It’s been a long, hot day and you’ve finally arrived back home with the kids. You make a simple request, like please put your school bag away, or move your shoes out of the hallway, and you are met with epic defiance. Anger, yelling, screaming, tears. Maybe even physical aggression.
Explosive behaviour is certainly not uncommon in our kids and even our teenagers. But it can make us feel helpless as parents.
So what is behind explosive behaviour? And what can we do to help manage it?
What causes explosive behaviour?
Nobody is perfect, and we all experience tough days. Sometimes, we feel angry – and sometimes those emotions take over. When that happens we might find that we’re expressing our anger in less-than-ideal ways. As much as we may not like to admit it, this applies to all of us – adults and children.
As we progress into adulthood most of us learn how to manage our anger in healthier ways. This is because our brains have developed the ability to control our reactions to our emotions. But our kids are still operating from their ‘emotional brains’ or limbic system. This means that their responses to stressors are expressed as feelings – and sometimes massive ones.
In fact, the ‘thinking brain’ or prefrontal cortex (the one that lets us better control our emotions) doesn’t start to develop until about the age of five to seven and doesn’t fully develop until a person is in their 20s. This is when we begin to understand and interpret emotions and learn how to reason, make decisions and problem solve.
Dr Dan Siegel uses the concept of the hand model of the brain to explain explosive behaviour. When we ‘flip our lids’, the thinking brain essentially goes offline, and is no longer connected to the emotional brain or brain stem.
This means that emotions take over and run the show, resulting in explosive behaviour and outbursts. For young people whose prefrontal cortex isn’t well developed yet, this can be particularly problematic.
How you can manage it
If anyone is at risk of getting hurt or has been hurt, you have to manage this first. For example, if your child has physically hurt his or her sibling in a rage, check in on the hurt child first to make sure they are OK and safe. If someone is at risk of being hurt, move them to safety as soon as possible, before dealing with the angry child.
While your first reaction to your child’s explosive behaviour may be to fly off the handle, it’s really important to bring calm to the chaos. Meeting anger with anger will not help the situation, but likely only inflame it.
This is also not the time for logic and reasoning. Focus on connection. Helping your child to feel understood and heard may be the best way to quell their explosive behaviour. Show your child that you are not fearful of their big emotions and you still love them, no matter what.
Once everybody has calmed down and the tension has subsided, have a chat to your little person and try to understand more about what may be at the root of their outbursts. Maybe they’re struggling at school. Maybe they’ve had friendship clashes. Or maybe they’re not getting enough sleep. It’s wise to dig deeper into how they’re feeling so you can check in on their mental health.
Once you understand what’s going on, help them to brainstorm some ideas to manage the issue. Feeling like things are being solved, or there are some actions to do, that can really help. They you can also chat about alternative ways they can use to express their anger next time. Reinforce that feeling angry is OK, but explosive behaviour that hurts others is not.
View this as an opportunity to teach your child about emotions and emotional regulation. The aim is not to punish, but rather educate. This will help them grow into well-adjusted adults who can manage their own feelings, even when those feelings make them uncomfortable.
Know their triggers
None of us are our best selves when we’re tired, hurt, sick or hungry. Making sure that these basic needs are met can help your child to be in a better position to control their big feelings.
Have a think about when your child typically expresses explosive behaviour. If you find the outbursts happen when you ask them to do things the second they get home from school, try mixing up the routine with afternoon tea and fresh air first. Then, once they’ve had a chance to decompress, tackle the tasks that need doing.
If your child is grumpy and explosive in the mornings, focus on earlier bedtimes, and breakfast and connection upon waking.
When tensions are starting to run high, simple practices like taking deep breaths or using their senses to be mindful of their present environment can help everyone to stay calm.
Alternatively, you could change the mood in the room with some fun music to dance to or suggest getting outside for some exercise. Practising gratitude and finding more joy in the day to day can be a great boost to everyone’s mental health. These techniques can also be helpful when repairing after angry outbursts.
If necessary, seek help to navigate explosive behaviour
If your child’s explosive behaviour feels like a bigger issue than you can handle, that’s OK! We all need support from time to time. A qualified psychologist will be able to share advice and develop an action plan for moving forward. If you’re feeling time-poor or your child has reservations, online therapy may be a great option for your family as well.