| I have recently had several phone consults with therapists and case workers seeking advice on how to help children exhibiting difficult behaviors. Listening to their descriptions of these children has painfully reinforced to me how one's perception of a child is paramount. It directly influences whether the child has a chance for healing or whether he will be targeted as the "problem" before he even enters the starting gates.|
Traditionally, when a child misbehaves, he is viewed as the "Identified Patient" in therapy. The approach is to
|describe the child's behaviors and then determine how to "fix" or "change" the behaviors.|
While this traditional approach is designed to be accomplished from a strictly objective perspective, the reality is that the perspective taken is the adult's. Herein lies the problem. The behaviors are viewed through the lenses of the adult, not the child. The behaviors are viewed as acts against the adults, against the rules, and against what is age appropriate. When these behaviors do include the emotional context of the child, the interpretation of how the child is feeling is again viewed from the perspective of the adult, not the child.
Let us take an example of a description of a 10-year-old boy to give more definition to the idea that perception is everything:
New ViewThis is a 10-year-old boy who is out of control.
The description above is not an objective description of this child. It is judgmental. It is saying in short, "This child is acting badly and he needs to change." Some would even go so far as to say, "This is a bad child and he needs to be shape up or ship out."
Instead, from the child's perspective, a more comprehensive and accurate description would be as follows:
With the correct perception, the answers about what to do and what not to do become clear. Sending this child away to a residential treatment center would only create more of what he is already fearing--abandonment. It would confirm his fear that his mother would choose his stepfather over him (as he would be the one sent away, not the stepfather). In short, this course of action would recreate the child's original trauma.This is a 10-year-old boy in need of healing. He is communicating his level of fear and pain through his behaviors. Due to a past trauma history that has not been processed, heard, or understood, he is insecure, scared, and does not feel safe in his world.
This is an issue within the dynamics of the family, not with the child alone. First course of treatment would be to work with the mother to help her get back to a place of recapturing her desire to be a mother to this child, flushing out her guilt for what happened in the past, and allowing her space to acknowledge her feeling like an unsuccessful parent. She needs support, love, and validation, as well as education to understand what is driving her child's behaviors.
This child needs help in processing the past trauma with his father. He needs to be able to express the helplessness, powerlessness, and hopelessness that occurred during that time. He also needs to have a voice about his current fears and have these received by his mother in order to create more security in their relationship. He needs empathy instead of blame.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Dr. Wayne Dyer: "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."
For this little boy, when we change the way we look at his behaviors, it changes everything. His acting out begins to make perfect sense. Perception is truly EVERYTHING.
If we are going to effectively help our children, we must first see and feel things from their perspective. Once we understand what is driving the child's behavior, the "what to do" will unfold with clarity.
Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.