The Explosive Child
By Tracey Watts
I have an explosive child. I have been aware of this fact for well over half of my son’s six years. Our days are fraught with outbursts that go off at regular intervals and then dissipate, like so many summer storms. We are hit with a sudden downpour, then the skies clear and the sun returns, hard and clear as ever.
I have an explosive child. I know this. Still, when I write the words on paper, they stare back at me, awkward and confrontational. Perhaps they carry so much force because my son’s anger carries so much force. Or perhaps they startle because they appear once the rage has subsided and we have resumed the ebb and flow of household stasis. At that point, they are aftershocks invading the recuperative calm. Or perhaps I am jarred by the very simplicity of the sentence, its stark illumination. In the space of five words, the mystery of the rage – the incomprehensible cause, the elusive solution – suddenly appears ordinary, even manageable. Sometimes demystification feels surreal.
I haven’t learned how to manage the problem, not yet, though I am trying. I stumbled upon another set of potential solutions yesterday, in fact. I was browsing through a consignment store, waiting for my potential sales to be tallied, when I saw the book: Dr. Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child. I hesitated. The title was perhaps overly obvious. It lacked nuance, which meant that the advice inside might be short-sighted as well. It also wasn’t the sort of book you’d like someone to see you reading in public. Whew! they might say. Thank God she left those kids at home! But the store was empty, and the clerk wasn’t finished with my bag yet, so I thumbed through it.
I scanned the pages that the former owner had highlighted. I could see that we were living in similar homes. I wondered how they were managing now. Had they sold the book because it didn’t work? Or had they, by adhering to a miracle theory, dumped the book because they resolved the issues? Could that parent now go quietly to brush her teeth, trusting that her son would not unleash a torrent of reproach upon his sister?
But after awhile, the initial kinship began to feel more like exposure. The book included a series of scripts in which the parents tried but failed to reach their children, allowing the fuse to ignite. I saw myself in these parents. I told her she would have to eat the chili. But she seemed unable to get macaroni and cheese out of her head, and I continued to insist that she eat the chili for dinner. The more I insisted, the more she fell apart. There I was, on the page. Quivering, confused, pandering, hostile, embarrassed, inconsistent.
Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground. Seeing oneself on the page, even as a hypothetical parent involved in hypothetical wrangling, can make one feel immensely vulnerable.
I closed the book and turned to the first page of the book in my other hand, Artemis Fowl. I was hooked on that one by the end of page one, but even the child hero of that text, as I had learned in the space of about 200 words, had had to submit to psychological testing. Quit quitting, I chided myself. When I opened The Explosive Child again, Dr. Greene was trying to comfort me. He knew that I had tried. No no, he seemed to soothe, it isn’t you. Your child’s brain cannot manage the influx of stimulation. His ability to manage frustration is compromised. His tolerance levels are low. Learn the triggers. Learn to avoid them. Learn the methods to diffuse his tensions. Diffuse. Yes, I thought. He is a bit like a bomb.
I flipped the pages again, looking for a section without highlighted prose. I stopped at page 95, where Dr. Greene was casually recommending not taking one’s explosive child to grocery stores. I’m sure I smiled. I was back on the page again, represented, but not so nakedly.
About a month ago, I cried in Costco. It had been necessary to take both children, the explosive six-year-old and his less-than-compliant four-year-old sister, on my grocery errand. My explosive child, as you might surmise, if you know an explosive child yourself, is many things besides explosive. He is curious, impulsive, boisterous, gregarious, and oblivious to the flow of shopping cart traffic. In the course of half an hour, he and his sister, who emulates and encourages him, had delighted in frolicking up and down the wide, breezy aisles of the store. They had darted across the paths of several shoppers, requiring them to stop short. They had caused at least one worker to snippily inquire about my whereabouts when they asked for a food sample. They had balanced on every ledge they could find in the store, tightrope walkers who badly needed a fix. What they had not done was the one thing that, in my pre-parenting years, I had expected difficult children to do in grocery stores – beg for a food item that they couldn’t have.
As always, I managed the in-store discipline that day using methods like redirection, reprimanding, and quick progress toward the checkout line. When we reached it, a kind man offered me his space in line and commented on the wonderful enthusiasm of my children, who really seemed, he said, to have a zest for life. But taking his place meant that we landed a spot behind another mother. My children approached her, questioning her about the toys in her cart.
They are for my children, she said, not a hint of defeat in her voice.
Where are they? my children asked.
Oh, she said, at home with their grandmother. She smiled at them indulgently. She began telling him more about her children as she calmly moved her items to the conveyor belt. She spoke slowly, with palpable calm. Her skin was radiant. The word beatific surfaced in my mind, and in response to it, I teared up.
My children were starting to hop around her instead of simply asking questions, so I called them back to me and tried to redirect them, to ask them about what she said. But they were like bunnies, bounding with energy and slippery to hold onto. One was behind the register, alongside the cashier, before I could begin loading my items on the belt, and the other had slipped past the checkout line entirely and was aggressively pushing buttons on a soda machine about 20 yards away.
Still, I managed not to yell, and we did leave the store. The explosion, in fact, came as we were leaving. At Costco, some of the workers who check the receipts of exiting customers like to please little children. Some draw happy faces for them on the backs of the receipts. One woman even draws Olaf and Elsa. Of course, some just mark through the numbers on the front side and hand the receipt back to you with a brief smile and nod. That day, we picked a worker who drew one smiley face instead of two.
There isn’t much left to tell of that story. The storm opened with a torrent of rain. Then it cleared. The day went on. I texted my husband that I would never ever ever ever ever bring our children to the store again. In the next week, I told a few other moms, mothers of boys mostly, that I had cried at Costco. It’s the holidays, one of them responded. I cried on Christmas morning this year.
I know I am not alone, but sometimes I feel alone. I want to feel less alone. I look for solutions every day. I bought The Explosive Child at the consignment store. I am reading it. Maybe there is a useful theory in the book – a framework, a lens that will help me understand him. Maybe there is a script, a conversational outline, which will work. I have learned, over time, to be far less suspicious of scripts. Sometimes scripts are revolutionary.
Last night, I was lying in bed with my son – my six year old, boisterous, curious, impulsive, explosive son – the one who takes an hour to finish his relatively light first-grade homework. I thought it might help if I built up his confidence more during a restful moment together. So I reached for an idea and came up with what I’ll admit sounds like a line: Your bed is so snuggly!
You see, I’m not always good at this. Complimenting my son effectively feels a lot like dating, like I’m trying to court the popular girl at school and always coming up short.
Still, he bit, but not in the way I had hoped. Whose bed is snugglier? he wanted to know, looking to out-shine his sister.
I like both of your beds, I said, limping through the attempt. Still, I kept trying. Do you know why your bed is so snuggly?
Why? he said. His eyes were sparkly, even in the dark.
Because you’re in it, I said.
He giggled. After a second, he asked, Who’s the best kid?
You know, I said, there’s a reason why I can’t love one of you more than the other. It’s because I love you infinitely.
In the quiet that followed, I realized that I had gotten it right – right for him – so I kept going. If I love you infinitely, and I love your sister infinitely too, then I can’t love one of you more than the other because my love for both of you is infinite.
My son, my explosive and beautiful son, readjusted his little legs and arms on my body. The moment grew even quieter, and his body felt close, nearby, in a way that it usually doesn’t, even why I’m lying right beside him. But what had changed? Was it the fact that I had attached a measurement to my love? I mean, I know that infinity is immeasurable, but for him, it’s like zero – a fascinating idea that has something to do with numbers, those reassuringly concrete entities. Had I finally quantified my love the right way for him, even if the concept itself relied on being unquantifiable? Had I given him a more concrete framework for understanding how love worked?
This morning, I was hoping that I had filled his bucket enough before bed to circumvent the fireworks that might be on the horizon. But no luck. My husband cleared my son’s cereal bowl before he had finishing sipping the milk from the bottom, prompting a meltdown that involved lines like, You did that on purpose! and Everybody in this family hates me!
In The Explosive Child, Dr. Greene laments that explosive children often don’t find the sympathy they need from adults because their rage is alienating. Criers, he says, are far luckier, relatively speaking, because people sympathize with tears. That was a big truth for me. Had I had a highlighter in the store, I would have pulled it out for that section. My son’s anger often made me angry too.
As the meltdown waned, my husband I took turns picking up the pieces. I offered to sit in my son’s room while he dressed, fulfilling a daily demand that we usually ignore. But my son mooned me and then farted in the process. Irritated, I labeled his behavior inappropriate, and he exploded again. My husband tickled him to lighten the mood, but he complained that my husband was trying to hurt his arm. So we gave him some space, and afterwards announced that it was time to leave for school.
The sky broke open again. I haven’t had time to play with my Legos! he screamed. He ran to the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat, pressing his back up against the tank. You hate me! No one in this family loves me!
I thought of the movie Looper, which involves a telekinetic preschooler who uses his TK to explode people’s chests open in his fits of rage. I thought of the climactic scene in which the boy’s mother is hovering in the air in front of him, just as he is about to blow open all the people in his line of sight. I thought of the measured calm in her voice, how she said, as quietly as possible, I love you, Sam. I love you. I thought of Dr. Greene, and I thought of empathy as love, and I thought, How radical.
I love you, I said to my son. I love you so much. I have infinite love for you. Then I looked at his sister, who had followed us, wide-eyed, into the bathroom, perplexed although she had seen similar situations unfold before. Hey, I said to him, realizing, do you want to see how much your sister loves you? Do you want to see what she wrote yesterday? She wrote your name down. She wrote, “I love Finn.” Do you want to see it?
He got quiet, radically quiet, and he nodded. I picked him up, even though he is almost seven, and I carried him into the room where we keep the art table. Look, I said, showing him the paper. It says right here that she loves you.
I looked around the room and spotted a set of Valentine hearts he had painted as a toddler. Five years after he had created them, they were still taped onto a cabinet. Oh, I said, walking him over to them, and look at these. Do you know what these are? He shook his head no. You made these when you were just a little toddler, and I couldn’t throw them away because they made me so happy – because I loved them so much. Because I have infinite love for you.
And then the storm passed. I was still holding him, and he put his head on my shoulder and sucked him thumb. He chest became soft against my chest.
On the way to school, he was curious and impulsive, boisterous and fascinating. He told me that some geckos have to lick their eyes because they don’t have eyelids. He talked about how fish swim when they sleep. He told me that sharks are fish but whales are not fish.
I told him about a poem I had heard someone read once, when I was visiting Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was a poem about whales falling to the bottom of the ocean floor after they die. I told him that the idea had fascinated me at the time, since I had never thought about what happens to the bodies of whales. I wondered aloud for him whether the whales ever passed up submarines when they were falling, if the submarines had to move out of the way. Go on, he had said, and he had sounded much older than six.
I think he was the first person I had ever described that poem to, who had wanted to hear more.
Tracey Watts is mother to two spirited children who spend their better hours immersed in elaborate pretend narratives. She wishes she could still imagine with such abandon. She teaches writing at a liberal arts university in the South. You can read more of her work at www.insquiddibleink.com.