The Warning Signs of Explosive Childhood Rage
The difference between a temper tantrum and a rage is in the eye of the beholder. But presumably, because this is not well-defined, there are different extremes of behavior that one could exhibit when one is upset that I suppose some people could think of as the difference between a temper outburst and a rage. It's not a distinction I think quite frankly is worth making. Because whether a kid is screaming at us, or swearing at us or hitting us, or punching a hole in a wall, or holding his breath and turning red, irrespective of severity, the child is letting us know something is getting in his way and we need to figure out what that something is and help him with it.
What can you do to help a child in a tantrum or rage?
The first thing you do is you get the right lenses on. Instead of, as we have historically done, seeing the behavior as attention seeking, manipulative, coercive, unmotivated, we now recognize the kids who are exhibiting those behaviors are lacking the skills to respond to frustration in a manner that's more adaptive. Responding to frustration adaptively requires skills. If you don't have those skills, you're going to scream, hit, kick, swear, throw, bite, bang your head, something. So the first thing we've got to do is make sure the adults in the kid's life have the right lenses on.
Often, adults describe the behavior of these kids as if they're “always challenging.” These kids are never “always challenging.” They are challenging under specific conditions that I call unsolved problems. What conditions cause challenging behavior? Conditions in which the skills the kids are lacking are demanded by the environment. If the environment is not demanding skills a kid is lacking, he's not going to be challenging at that moment. If the environment is demanding skills that a kid is lacking, we've greatly increased the likelihood of a challenging episode.
Basically there are two ways to solve a problem with a kid. One I call Plan A, the other I call Plan B. Plan A is when you're solving the problem unilaterally, through imposition of adult will, usually with adult-imposed consequences attached. The best way to get a challenging kid to exhibit challenging behavior is to do Plan A.
What I teach people how to do is Plan B—that's when you're solving problems collaboratively. This involves gathering information about what the kid's concern or perspective is on the unsolved problem you're talking to them about. Then, letting a kid know your perspective on that unsolved problem. And then, working toward solutions that address the concerns of both parties.
It probably is more common in boys than girls. But the reality is that I've never loved the title The Explosive Child because it leaves out a very important group: implosive kids. But I find that imploders and exploders are imploding and exploding for the same reasons—lagging skills, unsolved problems.
What's the difference between an explosive child and an implosive child?
Imploders become anxious or depressed or things like that. Exploders, we know what they do. But I don't see any of those behaviors as being different from each other. Kids who are anxious are lacking the skills not to be anxious. Kids who are irritable are lacking the skills not to be irritable. And both anxiety and irritability, just like exploding, are potential responses to unsolved problems.
How common is it for children to have severe rage problems?
I'm not sure that I would be able to define severe, because what severe usually means is how severe a kid's behavior is in response to those unsolved problems. But here's the interesting thing: Human beings throw temper tantrums. And when do most human beings throw temper tantrums—adults included? When they are lacking the skills to respond to whatever frustration has been set upon them. This is true of everybody. The question is more of frequency and intensity and severity. And so what percent of kids are having bona fide difficulty dealing with frustration so it's pretty noticeable? I'd peg it at around 10 percent.
That's very subjective. I know you're looking for precise answers, but I'm not sure there are precise answers. I think a parent should seek help when they feel that their child's level of frustration and the behavior their child is exhibiting is of concern to them and goes beyond what they can do to handle it well. I'm not sure that it helps anybody to say, "Here's when you should be concerned," because everyone has their own threshold. You should be concerned when you're concerned. You should seek out help when you feel like you need help.
What is the youngest age at which Plan B—the collaborative method—can start to show results?
Even when a child is born, the role of the adult in the child's life is to figure out what the child is trying to communicate when they're unhappy or frustrated and try to be responsive to that. Now, as children develop communication skills they are able to be involved in that process with words, and that makes it a little bit easier, but I think you are collaborating in some respects with your child in infancy. Because even in infancy kids are communicating to us, and even in infancy we are trying to be responsive to what they are communicating. And even in infancy we're trying to make sure the way we're responding addresses whatever's getting in their way. They're not able to use words yet, but they are communicating.
Read how one family has overcome their son's violent rage.