A Christian Perspective on the Explosive Child

Many of both my believing and unbelieving friends have been sharing an article on Facebook entitled, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” That article has brought a lot of things to mind from my own parenting journey, of which I am still fairly early in the process (my boys are ages 6 and 8). I want to be clear that I am not addressing Adam Lanza himself, nor can I say much about the situation that mom faced in the article. But I did resonate with the mother’s sentiment, “I need help.” Because I too needed help early on with my child. I want to share the help I received in hopes of encouraging others in their journey with children who are not neurotypical.

I’ve written about parts of this over the years. I wrote about discipling an Aspie here and God’s common grace for parents here.

Basically, as a new mom in a conservative church, I was totally unprepared for my son’s odd, unpredictable behavior which started to clearly manifest itself around year 2. Previous to that, he was behind in most developmental milestones, but we loved him and enjoyed him in so many ways. I was oblivious to what his slowness to sit up, crawl, walk, and talk might mean until we entered the world of playdates and preschool. If all the kids on a playdate were playing on a jungle gym or in a wading pool, my son was off trying to turn on and off the water spigot and hitting kids with a shovel when they came too close. Later, I learned that many kids with speech delays show their frustration through aggression with others. But I didn’t understand this at the time, and it was disturbing to watch my son act differently, and sometimes hurtfully, with his peers in nursery or playdates.

Preschool was excruciating. Kids younger than my son were talking in full sentences, singing during group time, and playing together reasonably well. My son was grunting, hitting, or running off. I remember watching in horror when my son threw sand in his preschool teacher’s eyes—just one of many similar moments that piled on to one another. My son looked normal, but his actions were unusual and often hurtful. What had I done wrong?

I felt guilt that I wasn’t disciplining my son properly or consistently. Surely, that was the problem – what could it be except that I wasn’t disciplining him enough. (At that point, my understanding of Christian parenting didn’t offer me any more than that one thought.) I ramped up the spankings because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do via Shepherding a Child’s Heart. I will tell you boldly that spanking made our problems worse, and it was a good day when I felt confident from Scripture that spanking is not required by God nor what God meant when He said to discipline our children.

Two things happened, one in a secular setting and the other in a Christian one, that blessed me and set me and my son on a better path. In our preschool, the teachers took me aside during a conference and encouraged me to have my son evaluated for learning disabilities. They encouraged me strongly in the value of early intervention for a child. At first, I felt threatened by their suggestion. No one wants to think that there might be something wrong developmentally with their child. But those teachers were loving and supportive, assuring me that it wasn’t anything I had done and that early intervention would make an incredible difference.

The other thing happened in my church. We started attending a new church when the boys were 1 and 3, and it was embarrassing to me to drop them off in nursery. I knew my child was unpredictable. And he did a number of negative things during nursery. But never once did I feel a hint of shame or condemnation from a single nursery worker. Instead, in front of me, they demonstrated consistent unconditional love and encouragement of me and my children. Their gracious love and care of my children in that season ministered to me in profound ways. It still does. 

Those two settings, one a hippie preschool and the other a gospel-centered church, gave me the direction I needed. One set of directions encompassed God’s common grace to believers and unbelievers alike. After being evaluated by doctors and being recommended for pretty much every kind of therapy available, we decided to focus on speech therapy for my son. After just a few months with a speech therapist that specialized in autism, my son was learning to make eye contact and have two way conversations. By watching the speech therapist in action, I too was learning how to help his brain make this connection at home.

The other set of directions emphasized God’s unconditional, saving grace. I was encouraged to parent my children the way God parents His and to train my children by treating them the way I wanted them to treat others. I learned to apply the gospel deeply and intensely in my parenting, especially that my children’s sins have been fully paid for by Christ on the cross, and I needed to DISCIPLE them, not PUNISH them. All these things made a profound difference in me first of all, and now I see the benefits in my children as well.

In the last year or so, someone recommended to me the book, The Explosive Child, which has been another key piece of God’s common grace that has blessed our family in this journey. As I read it, it became clear that many kids have a delay in learning how to problem solve, and that definitely fit my child. When a problem or obstruction rises, he exploded with frustration. He only saw an unmovable concrete barrier. I learned a simple, but valuable, tool for helping him. In the moment of frustration, I could begin the process of addressing it most effectively with the words, “Hey, we can solve this problem.” I didn’t believe it was that simple until I tried it a few times. He’d look at me and blink, and I could see the wheels going in his head. “We can solve this problem? It’s not the end of the world? That never occurred to me.”

This is not to say that we never have such issues in our house anymore. My eldest still dislikes traditional learning environments and is not the most affirming Sunday School participant. Social situations are hard for him to read, and I can pretty much count on him saying something that seems at least odd if not downright rude in most any public situation we find ourselves. (Don’t ask about his baptism.) But when I tell people today about the problems we had with him as a preschooler, they seem confused. “Your boys seem pretty well-adjusted. I wouldn’t have guessed that.” Those words mean SO much to me now!

Through God’s common grace that has helped me understand and support my son in his developmental delays, I have felt better equipped to minister to my children God’s saving grace that meets them in their sin and transforms them in the image of Christ. If you too are in the journey with a child who is on the autism spectrum or in other ways not neurotypical, here are a few ideas that may be helpful. 

1. Early intervention is a good thing. Don’t feel threatened by suggestions of others for intervention or help. Do your research and talk to a doctor you trust. Evaluate what they say and choose what you think will or will not work for your family. If I had followed every instruction suggested to me, we’d have been in various therapies for hours a week. I picked the thing that seemed most crucial and juggled what I could. I had a strong belief (and still do) that an overly stressed momma undoes any good from speech, occupational, or physical therapy. So I only did what I felt like I could handle.

2. Put on your own air mask first. Struggling children need emotionally stable parents. Do what you need to do to get your time first with God and then with those who encourage you in Christ. If most of your Christian interaction seems more obligation than inspiration, then cut back. Find real community with people you know who will minister God’s grace to you through their words so that you are fed and encouraged to endure for the long haul in patience with your kids. 

3. It’s OK to change and grow! Don’t feel so beholden to an idea or technique that you can’t adjust when it’s clear that it’s not working or just a bad idea.

4. Persevere. Hosea gives us such a beautiful picture of a God who comes back again and again, who perseveres and pursues the heart of His people. Parent your child the way God parents His. Endure with your child. Don’t give up. And hope. There will be two steps forward and three incredibly discouraging steps back at times. Nevertheless, don’t give up. Remember your heavenly Father who promises to empower you in this assignment He’s called you to with a grace that exceeds our ability to comprehend.

If you have an older child and feel you missed some of the window for early intervention, I encourage you to persevere nonetheless. The Explosive Child is an intriguing book that seems helpful to parents of older children struggling similarly. May God bless and guide us all as we parent and disciple children of any age with various physical, emotional, or mental issues.

* Again, I do not mean this post to be about Adam Lanza’s specific situation. I know nothing of his particular circumstances or his parents. I offer no commentary about them in particular—only ideas that the original article to which I linked referred.

19 Responses to A Christian Perspective on the Explosive Child

  1. Debbie Griffin December 18, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    I know this wasn't the main thrust of your post today, but your comments about the church nursery being so helpful grabbed my attention. I am a nursery coordinator for a gospel centered church and would love to know more about what the workers did that was so helpful for you. Would you consider taking some time to post some details about that? It think it would be helpful for many people to hear how to be the most encouraging we can be to parents who have children with special needs in a church setting. Your posts are always a huge encouragement no matter the topic. Thank you for writing in such a transparent manner.

  2. Unknown December 18, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    Another helpful tool…Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka…I have two adopted children who were later diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. When I read Kurcinka's book I so wished I had earlier. I have seven children covering a twenty year span. Blessedly it sounds as if you missed the early era of Dr. Dobson's “Strong Willed Child”. I had a similar Spirit directed parenting moment with my eldest daughter. She and I would still like to find an old copy of Dr. D's book and ceremonially dispense of it. During my years as a Pastor's wife I was able to have the overriding principle of our children's ministry be that the child know the love of God. Later in life, no matter the path, the memory of love often comes to mind. Glen Kaiser from JPUSA says that one night, in a gutter on the street, he remembered the love of God he felt as a child during a brief time of going to church. This helped him come to Christ. It's enough!
    Donna Slaboda

  3. jennp December 18, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

    I am also involved in children's ministry. We have children at our church with similar struggles and want to minister to them and their families. I would love to hear any specifics that your church did to minister to you! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Journey M December 18, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Sandi December 18, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

    o helpful. Our journey sounds very similar. My son was not officially diagnosed on the spectrum until 6 yrs old. He is now 9 and the help we have gotten has changed our lives. I too, came to the place you did with Sheperding a Child's heart. I also found The Explosive Child helpful, may re-read that one now that you mentioned it. This child has taught me more of grace then anything else in my life.
    I homeschool my son and have found the book “No Mind Left Behind” by Adam Cox very helpful. It addresses executive brain function and I have found it practically helpful in teaching skills needed for learning versus getting caught up in content. Impulse control, anxiety and problem solving are such crucial skills to master and for my son they are the hardest to do.

    Thanks gain for sharing.

    P.S. The above comment deletion was me. I didn't realize I was posting under my daughters blogger account. Life with teenagers 🙂

  6. Anonymous December 18, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

    While our issues aren't exactly the same in parenting our son (specific problem TBD; confirmed gifted with some kind of additional exceptionality), I appreciate your bringing up this topic in a Christian forum. The response we received when we attempted to find appropriate early intervention from a Christian counselor (she accused me of lying about my son's capabilities and sometimes extreme behaviors) or support from other believers was traumatizing (they responded with trite answers, gossiped, and called children's services). Maybe more believers will read posts like this one, and as a result, be willing to take these issues seriously and keep an open mind when a friend is struggling.

  7. Wendy December 18, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Thanks, all, for your comments. I will work on getting helpful information from our church's childcare coordinators on principles they've emphasized with care givers on loving children unconditionally.

  8. Elizabeth K. December 18, 2012 at 11:07 pm #

    Thanks for this, Wendy. While I'm not a mother, I always learn something from your posts about being one.

    This part of your post struck me: ” especially that my children's sins have been fully paid for by Christ on the cross, and I needed to DISCIPLE them, not PUNISH them.”

    I've been wondering for awhile now about this idea. Do you say this because your children are saved? Or would you say that this applies even to people who don't believe that Christ is their savior?

    My question might be about limited atonement – did Christ actually pay for the sins of all people on the cross or only for those who will be with Him in heaven? And if he did pay for all sins should we not punish only discipline? Or, does God punish people who have not accepted Christ as their savior and thus is it right for us to punish them? I'm coming at this not from a parenting perspective, but from a criminal justice one. Should we (as Christians) advocate that we only discipline people who break laws or should we advocate for their punishment?

    I know it's a complex question, but I'd love to hear any thoughts on it you might have.

    Thanks for all your writing! It is consistently edifying.

  9. Wendy December 18, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    That's a reasonable question, Elizabeth, though the topic of limited atonement seems beyond my ability to understand or adequately explain. Both my boys have professed faith in Christ which simplifies this discussion for my immediate family. We also attend a presbyterian church with a strong covenant view of children of believing parents. I need to write on that one day.

  10. Flyaway December 19, 2012 at 2:44 am #

    My older brother was born during World War II when my father was away in the military. My brother displayed some of these behaviors but my mom didn't have a clue what to do. He was not explosive but didn't deal with reality very well. My mom loved him and when I was born I was a help to her too. When my dad came home he tried spanking but it didn't work. He grew up, became a Christian, graduated from college, and married so he led a fairly normal life by the grace of God. He passed away at 64. I miss him. He was always sweet to me.

  11. Claire in Tasmania December 19, 2012 at 7:03 am #

    I have been thinking a bit about this lately. As a grace-based parent, I look at the criminal system and I note that punishment doesn't seem to work any better on adults than kids. A lot of parents find, within their families, that the idea of making amends is more meaningful than punishment. In terms of criminal courts, this is called restorative rather than retributive justice – see this article http://www.therebelgod.com/2012/11/restorative-vs-retributive-justice-side.html – and the pdf it links. That pdf only talks about it in terms of youth justice but I really don't see why it couldn't be used for all ages. However, there are some people who are too dangerous and hard-hearted to be allowed to be free, in which case it's not so much about punishment as keeping people safe. We do this in grace-based homes, too – remove a child (or ourselves) from a situation until they/we are able to behave in a safe way – this can be done non-punitively with kids (ie it doesn't have to be seen as a shaming time out, just an opportunity to decompress, and it can potentially be fun like jump on the trampoline to et your energy out or draw your feelings or whatever). The idea is people who feel bad act bad so making them feel worse is unlikely to improve their behaviour. Again, this would be just as true in a criminal justice setting.
    This all above is pragmatic rather than theological… I do personally believe that my children are Christian unless and until they make a mature decision to turn from Christ rather than the other way around. wrt unsaved adults, I do think Jesus took *everyone's* sins on the cross (but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm universalist wrt salvation). I'm also not much of a fan of penal substitution as an explanation of atonement anyway, so that changes the conversation a bit. Either way, though, I don't actually think it's relevant. It's God's job to mete out eternal punishment, either on us or Jesus as the case may be. I don't believe that if someone pays a fine it lessens the punishment required by God for their sin, so the punishment experienced here on earth is separate from God's punishment iyswim. Therefore I think the discussion *should* be about pragmatics.
    And I think it should be about wwjd – and the answer, as I see it, both for my children and for criminals, is help them in the best way possible, build relationship, protect the victims absolutely, but recognise that most criminals are *also* victims. But if they won't be helped, then protection of others comes first.
    Anyway, those are a few of the thoughts I've had recently about what a really good criminal justice system should be trying to do…

  12. Claire in Tasmania December 19, 2012 at 8:00 am #

    thinking a bit more… I guess my non-punitive parenting theology is more about the parable of the unforgiving servant – how does a richly forgiven parent behave towards the minor sins of her offspring? I don't really think the laws of a secular state can be determined on theological grounds, instead the question is how does a member of the Kingdom of God vote and lobby in an earthly secular democracy? And to me, God is all about making peace and restoring broken things so I would want to be advocating for a restorative framework, and more importantly living one out where possible. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.

  13. Amy G December 20, 2012 at 12:30 am #

    I had the privilege to serve as the nursery coordinator at the church Wendy and I attend for about 5 years. While I don't think we had any kind of “special sauce” that made our relationship with Wendy and her kids work, here are the things I think are fundamental in serving kids at church:

    1) Know why you're there. Our kids' ministry had a mission statement (which has since been reworded, but the gist is the same) of first showing kids that God loves them, and then teaching them things about God. The other purpose of nursery is to help parents be able to worship. With these things in mind, it was a simple task for me and the other nursery workers to care for this child (or any child).

    2) Be generous with your time and resources. Especially during his initial transition into our church and our nursery, I made sure that all the volunteers were aware of this child's situation (objectively, with no judgment, just “here are the facts”) and that there was one person who was going to be his special helper that morning. If there weren't enough helpers to do this, I would personally hang out with him.

    3) It helps when parents communicate. The first thing Wendy said to me the first day she dropped the guys off was to explain about her older son's situation. Not knowing her then, I realized this must be very heavy on her mind for it to be the first words out of her mouth. It helped me to tailor my approach to getting to know him and take care of him. I would like to think that part of why Wendy was able to share these things was because of the welcoming atmosphere of our church/children's ministry. It may just be that she was frustrated and in pain as she describes above. Either way, listening to parents is critical.

    None of this is rocket science, and probably basic for any of you who help/supervise church nursery. The main thing is to think of children like people (albeit small ones) and treat them as such.

  14. Wendy December 20, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    Thanks, Amy, on multiple levels. 🙂

  15. Joshua Waulk December 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    Wendy: I'm the dad to an awesome 11 year old boy who is, at the least, not “neuro-typical,” as you described it. The early years were brutal on us with respect to Trevor's behavior in social settings—which meant pre-K through 2 were nothing more than a gauntlet of troubled times and failures. Eventually, we plugged Trevor into play therapy with a Christian lady named Brenna Hicks—she was a God-send (www.thekidcounselor.com). She was as intuitive with Trevor as anyone could possibly have been. In the meantime, I recognized that I needed to grow—exponentially—as a dad. The common streams of child-rearing and discipline that I expected would work were absolutely failing my son. You mention SACH—this is a staple work for parenting in the conservative, evangelical circles I'm in, but on the point of corporal punishment, which all of my spiritual heroes advocate, they were dead wrong—I was not helping Trevor—I was hurting him. On this point, I went round and round w/my prof for Parenting and Children course. Today, Trevor is a well-adjusted boy who loves other people and is very social, and is typical in many ways. He still doesn't care for sports, but that's OK. He doesn't have to love baseball like I did, just love Jesus and love others. That's enough for me.

  16. Wendy December 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Thanks for sharing that, Joshua!

  17. Elizabeth K. December 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    Thank you, Wendy. And thank you, Claire. I agree with you that a really good criminal justice system should seek to restore and rehabilitate and not to merely punish. I appreciate your articulation of that here!

    Wendy – I'd love to hear more about the covenant view of parents and children. Thanks for all you do.

    May God bless both of you and your children!

  18. Sandra Peoples January 2, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    Great post Wendy and great comments from your readers too. My heart breaks for Adam Lanza's mother and thousands of mothers who feel hopeless in situations with their children. I'm thankful God brought me into the autism community in our area and allows me to speak truth and grace to the moms I meet who are hurting.

  19. Anonymous January 2, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Thanks for sharing.

    Having an older (adult) sibling with autism (probably severe), one who has routinely screamed, tantrummed, and attacked family members in the past (pinching, biting, etc.), I was deeply troubled by the “I Am Adam Lanza's Mother” story. (I think some reacted to troubling thoughts by turning vicious criticism on the mother.)

    COULD my sister become another Adam? I don't think so…she doesn't drive, and she doesn't complete business/cashier transactions on her own, and I highly doubt it would ever occur to her (not that anyone in his right mind would teach her to use a gun!). Most importantly, as another mom of 2 autistic sons mentioned, after the rage, it's over; they don't commit crimes premeditated-ly. They have to be provoked in that moment (though, of course, predicting that moment and choosing whether to use it for teaching or just to capitulate to ever-changing whims is an awful struggle for family members of older autistics!).

    Anyway, I feel a need as an adult to be able to evaluate somewhat what others like my parents did, what did and didn't work–not hiding behind the “not judging” curtain permanently but verbalizing for myself and my husband what we will do if we have a child (or adopt a child) with serious behavior problems. Most of all, I need to know more of what GOD thinks about these individuals. As complicated as mental handicaps and other mental health issues are, does God ever leave people unable to call out to Him, unable to ask for His help to RESIST picking up guns and driving to schools and firing them? Somehow I don't believe He does. I believe that even the severely handicapped can worship Him with their lives.