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The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways

The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.I snapped a picture of this quote on the wall at the Magellan International School the other day, and posted it on Facebook.  A week or so later, it had been shared by 68 people, and viewed by nearly 7000.  Obviously, this quote resonates for many of us.

One of the first things I tell most parents that I work with is that behavior is a communication, and that understanding the message in a child’s behavior is incredibly helpful for changing those behaviors.  To put it another way, something is behind or underneath unwanted behavior; triggering or motivating or strengthening it.  Those hidden drivers are usually unmet needs of some variety.  When parents can identify what those unmet needs are, they typically find that those underlying needs are needs they want to support.  In other words: the behaviors are unwanted, but the needs driving those behaviors are understandable!

Children who are acting in unloving ways are likely to themselves be feeling unloved, unwanted, not valuable, incapable, powerless, or hurt. (*) The response those children need isn’t greater control, or bigger punishments, they need understanding, compassion, and support for their growth.   LOVE.

How should a parent respond to these ‘unloving’ behaviors?  That’s a more complicated topic than this blog post can tackle, but here’s a little basic information.  A sustainable and effective response will include: staying calm and compassionate ourselves, not taking obnoxious (or even mean) behaviors personally, plenty of self-care for the parent/caregiver, working to understand the drivers of unwanted behaviors, identifying patterns and triggers, modifying the environment to prevent problem situations and support positive ones, and using circle-back conversations to provide information/support for learning, growing, and healing.

Can you spot the need for love in a child’s unloving behaviors today?  Stay tuned for next month’s article, which will share more details about how to do this.  (Or contact me!)

(*) And, it’s worth mentioning, physical states are deeply influential: hunger, thirst, tiredness, and overstimulation can all stimulate crummy behavior.

(**)  I googled for the origin of this quote.  I didn’t really find anything definitive, but one source said that it was the words of a teacher quoted by Russell Barkley (ADHD expert.)  Anyway, kudos to that teacher, whoever she may be.  :^)

Are you going to let her get away with that?

True personal story:

When my oldest daughter was about 8 months old, she got over-stimulated and grabbed an adult relative hard enough to cause pain.  We pulled her off, apologized, went into another room and helped her calm down.   About 20 minutes later, I apologized for my daughter’s behavior again to my relative.  Her response surprised me.  She said:

“Are you going to let her get away with that?  Shouldn’t you give her a little swat on the butt?”

At the time, I think I simply said that no, I wouldn’t be spanking my infant.  But, years later, I still often think of that brief exchange because of the stark contrast between “conventional” parenting wisdom and what–thanks to research–we now know.

To start with, did you know that when a baby or child is upset, the part of their brain that learns best is turned off?  When they are crying, dysregulated, hungry, overtired, “wired,” or “fried,” they can’t really learn.  So all the words, all the lessons, all the good advice you give them during that time?  It pretty much goes in one ear and out the other.  And it’s not their fault, either.  Their brains (and yours and mine, too!) are hard-wired to work this way.  Furthermore, in those over-stimulated situations, the part of the child’s brain that IS working is a primal, emotional, impulsive, defensive part of the brain.  You aren’t going to change the fact that the primal brain is primal, trust me… what you can hope for instead is to help your child improve their skills at managing their own dysregulation, so that they can get better and faster at bringing their more sophisticated brain functions back online.  That’s not going to happen for any 8 month old; we’re lucky if our 8 year olds can do it some of the time.

So, the next time your child is really upset, don’t try to “teach them a lesson.”  Instead:

  • Press the pause button on your own words and reactions.
  • Take a deep breath and help yourself either stay or return to calm.
  • Then, share your calm energy with your child, with the simple goal of helping them get back to their normal, higher-functioning self.
  • And for those children old enough to take your advice, save it for a later time, when your child’s brain and body are back in their normal, peaceful state.  That’s the very best time to teach!

When we rely solely on punishments to change behaviors, we either end up unsuccessful (for example: the prison system) or somewhat successful with negative side effects (for example:  poor relationships between parent & child, aggression in the child towards others, increases in lying and hiding behaviors, etc.)  To create a life-long positive relationship with our children, we have to approach shaping their behavior with gentleness, consistency, flexibility, and understanding.  Punishments don’t do any of those things—at 8 months, 8 years, or 18 years.

What we now know… is to limit our lecturing, work to understand why our kids misbehave, create an environment that supports the behaviors we want, create cooperation and mutual respect, and focus on the positives.  This creates healthy adults, better parent-child relationships, and it works.

***If you like this post, click over to this one on a similar theme that I wrote last year: If not punishment, then what?

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How Does Play Therapy Work?

A dad I know asked me about play therapy the other day. Does it really work? How does it work? How can play be therapy?

“Oh,” I said, “Good Question!” ;^)

Children aren’t cognitively or verbally able to process everything that happens to them in their lives (shoot, neither am I!) nor do they have the cognitive or linguistic development for insight-oriented talk therapy (what most adults are doing in their individual therapy sessions). Therefore, children find healing and growth some other way. Enter play therapy.

Play therapy does work, and my favorite explanation of how play therapy works is this: it gives the child the opportunity to re-experience and/or communicate about something from their normal life, in a context that is (a) safe, (b) under their control, and (c) associated with different emotions. There’s some fancy neurological stuff going on when this happens, but the upshot is that it allows the child to re-experience something in a way that heals.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example… Little Johnny’s father drinks beer every night and basically ignores his family when he drinks. Johnny comes to my office one day and selects the family dolls. He finds my miniature beer cans (yes, I really do have miniature beer cans) and puts one in the father doll’s hands. Then he has the child doll take the beer can from the father and hide it. Do you see what’s going on here? In Johnny’s real life, he might want to take the beer from his father, but he cannot safely do so. In the play therapy setting, he can pretend to do the thing he wants to do, and he can feel control over the whole situation in a way he never can in real life. The other major component of how this works is that while he is re-experiencing this, his brain is firing up the same neural connections that fire up in real life-but this time Johnny is in a different emotional state. He’s calmer and feeling less of whatever uncomfortable emotions he typically feels when his father drinks-and this is very healing.

Want a real-life example? From my own life, of course, I can’t share real client stories. My toddler daughter has curly hair. Our nightly hair-brushing is frequently an unpleasant chore (and trust me, I’ve tried every product/trick/approach known to mama.) But the upshot is that sometimes she fusses–a lot.  Some time ago, I gave her the brush and let her brush my hair. She loved this and we now do it regularly. When she brushes my hair, she grins and laughs and says: “Mama: CRY!” So I whimper and cry and say all of the phrases she usually says to me when I brush her hair, all to her great delight. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it the first few times we did that, but eventually I caught on-she’s creating her own little play therapy routine. Now every time we play that game, although I’m “crying” on the outside, I’m smiling inside… play therapy works!