Thursday, April 30, 2015

Perception is Everything

Horse race 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:

Traditional View
This is a 10-year-old boy who is out of control.

He lives with his mother and stepfather. He demonstrates defiant and aggressive behaviors towards his stepfather. The child works hard to divide and conquer his mother and stepfather. This child is demanding all of the time. He sabotages everything that his mother tries to do to make things better for her son. He is dangerously manipulative at home and at school.

His history includes abuse by his biological father. His mother left him with his father who physically and sexually abused him. However, this was years ago and his father's parental rights have been terminated. This child has been in a safe environment with his mother for the past five years, yet he continues to be destructive and his mother is exhausted.

The family is looking at placing this child in a residential treatment center. Would this be the best course of action?
New View 

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:
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.

His behaviors towards his mother and stepfather are showing that he is scared of his mother abandoning him to another father. He is working to separate the mother from the stepfather in order to ensure his connection to his mother. He is scared she loves his stepfather more than she loves him.

From this child's perspective, his mother left him to the abusive hands of his biological father. His mother did not keep him safe and he is trying to voice this to his mother through his behaviors.

Additionally, he feels very unsafe with his stepfather (because of his history of being abused by his biological father). While his stepfather may be a loving and kind person, the child's perception from his past tells him differently. His aggressive behaviors towards the stepfather are reflective of this fear of being hurt by him. The child's philosophy is, "I will hurt you before you hurt me. I will NEVER be vulnerable or helpless ever again."

The mother has been raising a child with challenging behaviors for several years now, doing the best she can but without much success. She is tired, frustrated, and worn down. She is more than likely not even wanting this child in her home because she is feeling unsafe and scared his behavior will split up her new marriage.
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 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.

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.