When it comes to understanding behaviour, most of us have been sold a lemon.
Society has chosen for the most part to define children’s behaviour as either good or bad and to expect adults to reward or punish behaviour accordingly. But this doesn’t take into account how a children’s brains develop and what a child is trying to communicate through their behaviour. The good or bad/reward or punish dichotomy does more harm than good.
At some point in your childhood you would have been told by an adult that your behaviour was good or bad and this would have been followed by a reward or a punishment. The reward may have been simple, some extra dessert, or part of a more complex reward scheme, such as a star chart that had a goal of a treat or toy to work towards. The punishment may have been a stern word from an adult or something more shaming and hurtful, a slap or being shamed in front of other people.
I would ask you to reflect for a moment on what your experience was when you either received a reward for good behaviour or punishment for bad. Don’t distract yourself from this reflection no matter how painful it is, and avoid this statement: ‘I didn’t have it easy as child but I turned out alright’. Just focus on how you felt when you were praised or given a treat, or yelled at, slapped, sent to your room, shamed or intimidated. Did you feel that the adult understood what was happening for you? Did they understand how you were feeling?
The good or bad/reward or punish dichotomy
Defining a child’s behaviour as good or bad can to force us into a reward or punish dichotomy when we respond to their behaviour. This can have a negative effect on the child.
Consistently rewarding ‘good’ behaviour and punishing ‘bad’ creates an internal model in the child that gives them only two options: to see themselves as good or as bad. Unfortunately the feelings of ‘badness’ tend to take up more airtime than feelings of ‘goodness’. This in part is due to the way adults and society reinforces this dichotomy.
Some suggest it is about a 1:5 relationship. For every experience where the child defines themselves as bad it takes about five times as many experiences where they feel good to get back to where they started before the ‘bad’ experience. Given how children who have had adverse childhood experiences often act in the world, you can see there is a real risk that they are moving backwards at a rate of knots!
What is the alternative?
This is where it gets tricky. There is an alternative, however it requires carers, workers and teachers to undo their own learning, in fact potentially years of learning.
I am going to ask you to do something that might seem counter intuitive, so counter intuitive that you might want to stop reading this blog and exclaim ‘rubbish!’
Here goes, I need you to stop seeing children as good or bad based on their behaviours, no matter how extreme those behaviours are. Whether the child is physically hurting themselves or someone else, swearing at you, refusing to follow your instructions, withdrawing from you, going silent, pouting, spitting, hitting or any other manner of behaviour, either externalised or internalised. I need you to avoid getting pulled into their ‘vortex’ and joining them in their rage and pain however it is being displayed.
It’s a big ask but it’s a vital step towards
creating a healing environment.
Moving away from seeing a child’s behaviour as good or bad allows you to see behaviour as communication. The child is using the skills they have at their disposal to let the world know how they are travelling. This is true for all of us, it’s just that children who have been harmed and suffer from complex trauma have fewer skills to communicate their needs.
Behaviour is communication
You will already know about this if you have ever spent time with an infant. An infant initially can only communicate its distress in one way, by crying. The adults around them need to work out what the meaning of the crying is. Do they require feeding, a nappy change, are they tired and need help to settle so they can go to sleep?
With infants we tend not to use the good and bad dichotomy, however our expectation of children increases as they get older and we assume that they have developed the skills to communicate with us more clearly. This is a reasonable expectation of a child who has had a safe and secure start to life where their primary attachments are not unpredictable and their physical, psychological and spiritual needs are met when they are seeking support. However, when a child’s primary carers are not available or able to meet these needs, their brain does not develop as we would want it too and thus their communication style presents in some very complex and challenging ways, which can be difficult to understand.
When trying to make sense of a child’s behaviour and what they are communicating to you, before doing anything (unless it really is a life and death situation) it is helpful to follow these steps:
- Take your own vital signs – are you calm or agitated? Are you able to get yourself into a calmer state so that you can respond rather than react?
- Breathe – be in control of your breathing rather than it being in control of you.
- Observe – without judgement simply look at what the child is doing and do not rush into doing something.
- Listen deeply – give meaning to what you see – a good question is to ask yourself is, ‘What does this mean? What do I think the child is feeling – angry, sad, frustrated?’
- Seek to understand – ask yourself ‘What has happened to the child? What you are trying to ascertain is what has triggered the child to have such big feelings. This can sometimes be hard to work out if it appears the child has just spontaneously erupted.
- Respond – ask yourself, ‘What is the best thing for me to do now?’ Rule of thumb: chose an action that will add water to the fire, not fuel.
Keep in mind there will always be a trigger no matter how big or how small it is. Sometimes as adults we dismiss a child’s behaviour as ‘just attention seeking’, we think that they are doing what they are doing for no real reason. But this is never the case.
It is vital to understand that children
who seek attention, need attention.
How you respond to this attention seeking just might make things better or worse.
Australian Childhood Trauma Group