How to work with a child with difficult behaviour

bigstock-angry-child-yelling-58855205-514x342I have two boys, both of which have ADHD.  My oldest son has anxiety/depression, asbergers, and has also been given a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder, which I personally do not believe exists.  There are indeed children with a good dose of counterwill (Gordon Neufeld), but regarding ODD, what a horrible label to give a child.  What does that speak?  “You are oppositional, you are defiant, you have a disorder.” It’s interesting that if you put any child with ODD in a room by themselves they show no symptoms of it.  That’s because it’s an emotional, behavioral reaction to environment.

For years we struggled with how to work with our oldest son.  Yelling matches, frustration, hurtful words, despair, battles for control, shame… these were experienced on the daily.  It was a desperate time.  I had no idea how to parent my son, and I know that my lack of knowledge and skill only spiralled my son further down into his mental torment.  It’s humbling to reflect back.

Does this sound familiar to you?  I want to pass on some tangible, simple things I have learned that have changed my parenting.  I’m not perfect at this in the least, but I can say I’ve made significant gains.

Here it is.  Plain, simple, and strait forward.

1.Realize that underneath a child’s behaviour (or anyone’s for that matter) is an underlying emotion that is driving it.  

I’ll give you an example.  My oldest son had a friend over.  The friend introduced himself to my youngest son, who then insulted him right to his face, really hurting his feelings.  Is my youngest son mean?  No.  So why would he say something so horrible without even knowing this boy?  We had to get curious as to why so we could work with the root, rather than just go after the behavior.  Looking deeper we were reminded that our youngest son has had to deal with the rejection of his older brother and his friends.  Insulting a new friend was our child’s way of protecting himself.  He was going to reject before he could get rejected.

In the past I would respond out of my emotion: “I can’t believe you were so mean to that boy!”, would be a long the lines of my normal reaction.  This reaction, which is probably natural for most of us, doesn’t get to the root of the problem and only drives the child further into shame. He’s most likely to repeat the behavior because he hasn’t been given any tools to change, other than to likely hide his behavior from me if he can in the future.

I guarantee you that no child wakes up wanting to make mistakes or fail miserably.  No one wakes up wanting to throw fits of rage or be too stubborn to work with.  Underneath behaviour is something waiting to be discovered by us.  If we go after behavior alone, all our children learn is to hide from us.  But if we can get curious about what’s driving the behavior, our children will feel SEEN.  Who doesn’t thrive under feeling understood?  It’s an amazing foundation to build from.

2. Identify what you believe is the driving emotion behind their behavior.

To use the example of my youngest son, “Chris I can understand you’re used to Ben and his friends not wanting you around and that hurts your feelings doesn’t it?  Does that make you sad?”  Daniel Siegal calls this “name it to tame it”. By identifying with their emotion we are helping them learn to identify emotions.  This also helps them learn to manage their emotions. This attachment gives them the security to know they are safe to learn how to navigate their emotional world and that we are here to guide them along the way.  I now often identify the emotion behind the behaviour and then hold my child till I feel their anger or frustration melt.

Taking my past response of, “I can’t believe you would say something like that!”, only escalates his fight or flight emotional state and he’s left to his own wits end to calm himself down, which usually doesn’t happen easily.  He never learns to navigate his own emotional world, causing his emotional responses to grow in length and intensity as he gets older.

3. Ask your child what was happening in the moment of their behavior.

Key: do not do this in the climax of the behavior.  During these episodes, our children are not in their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain at the forehead that helps us with problem solving.  They are in the back of the brain, the fight or flight section of the brain that does not reason.  Ask this after they have calmed down.  They may not know what was happening inside them, which is ok, but sometimes they can tell us what was really happening.  This is wonderful, because they feel listened to and are learning to verbalize their internal world.

Reminder: we are our child’s navigation to work out their internal world.  This means we need to be willing to be brave with our internal worlds.  How can we help our children navigate their emotions when we’re raging and lashing out ourselves?  This has been a great challenge for me to overcome in the past few years.  I’m encouraged to see years of intentionally working on this starting to pay off.  It’s one thing to have the knowledge of what to do, it’s another thing to actually do it.  I really does take intention and focus on our part to change our habits.  Yelling for me has been a hard habit to break.

4. Don’t just say “no”, say “yes” to something else.

This is where we want to confirm our values.  “Chris, in this house we do not hurt with our words”.  But instead of just ending there, we need to give them something they can do.  Children with ADHD find this particularly hard.  They really want to follow through, but lack the wiring of the neurons to do so.  We can come alongside and help them rewire so problem solving and new patterns can arise.  For example, “Chris, what do you think we can do next time Ben has a friend over to help you feel more secure?”.  Help with the solution if needed, but the important thing is you’re talking openly about the real problem which makes your child feel secure enough to be able to grow in their mental health.

Did you notice there was no typical discipline involved in this?  Most of the time I’ve noticed with my boys that by the time I’ve gone through all these steps, I haven’t yelled once or given every consequence I can think of.

I’ll never forget when a psychologist asked me what I would do when my oldest son would throw fits of rage.  I told her I would send my son to his room, reminding him when he was ready to be a “good boy” he could come out.  This was considered a good way of parenting in my mind.  She gently shook her head and stated, “Oh no, you never send the hurting away from you; you bring them closer”.  This statement has rocked my inner world. First of all, I never realized my son was hurting.  All I saw was his raw edges and violence.  I also have seen the amazing transformation that can happen when I’m willing to be with my son in his mess.  It’s easy to say, very hard to do. I have realized how disturbed I am with emotions such as anger.  I just wanted to send him and his anger away.  To this day I am disrupted in my mind by anger.  I’ve had to learn to manage my anxiety so I can manage the anxiety in my son.

Being with my children in their distress and mess has done wonders for the amount of time it takes them to settle.  I used to battle with them for hours. Now, if I just invest 10 minutes to listen and hold them, I find it can be over that quick.  I wanted to pass this on to any parent or teacher in the struggle as it’s helped me enormously.

So friends, be brave to be with yourself in your own mess and in your children’s. We won’t get it right every time.  It’s ok, that’s not the point.  The point is to protect connection with our children and that we are vulnerable enough to try.

4 Responses to How to work with a child with difficult behaviour
  1. AndriaNo Gravatar Reply

    This article brought up so many different feelings. We are struggling with our 21/2 year old little girl. I feel like I am the only one that sees her fits of rage and phydical agression while everyone else wants to dismiss them as tantrums. I push her away because I too just want the anger to go away. I don’t know where to start.

    • connieNo Gravatar Reply

      I so understand this, Andria. I have been there too. Still am sometimes. I think for us parents the place to start is with us. Why do we want to push the anger away? Were we allowed to be angry or show emotion? Were we comforted in our pain? I have found for myself the reason I don’t want my son to be angry and push him away in those times is because I wasn’t supported in my emotions. It’s alright to be angry or sad. When someone comes along side me and listens, understands I feel so much better. When someone tells me to “calm down” when I’m upset I get even more upset. It’s good to pay attention to what works for us so we can give that to our children. I will be saying a heartfelt prayer for you today. Strength and wisdom is yours and I promise, you have what it takes to do this. Cheering for you

  2. KristiNo Gravatar Reply

    Wow. I’m going to read this about a hundred times. And print it out. And highlight it. And read it again…

  3. CarleneNo Gravatar Reply

    “You never send the hurting away from you …” How I wish that this lesson would replace “Take your medicine or I will leave you” among the families of psychiatric patients. People in mental health crisis are equally unready to manage dramatic changes of physical/emotional environment at times when they are experiencing raging internal instability.

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