Stirring up siblings, getting in trouble – being sorry and then doing it all over again, always in the middle of playground tussles – that are never their fault?
If this is starting to sound familiar it’s because some of our young people – right from early days, really struggle with managing their behaviour.
They seem to:
– Always go too far
– Act before they think
– Accelerate emotionally from 1-100 in a split second – in both directions – calm to chaos and then chaos to calm.
I have often asked parents of children in their middle school years who have been referred for a history of behavioural difficulties why they didn’t seek help sooner. The most common responses are:
– “I thought it was a case of boys being boys and he’d grow out of it. That’s what my doctor said.”
– “She’s got older brothers and she plays like a boy – always rough and loud which doesn’t work with 10 year old girls. It’s not her fault.”
– “I thought it was me. I’ve tried every parenting approach you can name – I’ve read every parenting book but nothing has worked for long.”
Seeing the child and not the trouble-maker
For the serial offender, the breaker of rules, the back-chatter and the disruptor, eventually, that becomes the child’s reality – both internal and external reality.
Internally the child classifies themselves as naughty, unable to control the behaviour and difficult to like. They say “I am naughty/bad/horrible/a trouble maker.” And externally, their environment often reinforces those thoughts – peers start to expect a child to act in a certain way, parents resign themselves to the child’s behaviour and so the cycle spins – and
becomes entrenched. In fact, it becomes so much a part of their identity that it becomes self-fulfilling.
My first job with the child who thinks that they are trouble, or naughty is to externalise that problem. “You are not your behaviour – your behaviour is something you do, not who you are.” I work hard to see the person underneath all those complex and demanding behaviours. To see the child who wants to be loved but has not yet mastered their impulses, emotionally matured or learned the skills of self-regulating.
To see the child who desperately craves family and social acceptance but goes about attracting attention in ways that annoy, frustrate or even hurt others. I look for the child’s strengths and virtues – because their faults are pretty obvious – and usually form a very long list on the referral. In fact, I am yet to see a list that includes any/many of a child’s strengths.
Once I ‘see’ that child – I mean really see the child and not their issues then I set about helping that child to see themselves too.
Being naughty – well, that’s something they do sometimes but it’s not who they are. It’s generally very defeating for both adults and children to be defined by their behaviour because it’s difficult to manage it as a changeable behaviour if it’s seen as an implicit part of self.
And then beautiful things happen
As we externalise what a child considers to be implicit parts of self and slowly turn them into behaviours, beautiful things start to happen. The child begins to understand:
– Their triggers – what is the precedent to the behaviour.
– Their ability or inability to read the signs that they’re about to get into trouble. It’s truly surprising how many children simply don’t see the signs – until they’re made very VERY explicit.
– How to calm themselves down before the trouble begins.
A stitch in time…
Really, it does save 9. The parent supporting, guiding and trying to understand their little trouble-maker is generally stressed, feels isolated, desperate, guilty and overwhelmed. Behavioural therapies that address the root cause of a child’s troubled behaviours can save families, can save a child’s learning future – can literally save a life.
There is still a stigma and stereotypes attached to children who show difficult ongoing behaviours. No, boys are not naturally always in trouble. No, girls who show difficult behaviour are not just needing better parenting and more discipline. And definitely no, not all difficult behaviour indicates a diagnosis or the need for medication – but some does, so finding out makes sense. Each day in the life of a therapist brings another family, more tears, heart breaking stories – but each child is
Each day in the life of a therapist brings another family, more tears, heart breaking stories – but each child is an individual. Each child matters and below that sometimes very rough surface is always a beautiful diamond just waiting to be discovered.
Claire Orange is the cofounder of BEST Programs 4 Kids
She also appears on Today Extra and Perth’s Nine Live as an Australian Parenting Expert.