“But, Mommy, you said that my blue shirt would be clean today!” Akiva complained.

“I know, honey, but I didn’t get a chance to do the laundry yesterday. What else would you like to wear?” Sarah answered calmly, gearing up for the battle she knew was about to begin.

“I want to wear my blue shirt! I told you already!” Akiva screamed, his voice growing louder.

“Your blue shirt is still dirty. You can wear the white one or the green one. They’re the same shirt, just in different colors,” Sarah stated.

“No! I want the blue shirt! The blue one! You said it would be clean.”

“Akiva, your brother was sick and I had to meet with your teacher yesterday. I didn’t have enough time to finish the laundry. Now which shirt would you like, white or green?” Sarah asked, practically begging her son to calm down.

“Blue. Blue, blue, blue,” Akiva screamed, running into the laundry room and toppling the hamper.

Most parents imagine this confrontation ending in two ways: giving in or severe consequences.

Plan A would consist of Sarah giving in. She would take the dirty shirt out of the hamper and allow Akiva to wear it to school, enduring the embarrassment of sending her third grader to school in a pizza-stained shirt.

Plan C would entail Sarah deciding that enough of is enough. She might put Akiva in his room and tell him that he cannot leave until he emerges in a clean shirt. In addition, Sarah might remove many of Akiva’s privileges, prohibiting him from eating his treat and reducing his bedtime by an hour.

While Plan A and C eventually get Akiva out the door and off to school, they do not ensure that these confrontations will not happen again.

What about a Plan B?

Dr. Ross W. Greene, author of the book, The Explosive Child, has done extensive research on the problem of children with the behavior disorder called Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Dr. Greene prefers to aptly label these children explosive children.

All children are argumentative and cranky from time to time, especially when they are tired, hungry, or stressed. Their behavior could range from arguing, talking back, and disobeying or defying authority figures. This conduct is even part of the normal development of toddlers and early adolescents. However, when a child consistently and frequently acts out so much that it stands out when compared to other children of the same age and developmental level, there might be something more than regular temper tantrums going on.

So, how do we define “explosive” children? For starters, they are easily frustrated, demanding, and inflexible. When things don’t go their way, they react with violence or rage. Their siblings are afraid of them. Their parents are constantly walking on eggshells, terrified of the next outburst. They have barely any friends. And they can erupt in temper tantrums, kicking, screaming, sudden outbursts, and verbal or physical aggression, usually in response to relatively benign situations.

Dr. Greene says that “explosiveness” is an equal opportunity condition. It comes in male and female children, and in all ages, shapes, and sizes. “Some blow up dozens of times a day, others just a few times a week. Some “lose it” only at home, others only in school, and still others in any conceivable location. Some scream when they become frustrated, others become physically or verbally aggressive.” He emphasizes that “these children have wonderful qualities and tremendous potential. In most ways, their cognitive skills have developed normally.” Yet something is wrong. They can’t properly process frustration or disappointments like everyone else. And they need help in trying to fix the problem.

That’s where Plan B comes in. In Plan B, we walk the child through the mental process of considering his alternatives. We show empathy and understanding. And we offer solutions that could save everyone a lot of grief and aggravation.

Let’s return to Akiva and Sarah for a moment and restart the conversation using Dr. Greene’s “Plan B.”

“But, Mommy, you said that my blue shirt would be clean today!” Akiva complained.

“I know, honey, but I didn’t get a chance to do the laundry yesterday. I understand why that’s so disappointing to you because you have been waiting to wear that shirt all week,” Sarah answered.

“I know. I really want to wear my blue shirt!” Akiva grumbled, a little calmer now.

“I wish it was clean. You know what? Maybe we can come up with a solution that is not perfect, but will be okay,” Sarah stated, catching Akiva’s eye.

“Like what?” Akiva said, his fists unclenching slightly.

“Well, we can put the laundry in together right now, so that the shirt will be ready after school. And, we can look in your closet for another shirt that is blue or kind of looks like the blue shirt you want to wear.”

“Humph. I don’t want to wear a different shirt, but let’s go do the laundry,” Akiva muttered, exiting the room with purpose.

How does Plan B work?

Dr. Greene outlines three steps for Plan B: empathy, defining the problem, and inviting solutions. Below is a chart that outlines the different steps:

Step 1: Empathy Step 2: Define Problem Step 3: Invite Solutions
Gather information about the problem so that you can better understand what your child is going through. Try to approach the problem from your child’s perspective. Verbalize the problem out loud so that your child hears your empathy and understanding. Begin with something such as, “Your concern is…” or “You are frustrated about…” Now that the problem has been empathized with and verbalized, brainstorm realistic and mutually satisfactory solutions with your child.

What Sarah did in the above scenario is exactly what psychologist and educational specialists argue is the best technique for those with ODD: Plan B. Think clearly and stay calm. Akiva’s attention was successfully diverted into figuring out alternatives to his blue shirt. Perhaps more importantly, Akiva learned that it is possible to resolve a conflict without an ugly explosion. Through this positive interaction with his mother, he has learned that compromises can work.

Sarah had to talk her way through Akiva’s growing anger, which is tricky. And she had to come up with creative alternatives at a moment’s notice. But the bottom line is that Akiva learned to consider an acceptable solution to this frustration. According to Dr. Greene, the ultimate goal is for these solutions to become second nature so that the children will eventually be able to reach these conclusions on their own. Additionally, with practice, Sarah can learn to head off Akiva’s tantrum by anticipating his anger and letting Akiva know that his shirt is still dirty even before he begins to get dressed. Especially with explosive children, the more warning they have, the better they will be able to cope with the unwanted situation.

Of course, you might be wondering how this can possibly work. You know your child and you know your reactions – you will never be able to talk him through his anger. In reality, I have watched Plan B work both in my own classroom and in my own office as I have walked parents through this process. The key is practice. The more you work on staying calm and thinking clearly, the more likely you will be to offer compromises that work for both you and your child.

What’s more, Dr. Greene offers some reassurance (and caution) for the future: “Skillful execution of Plan B is hard and it takes time to get good at it. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. Plan B isn’t something you do two or three times before returning to your old way of doing things. It’s not a technique, it’s a way of life.”

Once your explosive child learns the concept of compromise and conflict resolution, he will be much more likely to utilize that kind of thinking himself. That way, you will both be a lot happier.

It’s Not Your Fault!

No doubt, if you have a child with ODD, you have experienced your fair share of stares and comments from people who experience your child’s tantrums in supermarkets, shuls, or schools. These comments often make you feel like you are to blame for this fit. This is simply not the truth!

Many people who look on from the outside believe that if parents would just “crack down” on their kid, the child would stop his negative behavior. In essence, they are blaming you for creating this situation to begin with. On the contrary, your experience with a child with ODD has probably taught you that cracking down once your child is in full tantrum mode will only accelerate the tantrum.

As a parent, you are not to blame. Children are “explosive” because of a variety of reasons having to do with their brain chemistry, with their ability to absorb levels of frustration, with their inability to react in a normal manner. This has nothing to do with your parenting style. However, it is up to you to learn how to react properly and to work on minimizing or correcting this outrageous and shocking behavior.

Remember, you are not alone. There are thousands of parents across the country who are dealing with explosive children. They have even set up support groups because of the intense amount of time and effort it takes to parent a child with ODD. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others and get some much needed help and encouragement.

Perhaps the 19th century editor George Jean Nathan explained it best, “No man can think clearly when his fists are clenched.” The key is, perhaps to implement Plan B even before the problems begin. Remember, practice empathy, define the problem, and invite a solution. This way, if events start to spiral out of control, you will already have a system in place to control the situation. When you take the guilt and the shame out of ODD while also beginning to implement Plan B, you’ll be well on your way towards a family life that is calmer, more predictable, and more productive.

Signs of Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Children with ODD exhibit a pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior that interferes with day-to-day performance:

  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Excessive arguing with adults
  • Often questioning rules
  • Active defiance and refusal to comply with adult requests and rules
  • Deliberate attempts to annoy or upset people
  • Blaming others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
  • Often being touchy or easily annoyed by others
  • Frequent anger and resentment
  • Mean and hateful talking when upset
  • Spiteful attitude and revenge seeking

Tips for Parents

  • Praise the positives. Give your child praise and positive reinforcement when he shows flexibility or cooperation. This will encourage him to continue to practice his ability to be adaptable.

  • Time outs. Both you and your child might need time outs when things get heated. Show your child that you are able to restrain yourself by taking a time out in your own room when you feel out of control. This will teach your child that time alone can be restorative and is not a punishment.

  • Pick your battles. Since the child with ODD has trouble avoiding power struggles, prioritize the things you want your child to do. If you give your child a time-out in his room for misbehavior, don’t add time for arguing.

  • Social skills training. Working with children with ODD in order to increase flexibility and lengthen frustration tolerance can significantly help explosive children. Not only will they have more tolerance when things go wrong at home, but they will build acceptance for the behavior of their peers.

  • Enforce consequences. Set age-appropriate rules and consequences, but be sure to enforce those consequences if the rules are broken. However, think carefully about the policies you will set – if you have unrealistic expectations – you are going to end up in a constant state of war. Pick your battles.