Uncontrollable anger contorts his face // Toys scatter and fists fly // Could this be a disability, not disobedience?
Calming the Explosive Child
It turned out that there was more than one way to view Jonathan Diamond’s volatility. At least once a day, the 13-year-old would erupt during a confrontation with his parents or teachers, screaming and swearing. In one incident in 2001 he even started to become violent, forcing his parents to call 911.
Therapists, following the tenets of an approach known as parent training, told the Diamonds (not their real name) that they needed to set firmer limits for their son, show him who was boss and offer clear rewards and punishments. Bringing in the police seemed to fit that strategy, and his mother, Beth, hoped Jonathan might be scared into behaving. Yet while he certainly was frightened, the explosions didn’t stop.
“When he got back to his right mind, he was just crying, saying how sorry he was,” explains Beth. But the outbursts kept happening. “It breaks your heart,” she says. “You tell yourself, I know my child is in there, all his good qualities and all his potential, but they’re being destroyed by this thing.”
Ross Greene, director of the Collaborative Problem Solving Institute at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Newton Corner and a Harvard clinical psychologist, takes a different view of children such as Jonathan. From his perspective, the problem isn’t permissive parents and ill-defined limits. These kids, Greene believes, have a kind of learning disability—difficulty being flexible, solving problems and dealing with frustration. His solution, collaborative problem-solving, or CPS, hinges on the idea that kids will do well if they can.
For the Diamonds, CPS meant getting to the root of the problem that routinely sparked Jonathan’s outbursts. In the incident that led his parents to call the police, they had pulled the plug on his computer after he refused to turn it off so his grandmother could get some sleep. After meeting with Greene’s partner, psychologist Stuart Ablon, the family decided to try the approach suggested by Greene, who has pioneered the CPS model. During a time of relative calm, Beth, her husband, Sam, and their son discussed why he had so much trouble getting off the computer. “Is it that you don’t want to go to sleep?” Beth asked. “Or you’re instant-messaging a friend and just can’t stop?”
After much thought and discussion, Jonathan figured out that there were some things on the computer he could easily stop doing—viewing favorite Websites, for example—and others, such as playing video games or instant-messaging, that he couldn’t pull himself away from. After he and his parents tried several solutions that didn’t work, such as setting a timer to limit computer time, Jonathan came up with one that did. He would do the things that were hard to stop only until dinnertime—because, for some reason, he found it easier to quit for dinner than at bedtime. After dinner, if he was on the computer, he’d stick to pursuits he could halt more easily.
As simple and intuitive as this approach may seem, CPS represents a departure from one of psychology’s most basic premises of parenting, a paradigm that has held sway for at least 40 years. Greene has been pushing for acceptance of his alternative approach, which he first laid out in a 1998 book, The Explosive Child, and it has been applied with seemingly remarkable results in many families, schools, juvenile detention facilities and inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric units. Even the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) is beginning to use the CPS model. Yet scientific evidence suggesting that it works has been slow in coming, and it has been questioned by practitioners who consider CPS either too new to be widely adopted or too obvious to create much of a stir.