Hear Me, Love Me: Explosive and Withdrawn Behavior in Kids

Girl Inside CarDuring healthy development, children learn that the people around them are mostly safe and trustworthy. Even when they do not get what they want, they eventually learn to self-soothe in many ways as they grow. They may try persuasion or defiance to get what they want or avoid what they do not want, but ultimately they learn that being respectful and cooperative maintains stability. Because the average child’s brain is not easily triggered to extremes, they typically find ways to self-soothe, delay gratification, and self-regulate their emotions.

Either due to traumatic experiences—including abuse or extreme neglect—or developmental anomalies, some kids have intense fight, flight, or freeze responses and little ability to self-soothe. Chronic volatility in family relationships can also set this pattern into motion. Developmental neurobiologist Daniel Siegel (2003) wrote, “The mind develops as the brain responds to ongoing experience.” Problem behavior is a manifestation of well-worn neural and cognitive pathways that translate into reflexive emotional, cognitive, and behavior patterns.

We must learn to detour kids’ domino-effect reactions, which so frequently emanate from underlying fear or shame. Matthew Selekman (1993) wrote that change arises “out of the breaking of patterns, both of thought and action, the interruption of repeating sequences.” Many adults perpetuate volatile cycles of emotion, thought, and behavior unintentionally by interacting with children in ways that trigger further volatility.

Navigating out of these ruts requires self-control, empathy, and creativity. Explosive and withdrawn behaviors are typically adaptive responses, arising out of needs to be liked, valued, and respected, needs to have some sense of predictability and control, needs to heighten or lessen sensory stimulation, or all of the above. When behaviors are confronted through criticism or control, a defensive neurophysiological response perpetuates the vicious cycle through an emotional display on the outside of feelings being felt on the inside.

Development is a train choo-choo-ing along. When the Polar Express slid out of control on a lake of ice, it took courage, creativity, and collaboration to aim it back onto its tracks. It is important to maintain firm guidance alongside unconditional acceptance, as well as to discern that fine line between what is vital and what is negotiable. Consequently, the need to become defensive and act out may diminish over time if the child finds that it is not needed anymore to be heard or to feel loved.

I describe therapeutic connection in the acronym ATM, in which “A” stands for accommodation, “T” for tracking, and “M” for mirroring. We maximize opportunities for connection when we accommodate our use of words to those used by another, track and intentionally relate with the stories they tell, and mirror body language to the extent that it sends the message, “There is no need for defense. I’m here with you, and I care about you. I’m trying the best I can to know you.” This is part of the way we invest into the relationship account, and when the time comes for withdrawal, those who have done so won’t go for broke.

It is important to maintain firm guidance alongside unconditional acceptance, as well as to discern that fine line between what is vital and what is negotiable.

Children who are withdrawn often need greater affirmation of their strengths and efforts. Mark Twain once wrote, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” When someone approves of some part of who we are, it is as if that part of us becomes illumined. The need for approval can be compulsive, but just about anything can be. The truth is that we benefit from that sort of love in our lives. We grow better in the light.

Discipline should aim to teach and to train a child. We must not fail to teach facts and skills, for they are pixels in the resolution of a bigger picture. Yet, insight also has its limitations. I believe that there are few better ways to teach or train a child than to immerse him or her in the best experiences that life has to offer: fun, silliness, art, creativity, exercise, work, rest, food, adventure, and relationship—not necessarily in that order. I call these the parenting disciplines. Shared moments equal shared lives.

Children who are explosive may engage easily in power struggles. Before getting hooked in, learn the patterns and try to better anticipate them. Proactively communicate about expectations, limits, and consequences so that they are clear, measurable, and enforceable. When a power struggle is beginning, verbalize guidance authoritatively, then stop talking, and maybe even walk away. Become a broken record, if need be, in reinforcing limits. Play good cop/bad cop, and let established rules and limits do the dirty work.

If you accidentally get stuck in a power struggle, catch yourself, confess it, and end it: “Ah, you hooked me, and I just realized it.” It’s OK to change your mind. It’s also OK to be honest about your own internal ambivalence about a decision, yet to be firm in it. We need not hide these tricks up our sleeves.

Also, be sure that you understand the difference between perpetual tugs-of-war and constructive complaints or requests from your child. Be open to negotiating or changing your mind when there is opportunity to be flexible. Diplomacy and adaptability are fundamental life skills for all of us, skills that are gained via modeling and experience, and we would do well to pass them along to our children.

More than anything, it is important to remain calm and cool-headed when facing difficult behavior. The best strategy is to “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” When people are angry, resistant, and anxious, feeling that someone is attempting to hear and understand them can be calming and helpful.

Many children carry with them legitimate anger, fear, sadness, and shame related to predispositions, situations, and experiences largely out of their control. They need someone to love them in spite of ways they reflexively aggress or distance as they negotiate through ambivalent inclinations. At the end of the day, every child wants to be heard, which is just another way of saying understood, and loved, which is just another way of saying known.

There is a child in your life secretly hoping you will hear and love him or her today. Will you?


  1. Selekman, M. (1993). Pathways to change: Brief therapy solutions with difficult adolescents. New York: The Guilford Press.
  2. Hartzell, M., & Siegel, D. (2003). Parenting from the inside out. New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Clara

    May 27th, 2015 at 7:31 AM

    My daughter very early on helped me learn the lesson of choosing which battles that I would fight with her and which ones were not that big of a deal and not worth wasting our time over. There are some things that have to be corrected but I have learned that there are other things that it takes too much energy to fight over and in the end is really not worth the energy expended.
    Now I am no mother of the year, that is for sure, but I do think that since I have learned this little life lesson I am a better mom to her.

  • Coley

    May 27th, 2015 at 10:36 AM

    These can be children for whom any attention is going to be good attention so for some it doesn’t matter if it is positive or negative as long as someone is paying attention to them.

  • russ

    May 27th, 2015 at 4:41 PM

    I work in a community center in an inner city and see this kind of thing alot. This is especially true for the kids who have grown up in homes with very little stability and they are searching for this in their lives but they have no idea how to go about getting it. It can be a very sad situation knowing that there are going to be a lot of people who do not understand that background and they will automatically turn away from these kinds because they think that they are going to cause nothing but problems. Most of them are really just looking for someone to love them.

  • Gena

    May 28th, 2015 at 3:40 AM

    It is important to show children in the face of these tantrums the right way to behave, and that doesn’t mean throwing a tantrum yourself.

  • Jazmin

    May 28th, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    These are kids who deserve nothing but your best too. They can be a challenge, but they can be wonderful too. They are deserving of the same love, attention and affection that any other child receives. It shouldn’t have to boil down to this is going to be a battle or this isn’t… it should be about the fact that this is your time to shine in the life of a child. It is a time when you can make something count in a truly positive way.

  • toni j

    May 29th, 2015 at 11:20 AM

    I went through several rounds of foster care as a kid, and yeah, there were times that I didn’t know how to manage all of these feelings that I had so I would just explode. It wasn’t great until my mom and dad (adopted, but mine) showed me finally that they loved me with or without the explosions and that they would take care of me.
    You see, for me it took know thing that there was going to be security in my life before I was able to accept their love without always feeling like I had to challenge everything.

  • Tonia

    May 30th, 2015 at 7:12 AM

    Children can feel it when there is love in their home and most of them are going to act accordingly. When there is that lack of intimacy and connection, then that is when children begin to feel insecure in their lives and many act that out in the only way that they know how, which is by acting out!
    Parents can go a long way toward helping their children overcome much of this by providing them with a safe environment ant home, and then if it still feels like this is more than they can manage alone then there is nothing wrong with seeking out additional help from others.

  • Breck

    May 31st, 2015 at 11:29 AM

    This pattern of behavior becomes especially hard to break when it is a pattern that the adult has also grown up with and now they just continue to keep it going in their own child.

  • Lisa Anne

    February 29th, 2016 at 6:38 AM

    Parents need support, as well, in order to be their supportive best to their emotionally reactive child. It can be difficult for parents who are trying their hardest to deal with constant power struggles and emotionally explosive behavior. It is stressful, exhausting and anxiety-provoking. Such experiences prey on parental self-doubt and make a parent more likely to respond in an over-reactivity manner. If a parent doesn’t have help at home to tag – team it can be even more daunting. Parents need not only education on how to help their child, but loving, non-judgmental support, encouragement to keep trying (even when their efforts are less than perfect), and help with self-care and opportunities for respite. If we want parents to raise happy healthy kids we have to help them to be happier and healthier themselves!

  • Mom

    March 23rd, 2016 at 10:07 PM

    I have a son a beautiful blessing whom is my world I know parents love their kids but the bond between us is remarkable and admired…Everyone in my small town who knows us claims I’m a wonderful mother but they and my son don’t see the tears I hide….
    At 4 he was diagnosed with a Brian tumor 80% of his cerebellum that left him not the same but with an extra bit of love after removing successfully 3yrs later two more brain tumors same area successfully removed but again took a lil more out of that child I seen and love BC as he is left with the side effects of the surgeries his road becomes unfair and unjust with cruelty of kids bullying and isolating him as their parents react in sympathy their kids words are overheard I reinforced with love and support but also encouragement as not to baby him the older he gets now 12 he’s diagnosed MR, MS, cognitively impaired, anxiety disorder, emotional and behavioral flight freeze crying something where he angers and will act out in extremes but is easily redirected if adult forsees the signs of confusion embarrassement or insult ….all from the surgical procedures
    I feel as if I’m loosing an uphill battle because at times he is sooo mean and when I correct the behavior and reinforce the reason of cause and effect with punishment I also assure him he’s loved still but behavior in inexcusable…. Even the drs all tell me I’m doing an amazing job…. So why doesn’t he respond to controllers for his anger and behaviors because it’s not the boy I raised and it’s not fair to other kids or people he’s acts out towards as I follow thru it’s not syncing in and I feel as if nothing I do is of any effect that he awoke to this kid whose I can reach…. And I’m good with kids from infants to teens they love and respect me and all know me well in our town I walk in the school elementary middle and high school and it’s hi miss _____ with big hugs so why can’t I get thru to my son who I love and dedicate my all too

  • simon b.

    March 27th, 2016 at 3:25 PM

    we all have to remember that a child’s brain is still developing and is not full devolved until they are 25ish
    children that have problems could be due to the traits and trails of that persons genes people need to turn that into a positive thing and use/evolve that to help those children to see a better way you also have the problems children that have the trail and traits that will lead them to criminal behaviour

    also you cant change a child if they arent ready to change or to see change you can try showing therm the right way, most children if force to change that environmental factor that there, the child/s will fall back into that cycle a year or two late resulting in more money wasted

  • georgianna

    July 4th, 2016 at 8:04 AM

    I grew up in a very horrible situation with having a violent and mean drunken father. I wore I would never marry a drinking man, and I didn’t. But what I did marry was a narcissistic, mentally, physically and emotionally abusive man. I thought I hid it from my children, but I guess I didn’t. My daughter committed suicide leaving behind three beautiful children. I tried my best to raise them, but after reading this article I found that my methods, while not physically abusive, mirrored my life. Fortunately, and hopefully, before I did any more emotional damage to them, my daughters brother (my son) asked for custody of them. I have forwarded this article to him and hope that any of the emotional damage done to him through his childhood is not in any way mirrored. I did not realize. I wish I would have read this article many, many years ago when my children were young.

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