Regardless whether our kids come to us through adoption or birth or foster care, some kids are more challenging to parent, and parenting the easily frustrated, inflexible child can test even the best of parents. Parenting these kiddos may not be easy, but it doesn’t have to be a battle.

My eldest child was what my husband and I between ourselves euphemistically called “high maintenance”. When we weren’t feeling euphemistic we called her stubborn, high strung, and even on occasion “a pain in the b_tt”. I read every parenting book in my public library’s collection and then started in on Amazon. The books didn’t fit my kid, or was it that my beautiful, spirited girl didn’t fit the books?

In what I thought was an amazing flash of insight, she told me when she was nine and we were talking about self-discipline, “I don’t like anybody telling me what to do, including myself.” That, in a nutshell, summed up my sweetie.

I learned things by trial and error on my own, of course, but had my aha moment when I stumbled upon Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic. (You can listen to my interview with Mary – it’s truly one of my favorite all-time interviews.) The power of books is amazing.

My early parenting days of obsessively consuming parenting books is mirrored in my current job at Creating a Family, where I have to get to read all the books of the authors I interview. Given my parenting history, I particularly enjoyed the book and interview with Dr. Ross Greene, Harvard professor and author of The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children.

Early Trauma Can Make it Worse

It can be trying to parent children experiencing the effects of early childhood trauma
All kids want to do well, fit in, be accepted, and feel loved. If they are struggling it is likely because they are lacking a specific skill needed to succeed.

The Explosive Child is not specific to parenting adopted children. All kids can and do exhibit these behaviors, but early trauma common in children adopted at an older age is a risk factor. One of the best things about The Explosive Child is Dr. Greene’s assumption that kids want to do well, and if they are struggling it is likely because they are lacking a specific skill needed to succeed. In the midst of dealing with a kid who doesn’t fit the mold, it’s easy to think that this kid is intentionally driving you nuts. This reframing turns their behavior into a teachable moment.

Real Life Example

Here’s an example from my parenting experience with my own lovely spit-fire. The Spirited Child encouraged me to closely keep track of when she was at her worst. I noticed that she usually fell apart during times of transitioning from one activity to another. While I am capable of being highly organized, my preferred operating mode is loose and flexible to take advantage of serendipity.

While trying to be loose and flexible may be good for middle-aged bodies (trust me my friends, I know!), they were not good for my kid because it meant lots of unpredictable transitions. She lacked the skill of smoothly changing her plans at the last moment. She’s an inertia loving gal.

Armed with this understanding, I set up routines for us to follow on most days and prepared her well in advance when we were going to vary from these routines. As she got older, we could do more advanced planning, and she learned to handle transitions better. While nothing is dramatic in parenting, we did see a reduction in the number of oppositional episodes.

Specific Skills Your Child Might Lack

Why are some children more explosive than others? It is likely due to a lack of skills in their toolkit to deal with the emotions they feel.

In The Explosive Child, Dr. Greene lists a number of skills that behaviorally challenging kids might be lacking, including:

  • Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mindset or task to another.
  • Difficulty doing things in a logical sequence or prescribed order.
  • Poor sense of time.
  • Difficulty reflecting on multiple thoughts or ideas simultaneously.
  • Difficulty considering the likely outcomes or consequences of actions (impulsiveness).
  • Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem.
  • Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration in order to think rationally.
  • Difficulty deviating from rules or routine.
  • Difficulty accurately interpreting social cues.
  • Difficulty appreciating how he is coming across or being perceived by others.

Do any of these feel familiar? If you are parenting a behavioral square peg, they will. What would you add?

P.S. Although I liked the book, I didn’t like the title “The Explosive Child” since it seemed both overly broad and overly limiting for these challenging but often wonderful children. I asked Dr. Greene about the title in our interview. Turns out he is also no longer a fan, now preferring the term behaviorally-challenged, which includes a greater array of behaviors.

Check out my interview with Dr. Greene for lots of wonderful parenting ideas for these kiddos. While never easy, it doesn’t have to be a battle.


What we talked about on the podcast in my interview with Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child:

  • Psychiatric labels that are often attached to these children include oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, bipolar, ADHD, attachments disorder, RAD, disruptive mood regulation disorder.
  • What are the characteristics of a child that is behaviorally challenged or what is called the “explosive child”?
  • What causes children to be easily frustrated and chronically inflexible.
  • This type of behavior can be found in all kids—all people regardless of age, but is it more common in children who have been exposed to trauma earlier in life, which is often the case with children adopted at an older age, or is it exclusively an innate temperament?
  • This behavior is not a choice of the child’s; if the kid could do better, he would.
  • The most important thing a parent can do to help their child is to understand why she explodes in the first place.
  • Are these kids acting the way they do because they want attention, or are strong-willed, or are manipulating us, or just have a bad attitude
  • What specific skills do kids who have behavioral challenges lack?
  • How to help a child who automatically says no to everything?
  • What often sets children off?
  • How to find the time to collaboratively problem solve with challenging children.
  • What parenting techniques work with easily frustrated children who do not problem solve well.
  • Do reward based systems usually work?
  • Do punishment based systems usually work?
  • What is the best way to help kids who struggle with their behavior at school?
Originally published 2013; Updated 2018
Image credit: Simon Kellogg
Image credit: Daniel Rosas
Image credit: Danica T.