What to Do When Typical Parenting Strategies Don’t Help Your Explosive, Inflexible Child

What to Do When Typical Parenting Strategies Don’t Help Your Explosive, Inflexible Child


Being a kid is tough, especially when it comes to processing big emotions—fear, anger, excitement. Although we may not fully remember what it was like to be a kid, most of us do remember grappling with feeling that felt too big, too new, and very, very important.

Even with our own memories of childhood, watching our kids from an adult perspective can be a confusing experience. Did we really have that many meltdowns? Were we ever that inflexible? Is this behavior normal, or a sign our child might need some help?

When a child is particularly inflexible, or experiences an unusual number of emotional outbursts, it’s a good idea to try and understand what’s behind their behavior, rather than simply trying to correct it.

“The behavior [itself] is a symptom that something is going on,” said Elaine Taylor-Klaus, founder of the organization Impact Parents and author of The Essential Guide to Raising Complex Kids with ADHD, Anxiety, and More. “This is an indication that they are struggling and need some help.”

As Taylor-Klaus often advises the families she works with, a child’s “naughty” behavior tends to have a reason attached to it, whether it’s due to a neurological issue or something else. “It’s not a sign of disrespect, it’s not a sign of willfulness, it’s a sign of being unable to cope,” Taylor-Klaus said.

Rigid behaviors are often about control 

If your child is being especially inflexible, that behavior is often their way to regain a sense of control. For example, if a child is feeling a little uncertain or insecure about something, one way for them to cope is by focusing on what they can control, whether it’s the socks they are wearing, the cereal they are eating for breakfast, or just savoring the ability to say “no.”

“When we control more, we feel safer,” said Rebecca Parlakian, a child development expert and senior program director at the early childhood education nonprofit Zero to Three. According to Parlakian, if your child is in a particularly inflexible mood, the important thing parents should do is avoid saying “no.” This flies in the face of typical advice, which might encourage you show a kid who is boss and set firm boundaries. Yeah, that won’t work.

“Hearing ‘no’ when we are in a very emotional place can just send us into a spiral,” Parlakian said.

Instead, it’s best to affirm what they are feeling, and if they are asking for something, avoid saying no in that moment. Instead, engage them in a discussion of what they want and why, or by encourage them to make a plan for how to do something to get what they want.

Emotional outbursts are often a sign a child is overwhelmed 

Emotional outbursts happen for any number of reasons, but the commonality is that a child is feeling overwhelmed. “If kids reach their limit and we are still pushing them past it, they are going to melt down in some capacity,” Taylor-Klaus said.

Your child may be struggling because they are going into sensory overload—sensory processing disorders are often confused with ADHD and similar diagnosesbecause they don’t feel they are capable of doing something, or because they are struggling to process their emotions, and in that moment, they just don’t know how to cope, and nothing you say to correct their behavior, nor any punishment or consequence you offer, will help them snap out of it. As Taylor-Klaus recommends, in these situations it’s best instead to use a combination of acknowledgment, compassion, and empathy. Even if we don’t quite understand what is going on or what the problem is, it’s still very real for them.

What Taylor-Klaus doesn’t recommend is going into problem-solving mode right away. “When we go to fix it, they feel disregarded,” Taylor-Klaus said. Instead, it’s important to slow down and meet your child where they are in that moment.

If your child is struggling, it’s important to find support 

If your child is struggling with rigid behaviors or emotional outbursts, to the point that you think something may be going on, it’s important to seek out help, as there could be a number of underlying issues causing these behaviors, from a learning disorder like dyslexia to a developmental disorder such as autism or ADHD.

Before you get too worried, it’s also important to remember that every child is different, and sometimes, when it comes to their development, they are simply on their own schedule. “Parents should know, with any developmental milestone, every child is different,” Parlakian said. And remember, if finding support does lead you to a diagnosis you might find scary, the diagnosis doesn’t change who your child is. It will only help you help them.



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