Your Child’s Behavior Is Not An Attack On You (But It Sure Does Feel Like It)!

It’s really hard to not take your child’s meltdowns, outbursts, or aggression personally. In the heat of the moment how do you differentiate between trauma and a personal attack on you?

mother and her daughter

For years I misunderstood my child’s behavior. The aggression, words, and defiance were all an attack on me! Or so I thought. I’d shake my fists at the heavens and beg for a better behaved child, or at least a “fix-it” solution. I even tried to parent the way I was parented, growing up. I’d set up the boundaries, I’d reinforce the rules, and if said boundaries or rules were crossed, BAM… consequences enforced. If you acted like a little jerk to me in front of my friends, or at church, GROUNDED! If you acted out, stole something, hid food under your bed, BUSTED! And to be quite honest, for years I felt as though we were running in a hamster wheel. Not only did I see zero traction, but I didn’t like the way my disciplinarian style was making me (or my child) feel. Bottom line: it wasn’t working.

I’d love to tell you that I read The Connected Child, or had an “Ah-Ha!” moment in a parent class, soon after, and presto! My entire tune changed! But that’s not what happened….not even close!

Nope, I kept running in the wheel. I’d react harshly to what I considered “a bad kid with bad behavior,” over and over, day after day. Often times, it was my reaction that perpetuated his “bad behavior.” Sure, he did behave in a way you would call bad, but what I failed to see for a very long time, was this truth…

It was not bad behavior, it was an outcry.

It was a fight for survival. It was a “I’ll reject you before you can reject me,” move. In his traumatized mind he was locked in a vicious battle. There was a voice constantly telling him that we would not be there forever (he had bounced through several foster homes before ours), not feed him properly (he was starving as an infant before entering foster care), and not keep him safe (he witnessed domestic violence as a newborn). He couldn’t even recall where most of these thoughts were coming from. But that’s the nature of trauma. It imbeds itself in our children’s brains, infiltrating all logic and reasoning, and in-turn, masking the truth.

Listen, I know where you’re at. Your child’s behavior feels personal. It sure does feel like an attack. And the behavior is bad, in the sense that it’s not what you desire, it’s not rosey, and it’s traumatizing the rest of your family. As hard as it is to believe, in the midst of those battles, he or she may not be saying to themselves, “Gosh, I hate my mom, I hate my dad, and I just want to be bad! I want our whole life to be miserable.”

What he or she may be saying is, “I’m afraid and I don’t know why. I feel anxious about something and I can’t articulate it properly. I fear that you’ll leave me like my birth mom or dad did.”

I know what you’re thinking- “Yeah right. It sure as hell IS bad behavior, and it sure as hell IS an attack on me.”

I know what it feels like to wrestle with these thoughts. Trust me, I know. But I also believe that it’s not intentional. The reason it feels like a personal attack is this: You’re a familiar target. And in her mind, she’s going to push you away before you have the chance to push her away. That’s why attachment and healthy bonding take years to build. It’s not an overnight thing. It’s not even a 6 month or year thing. With some of my children it took years. Yes, year(s), to build. Frankly, it’s still something we’re working on.

I know your wounds and I know how hard this is. But let me encourage you with these two principles that have been ultra-helpful for us when our child’s emotions have boiled over…

  1. Maintain control of your reaction. This is really, really hard to do especially when their rage, attachment, agitation, or aggression is at an all-time high. We often counsel parents who are dealing with a child who has severe outbursts, or even odd social behavior, to remain calm and firm. Don’t react to the words, or actions, of your child. Stay calm and firm. Respond this way and you’ll maintain a level of peace in tense situations.
  2. Stay consistent. Consistency is a game-changer. The way you build healthy attachment and bonding is by consistently fighting with them (not against them), loving them unconditionally, and continuing to stand by them over and over again. As Dr. Karyn Purvis puts it, “It’s not you against your child. It’s you and your child against their traumatic past.” Those words are gold. When you consistently love them and stay with them, you’ll see change. Not overnight, but certainly over time.

This is not an easy road, and it certainly is not easy to remember these principles when you’re locked in an 8-hour tantrum or days of aggression or attacks. It’s so hard to not believe it’s personal to you. But, I promise you, it’s not. You are the one person who has the great opportunity to remain a permanent and loving fixture in their chaotic and disbelieving world.

Question: Have you struggled to not take your child’s outbursts or tantrums personally? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Allisonm

    Thanks for another great post, Mike. This was for me a huge paradigm shift away from the way I was parented and from the way we were trained in foster/adoptive parent training. I loved the Love and Logic approach taught by our state’s classes. And had our children not experienced so much trauma, it might have been helpful to us. But the logic/natural consequences approach presupposes a trust-based relationship that we simply didn’t have with our children, who had been in foster care most of their lives and had been placed more than ten times. To them, logical consequences just seemed capricious because they had changed family cultures so many times that they hadn’t formed the common-sense and cause-and-effect thinking that is nurtured by consistency over years–even if things are consistently bad. I saw logic and my kids saw their emotional needs going unmet. I had to learn to listen to what their behavior was telling me and to consistently meet their needs instead of being focused on consequences, rewards and changing behavior.

    One of my children was physically aggressive with me for the first several years he was ours. Despite knowing that it wasn’t about me, being the focus of that level of rage every day was really distressing and exhausting. He wasn’t able to talk about it at all without shutting down completely or going nuclear in his meltdowns. He couldn’t grasp any skill building or coping strategies. He was emotionally like an infant and we just had to keep him and ourselves as safe as possible and press on with meeting his needs, no matter his behavior, until he reached a point where he started feeling safer and could start learning how to regulate. Now that he can regulate, we are able to utilize rewards and consequences with beneficial effect a lot of the time.

    Respite, support for us as parents, and a heavy therapeutic services presence in our household got us through. Our son is functioning better than anyone hoped, but it’s taken nine years to get here. As you said, Mike, it’s not enough just to know that it’s not personal. That reality has to penetrate my soul and my fundamental belief system to the point where it is the underlying assumption beneath all of my actions and reactions. I am not a strong enough person to have done that without a huge amount of support and repeated training. If other parents are finding this hard, it’s because it really is hard and asking for lots of help over the long term is not weak, but wise.

    • Allison, this was a big paradigm shift for me too. I totally understand the journey you’ve been on. I have too. So glad to hear that you have had the support you need in your home too. That’s a huge win!

  • DG

    This is a good article. One I will go back to many times, I’m sure. It feels SO personal to me, especially when I am physically attacked. We have two daughters adopted through foster care; one at the age of 7 and one at the age of 11. Our daughter, adopted at age 7, is 12 now. Although she is in therapy, she continues to express her anger/fear through yelling, aggression and violence. Therapeutic holds are necessary but I am no longer able to do them. My husband must. She is too strong for me and has injured me multiple times. When my husband is holding her, she taunts/threatens me, saying that I’m too weak to hold her and that if I tried, she’d beat my a@ss. The struggles we face are disruptive to our whole family and is causing secondary trauma to our other daughter. We have to protect her from the violence of her sister. It is a rough journey.

    • I am so glad you liked the post. And thanks for sharing openly and honestly here. We know the struggle you;re in very well.

    • Allisonm

      The tween years were especially difficult for us, too, as our youngest got too big for me, as well. I, too, have been injured. We didn’t want to lose what we had gained to that point, but I had been worn out for a long time by then. We found a therapeutic day program that picked up our son from school daily and took him to a center were he was in a “partial hospitalization” situation for about four hours a day during the week and home with us for nights and weekends. It even ran during school holidays and summer. My son spent eight months in the program. It included weekly family therapy, group and individual therapy, recreational activities, and dinner each evening. Working together with the therapists and staff, we were able to meet our son’s needs more effectively and to get more rest, too. The staff helped us stay regulated in the face of extremely volatile behavior. Our ability to communicate improved and we actually started having fun at times. Much of our family therapy took place while we shot hoops or played Gaga Ball. I had no idea such a program was available in our area. It was a good mix of living at home as a family while getting the intensive therapy we all needed to move forward.

      Our son has made major leaps in his recovery and our home life is light years better. This after being told by numerous professionals that he could not improve. I hope you will find resources that enable your daughter to recover more fully and give your family a hopeful future.