Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Your Child is Misbehaving, Are You Listening?

Boy with Megaphone
Your Child is Misbehaving, Are You Listening?

By: Heather T. Forbes, LCSW

When reviewing records of many of the children with whom I work, I am forever perplexed at one particular notation I continually see written by therapists and counselors. Under the list of negative traits of the child, it is often written, "Child exhibits attention-seeking behaviors."
I strongly believe that children seek attention because they NEED attention. Nature has designed children to be completely dependent on their parents at the moment they are born. A baby crying is the signaling to the parent the baby has a need, a need that the baby cannot satisfy on his own. The baby is indeed exhibiting attention-seeking behaviors.

The natural flow of the developmental journey of a child is to gradually release this need for attention, moving from a state of dependence to a state of balanced independence. The time period for this is about 18 years. We are the only animals in the animal kingdom that have our children under our care for this length of time. Expecting our children to not need our attention or to view it as a negative behavioral issue during these 18 years goes against our biology.

When children do not know how to verbally express their needs (which is predominately the case during early childhood), they "speak" through their behaviors. In other words, behavior is a form of communication. When a parent can stop, pause, and "listen" to the behavior of a child, it can become quite obvious what the child is saying. Looking at the behavior from an objective perspective also unveils the logic behind the child's behavior. Here is a list of ten behaviors along with an interpretation of each behavior to demonstrate this:
  1. Slamming Doors. When a child begins slamming doors, it is an indication that he does not feel like he is being heard. By slamming a door, he is making loud noises, hence forcing the parent to "hear" him. He is essentially saying, "I need to have a voice and I need you to listen to me now!"

  2. Cursing. Most children know that they should not curse. They use profanity to jar the parent's nervous system into listening. It is a way to get a parent to respond to the child, even if the response is negative. The child's fear of not being good enough for the parent to pay attention to him, is also playing out in such a scenario.

  3. Shutting Down. A child who shuts down, refuses eye contact, walks away, or gives the parent the silent treatment is a child who is overwhelmed. We have traditionally labeled a child like this as defiant. This is a child who is saying, "Life is too big to handle. I'm shutting down my world in order to survive."

  4. Hitting Sibling. Sibling rivalry is more about the relationship between the child and parent than it is between two siblings. If a child is not feeling secure in his relationship with his parent(s), he will perceive the sibling as a threat to this relationship with the parent(s). Reacting against the sibling is the basic game of "King of the Hill" in order to win the attention of the parents. The child may receive negative attention from the parent ("Billy, stop picking on your brother!") but to a child, especially a child with a trauma history, any form of attention, whether positive or negative, is love.

  5. Challenging Authority. A child who challenges authority is a child who has lost his trust in authority figures. Look back into the child's history and you will likely see a child who was abused, neglected, or abandoned by someone who was supposed to care for and nurture the child. A child who fights having someone else in charge, is a child saying, "I can’t trust anyone. It is too much of a risk."

  6. Saying, "I hate you!". Such hurtful words directed towards a parent from a child are simply a window into the child's heart. The child is projecting his self-hatred and self-rejection back onto the parent. What he is communicating is, "I hate myself!" It is easier to hurt someone else than it is to feel the internal hurt within one’s own heart.

  7. Arguing About Everything. A child who argues about everything and anything is keeping the parent looped in a conversation in order to keep the parent attuned to him. He feels that if the parent were to stop talking with him, he would cease to exist. Arguing is his way of staying connected. It is a negative form of attachment.

  8. Laziness. Describing a child as being "lazy" is like calling a child crying in a crib a "cry baby." It is a gross misinterpretation of the child. Laziness is typically a sign of a child who experienced helplessness early in his childhood; it is a learned behavior. Neglect happens when a child tries to elicit attention from his caregiver and the result is nothing. No attention. No help. Zilch. The child learns that his energy does not produce results and as he grows older and gets challenged by life, he will simply shut down and do nothing. He is saying, "My efforts don't produce results so therefore I won't even try."

  9. Pushing Every Boundary. Many children have such intense behaviors that the adults around them in the past demonstrated a lack of ability to handle them or an unwillingness to stick with them. When parents find the child pushing every boundary, every rule, and every limit, the child is asking, "Can you really handle me?" and "You say you're my parent, but I need to know you're not going to give up on me so I will test you to make sure you really are committed before I put any trust into you!"

  10. Becoming Unglued During Transitions. Trauma happens by surprise and when it happens, there is typically a major change in the child's life. It is transitional trauma. The aftermath of such traumatic experiences is that the child becomes fearful of EVERY transition, whether large or small. A child's belief around transitions becomes, "Something bad is going to a happen. Guaranteed." Past traumatic experiences create the black and white thinking that "All change equals pain." When a parent sees a child's negative behaviors intensifying during a transitional time, the parent needs to remember that the child is saying, "I'm so scared that my entire world is going to fall apart in a flash just like it did in the past!"
When parenting a child with challenging behaviors on a day-to day basis, it is easy to lose sight of the idea that behavior is the language of a child. Negative behaviors are tiring! Keep taking care of yourself and keep your cup filled so that you have enough space inside of you to keep looking beyond the behaviors and listening to the behaviors instead of reacting to the behaviors.

The parent/child relationship is a dyad - a two-part system. Remember that your behavioral response also signals a communication to your child. Thus, it is imperative for you to stay mindful and attuned. Give enough attention to yourself as to stay in a place of love so you are always speaking the language of truth, love, and acceptance to your child in return.

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love
, and Help for Billy.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Getting to the Conversation Behind the Conversation

computer spill Q: I have a daughter who gets very angry when I try to correct her or remind her of basic household rules. I'm trying to stay calm, breathe, and think about what is driving her behavior, but I still can't seem to enforce the rules without her blowing up completely (for example, asking her not to have food and drinks around her laptop). When we are both calm later on, she isn't open to talking about her feelings. I don't know what else to do.

A: When our children can't express their feelings, we have to become vulnerable and open to them first. This, in turn, gives them the permission and safety to explore themselves at the emotional level.

If you are not being emotionally expressive, then she is not going to know how or feel safe enough to do this. Your job is to break the barrier. When you come back after an incident when you are both calm, instead of talking just about the logistics of what happened, explore the incident at an emotional level from the perspective of your heart.

For many children, however, the connection may need to happen more "in the moment" when they are raw, hurting, and already in an emotional state. Giving her permission to be angry right then, will paradoxically keep her from having to get explosive.

Any child who cannot accept corrections or simple feedback is a child who has deep fears of being rejected. Such a child lives with an internal belief system that says she is not good enough nor is she lovable.

Her response to anyone in authority is driven from an unwavering stance of: "I will never be rejected again. I will never allow anyone to be in charge of me. I will never get hurt again."

When she gets angry, which really means she is scared, address her internal belief system by flowing with what she is saying. "Dance" with her reactivity. Immerse yourself by listening to the conversation behind the conversation, not in a controlling way, but in a loving way. For example:

Mom: "I need you to move and eat your snack in the kitchen, please. That is the rule and that is what we agreed upon earlier."

Daughter: [Firing back immediately] "Why do I have to move to the kitchen? I'm fine doing my work right here. I'm not going to spill anything. How come every time I'm doing something, you have to interrupt me? I'm doing my homework; so just let me do this without bothering me! Just leave me alone."

Mom: [Pausing and breathing] "I know. It's really hard when I come in here. It is hard when I correct you, isn't it?" [Mom sits down, but not too close to her daughter and starts breathing to calm her own nervous system.]

Daughter: "What are you doing? I just want you to leave me alone right now."

Mom: "I know [Pausing and taking a deep breath]...I know. [Slowing down her speech] I have to hold the rule but more importantly, I need to make sure you're okay." [Mom is shifting from her head and into her heart]

Daughter: "I'm fine. I just need you to leave me alone. Please just GO somewhere. You always tell me you need me to do well in school. So now I'm trying to do my homework and you're bothering me. Will you please leave?"

Mom: [Pausing and taking a deep breath] "How is school going?" [Mom uses a gentle tone of voice with authentic concern]

Daughter: [no answer]

Mom: "School is a lot of pressure. It's a lot of work and I think I've been putting more pressure on you to do well, haven't I?"

Daughter: "Yeah." [with a sarcastic tone]

Mom: [Ignoring the sarcastic tone but heading into the conversation with curiosity and concern] "What class is your toughest?"

Daughter: "Math. It’s boring."

Mom: "You really don't like it, do you?"

Daughter: "No, it's stupid!"

And the conversation continues and shifts to issues surrounding school...

The mom in this dialogue stays very present and brings down her daughter's stress and anger by not reacting to the surface conversation. The mom could sense that her daughter's issue was more about school by the response her daughter gave immediately when asked to move to the kitchen.

The real issue wasn't about the drinks being close to the computer. Instead, the mom worked to listen to the conversation behind the conversation. The mom was able to hear that her daughter was stressed and worried about school.

The fear of not measuring up, not being good enough, and not being acceptable were the other driving forces around the daughter's disrespectful responses to her mother.

Once the daughter's concerns of school are fully heard, validated, and explored, then the mom would be able to return to the issue of the drinks and the computer. The boundary is still held in place, but more importantly, the daughter now has a greater sense of being worthy, loved, and understood by her mother.

Enter into these types of dialogues with the agenda of "knowing" your child verses "changing" your child. Respect, courtesy, and compliance will flow more naturally from a deep internal space from a child when the relationship is emotionally safe, secure, and loving.

Press on to get to the conversation behind the conversation!

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love
, and Help for Billy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Fear of Rejection Rules

rejected Q: My six-year old son can typically get his favorite aunt to laugh. The other day, however, he couldn't get her to laugh and he switched on a dime from a joking child with her to an angry child at me. There are so many dynamics in my extended family and he is with us due to a bad situation. He is actually my nephew. With all these family layers and with him rejecting me and blaming me for ruining his life, how do I keep myself from falling into all these dynamics?

A: For your son, getting his aunt to laugh at him means that he is finally loved and has connection. When he couldn't get her to laugh, his entire world fell apart. It was this drastic. For a child

with a high sensitivity to being rejected, one missed connection can turn into complete collapse.

His anger stemmed from the feeling of being rejected. His jokes weren't working so therefore she didn't love him anymore. Then he turned on you in a self-protective response to reject you in order not to get hurt again. As his mom, you have the closest relationship with him, which is also the most vulnerable relationship.

Rejection is a self-protective response, a survival response.

You have to stay very connected to yourself in order not to get pulled into the chaotic vortex within your family. When you are able to stay so strong in who you are, you no longer need anybody else's approval. You cannot change your brother, your sisters, or any of the other relatives. You don't have to solve their issues or convince them that you are doing the right thing, ever. You have permission to stay in a place of love and respect for yourself (even if nobody else can do this in your family).

When you are raising a child as difficult as your nephew, living in this framework is needed for self-preservation. Starting here is the place for finding peace and freedom in your home without feeling like you are trapped or stuck with the situation. Ultimately, you will then move to a place of self-love and that is the gift of the chaos and challenge that has unfolded in your family.

What this means is, when your son comes up to you after not being able to get his aunt to laugh and starts agitating you, you can be able to connect with his rejection instead of feeling rejected yourself. You can step back from feeling like your son is diminishing you. Step back, not from a place of detaching from him, but step back to realize and literally "feel" what he is feeling.

This is the moment to say to yourself, "This is my chance not to be explosive, but to find myself in this chaos." This takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline and self-awareness. When your child starts badgering you, you don't have to become what he is and what he is projecting onto you.

Be cautious though, because you cannot detach and be calm from a place of ignoring him or retreating away from him because this will typically ignite him even more. If he senses you are not present with him and have emotionally detached from him, then the same dynamic of being rejected has now been created for him once again.

This requires going "head to head" with him but not from a place of power and control but from a place of love, passion, and willingness to be in his pain.

What does this look like?

Child: "You're just mad because you wish you were my mom. I already have a mom."

Mom: "You're right, I'm not your mom."

Child: "That's right. You just wanna be!"

Mom: "I just want to love you..." (gets cut off by child)

Child: "I'm not part of this family anyway!" You're just trying to get rid of me. Nobody loves me in this family anyhow."

Mom: "Is that what it feels like? (pause) It feels that way, doesn't it sweetheart?"

Child: "Yes, because I know it is true. You just want to get rid of me. Everybody wants to get rid of me. I'm not a part of this family."

Mom: "I'm..." (gets cut off again by the child)

Child: "I'm not a part of this family. You just love everyone more."

Mom: "Everybody else just gave up on you, didn't they? That can't feel good."

Child: "Yes, it is your fault!"

Mom: "Tell me what I did. You're not in trouble, what did I do to make this so bad for you?"

Child: "You took me away from my mom. Mom wanted to have me and you took me."

Mom: (pause)..."What else? What else did I do?"

Child: "You yell at me, you get me in trouble, you always want me to work, you don't want me to play with friends."

Mom: "And it doesn't feel like I love you, does it?"

Child: "You don't."

Mom: "It feels like I ruined your life. Tell me that, 'Mom, you ruined my life!'"

Child: "You did...you RUINED my life!"

Mom: "I'm sorry it is so hard. Tell me more. I need to know how hard this is for you. Sometimes I do yell at you, sometimes I ignore you, we fight, and we don't get along. I don't know how hard it is for you to be in this family and not feel loved."

Mom engages by asking for the anger and she is doing it in an authentic manner. She put aside the fact that the child blamed her for everything, she did not have to defend herself, and she was strong enough in herself to know that she is a good mom and that she is doing exactly what her child needs whether or not he agrees with her or not. It is not the parent's job to convince this child. That is the child's process that he will have to find his way through in his own timing and later once a more rational discussion can be developed between mom and child.

Love yourself enough to reach your child's heart and pain when he is most "raw." You don't have to defend, justify, or rationalize the situation at the moment. The role of the parent is simply to absorb the pain, not fix the child, convince the child, but to simply allow the space for anger and pain.

This is a child who is terrified, simply terrified, of you leaving him. When you can feel this fear and understand it, it will keep you in your heart and in a place of regulation, compassion, and love for your child. That's where healing happens.

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love
, and Help for Billy.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Stressful Fun

Q: My 15-year-old daughter can have a great fun family day and then predictably follow-up with a major meltdown. While I understand that these great times are also extremely stressful times, can you give me specific suggestions on how to prepare her for these fun times and manage these times better to avoid the meltdowns afterwards? 

A: Preparation ahead of time will help your daughter to create more safety and predictability around a fun event. At 15 years old, she is cognizant enough to be taught why this happens and how her system reacts to such events, even fun events.

Draw the graph of the Window of Stress Tolerance (See Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, Volume 2 for an entire illustrated chapter on the Window of Stress Tolerance). Explain to her how these types of events can stress out her system. Help her to accept herself with the knowledge that these types of events with numerous people and lots of stimulation, are putting her in a place of overwhelm. She is simply reaching her breaking point.

Even though these events are fun, the fact remains that the environment is different, there are people she may not know, the activities may be new, and the location is unfamiliar. All of these variables are going to be a threat to her. This will require her to work exceptionally hard to maintain her regulation during the event. By the time she returns home from “fun,” her nervous system is overloaded and overextended. Thus, the “meltdown” becomes her only choice.

It is incredibly empowering to help a child understand why this happens and why her system is easily overwhelmed.

Additionally, give her as much information ahead of time as to what to expect. Is this a birthday party? Are you going to the bowling alley, to a park for a picnic, or over to an unfamiliar home? Who is going to be there? What is going to be happening? What kind of activities will she be asked to join into?

Help her in her mind’s eye to be able to create this new environment and to experience it ahead of time. Help her to walk through in advance as to what to expect and create a sense of familiarity with her. The goal is to decrease surprises and increase her sense of knowing.

Give your daughter a plan of action. At any time that she is at this event, invite and encourage her to come to you if she is feeling overwhelmed. Give her the permission to come to you and seek you for regulation. She needs this, even at 15 years old, because emotionally she is much younger. Give her the option of taking a break from the event. Jointly, you two can create an “escape” plan ahead of time.

Perhaps the plan is to go with her to the car and leave the event temporarily (reassuring her that she can go back when she is ready). You can help her to regulate by taking some deep breaths, listening to music, or talking and reconnecting within the context of your relationship with her, away from the event. Essentially, you’ll be giving her a “time-in” in order to return back to a state of calm and balance.

Interrupting the fun for just a few moments may be exactly what she needs in order not to reach her breaking point by the end of the event. Instead of a three-hour long party that taxes her nervous system to her meltdown edge, she will be able to take a break from the constant barrage of activity, regroup, reregulate, and maintain a stronger sense of balance throughout.

Relate this to your own experiences. Many of us absolutely need this type of interruption from intense activities, even as adults. If we are at a stimulating event, we naturally find ourselves taking a break outside, checking our phone, or disconnecting in some other way, momentarily, to regroup ourselves.

As a parent, we have to also realize that when we return home, as much as we do to help our children during the event, they might have to struggle. If you come back home and expect her to be okay, you are setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment. She may not be able to come back home easily and comfortably, despite your best efforts.

Lower your expectations according to what is her normal and to what is her nervous system’s capability. If you are expecting her to come home and to be okay and she is not, then you have created a very large gap between her reality and your reality.

Press on and I hope you are able to have fun times, with minimal “aftermath.” We all deserve to have more fun in your families. So, be courageous and keep reintroducing joy back into your life!

Love never fails!

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love
, and Help for Billy.