, responsible for processing emotions and instinctual reactions, can override the logical brain during moments of stress or intense emotion. In such instances, attempting to reason with or lecture the child may only escalate the situation further, as their emotional brain is in control.

Instead, effective strategies should aim to engage both the upstairs and downstairs brains simultaneously. This can be achieved through approaches that incorporate sensory experiences, emotional validation, and non-verbal communication. For instance, using visual aids, providing comfort through touch, or using simple, concrete language can help the child feel understood and supported, thus allowing their logical brain to come back online more effectively.

Its also important to foster a calm and supportive environment for helping the child transition from their emotional brain to their logical brain. This involves recognizing and validating the child's emotions, providing opportunities for self-regulation through techniques like deep breathing or mindfulness, and maintaining a connection with the child through empathy and understanding. By addressing the needs of both the emotional and logical brains, parents can help their child navigate challenging behaviours more effectively and promote healthy emotional development.

"The Whole-Brain Child" by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson offer practical strategies based on neuroscience to help parents navigate challenging behaviours. It emphasises the importance of integrating the different parts of the brain to promote emotional regulation and resilience in children. By understanding how the brain works, parents can implement strategies that promote healthy development and address explosive behaviours effectively.

Strategies and  Tips: 

When faced with after-school meltdowns or other explosive behaviours, it's essential for parents to remain calm and approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Here are three tips to help parents manage these challenging moments:

  • Understanding Sensory Needs: Recognize that sensory processing plays a significant role in your child's behaviour. Take the time to understand your child's sensory profile – their sensitivities, preferences, and thresholds. Observe what sensory inputs trigger meltdowns and what helps your child self-regulate. Create a sensory-friendly environment at home and school, minimising triggers and providing tools like movement, deep pressure, breathing games and exercises, fidget toys or noise-cancelling headphones.

  • Manage Your Own Sensory Processing: As a parent, managing your own sensory needs is crucial. Stay attuned to your own sensory sensitivities and stressors, especially during high-tension moments. Practice self-regulation techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness to stay calm and composed when faced with explosive behaviours. Remember, your own regulation sets the tone for how you can support your child.

  • Empower Your Child with Tools: Equip your child with strategies to manage their sensory needs and emotions. Teach them techniques like deep breathing exercises or taking sensory breaks when feeling overwhelmed. Encourage open communication about how they're feeling and what helps them feel better. By empowering your child with tools and coping mechanisms, you're fostering independence and resilience.

  • Validate Emotions: Acknowledge and validate your child's feelings, even if you don't agree with their behaviour. Let them know that it's okay to feel angry, frustrated, or upset, but also remind them of appropriate ways to express these emotions.

  • Collaborative Problem-Solving: Instead of resorting to punishment or power struggles, involve your child in finding solutions to the underlying issues. Take the time to listen to their perspective and work together to come up with strategies that address their needs while also respecting boundaries.

  • Create a Calm/Safe  Environment: Identify triggers that may contribute to your child's explosive behaviours and create a supportive environment that minimises these triggers. This could include establishing consistent routines, using visual aids for memory, providing sensory-friendly spaces, playing games that encourage connection & fun and teaching relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness exercises.

Want to know more? Further Reading

Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel and Nancy Peske

Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals by Angie Voss

The Explosive Child by Ross Greene

The Whole Brain Child by by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson 

The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz

No Longer A Secret by Lucy Jane Miller