Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Uncertainty Breeds Resistance

uncertaintyQ: What do you do with a child who is so compelled to a repetitious behavior that he can't be redirected to the task at hand?
A: As humans, one of our basic primal needs is that of certainty. It feels good to know for certain what is going to happen, when it is going to happen, and how it is going to happen. We also seek certainty through our behaviors and actions. For some, repetitive behaviors create certainty which reduces the level of internal fear. OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is about an intense need for certainty. For others, food creates certainty. Food makes us feel good, thus gives us an instant feeling of certainty.
Additionally, many parents seek certainty through controlling parenting techniques.
On the other hand, uncertainty is a basic human need as well but only if there is enough certainty in our lives to create a balance between the two. For most of us, we enjoy an occasional surprise, it creates excitement. We like change, to a small degree, because it creates variety in our lives. For some, a higher level of uncertainty creates a rush of being "alive" like riding a roller coaster, watching a scary movie, or even jumping out of an airplane.

For children with traumatic histories, they have experienced an over abundance of uncertainty. There has not been a balance between the amount of uncertainty and certainty in their lives. If an imbalance of the two creates a level of fear for the average adult then it is understandable for a child, with limited coping skills, such an imbalance creates an exponential amount of fear.

The result is a child who will constantly seek certainty, at all costs. He is working to live in a heightened state of certainty in order to calm the fear of uncertainty that is programmed in his nervous system.

When we as parents then try to redirect this behavior, we are creating yet more uncertainty. The child, in his desperate attempt to return to a state of balance and regulation, will resist the parent and refuse to be redirected. The parent typically interprets this as "bad" behavior, "defiant" behavior, or "disrespectful" behavior. Worse, the parent takes this lack of responsiveness personally as if the child is behaving in this manner simply to push the parent's button or to be revengeful.

The negative neurological feedback loop is thus in full swing. Both the parent and the child are working to attain certainty, yet they are both doing it from a self-absorbed framework. The relationship becomes more strained, thus breeding more uncertainty! 

If the parent can understand that the child is simply working to create certainty in his uncertain world, this negative loop can easily be interrupted. The parent can acknowledge that the compelling behavior (as given in this question) is helping the child feel better and that switching to a new task is incredibly difficult and scary. A conversation might look like this:
Parent: "Tommy, it is going to be time for us to go out and rake leaves in a few minutes."

Tommy: ignores his mom and continues to keep pushing his Hot Wheels up and down the hallway, over and over again.

Parent: Sitting down near Tommy, acknowledges his behavior, "You like running your cars up and down this hallway, don't you? I think you've been doing for over an hour. Wow! That does look like fun and I bet it makes you feel good."

Tommy: "I don't want to go rake leaves."

Parent: "I know. It isn't easy changing from one activity that makes you feel good to another activity that you don't even like."

Tommy: "I hate raking leaves."

Parent: "I know. I want to help you today. I don't want you to feel so overwhelmed with this type of stuff anymore. If I'm with you, I'm certain it will be easier for you."

Tommy: "Humph"

Parent: "How about we do this in about 5 minutes?"
The parent works to connect with Tommy's fears and acknowledges his struggle of shifting to a different activity. The parent creates certainty by being with him now while promising to be with him during the new activity. Through their relationship, the parent is working to create the certainty he is seeking through the toy cars. The parent's goal is to help Tommy shift from using the toys as security to using the relationship with him as the security. Giving him five minutes also gives Tommy emotional space to consider making this change and time to process this change, which reduces the element of surprise.

As human beings, we are constantly working to create balance in our lives. Your children's behaviors are often times reflective of this need for balance. Look beyond the typical interpretations of defiance, disrespect, and retaliation, to identify the significance of your child's behaviors.When you can do this, you put yourself in the most powerful position - the position of a committed, loving, and understanding parent!

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