Your Badly Behaved Child Is NOT A Bad Child

I used to believe that my child was just being bad. I was convinced that he was a bad kid who just wanted to make our lives hell. But then I discovered some truth that totally transformed everything I thought, and most importantly, the way I reacted!

There are stories throughout history of people coming into the light of understanding. Call it transformation, if you will. These moments were life-altering for not only the person who experienced it, but those who were close to them as well. The Apostle Paul hated Christians and was actually responsible for killing many because he believed in an ideal, or a narrative playing out in his mind. And then he came face to face with the truth. He stepped into the light, and it transformed him.

About 5 years ago, I came into a clear understanding of what was really going on with some of my children. I had walked forever through the forest of misunderstanding at just what their past trauma had done to them. And then I reached the clearing. I finally understood that my child wasn’t just a bad child, behaving badly, when he acted out, became aggressive, or was extremely anxious over, what seemed, nothing. And those frustrating moments where I knew I was being manipulated? Actually fueled by something bigger than my understanding. Here’s what I discovered:

  1. It’s the voice of trauma. There’s a narrative that plays in our children’s minds. It may say something like, “You won’t get enough food,” or “These people aren’t going to stick around. They’ll leave like everyone else,” or “You’re not really safe here,” or “You don’t belong. You have no identity.” Over and over and over. Even when they have been in your care or your family for years. One of my kids still grabs food off of the table as if he’s starving. He’s 10 and he’s lived with us since he was 1. There has never been a day when we’ve run out of food. But that narrative plays in the recesses of his mind continually, even if he can’t articulate it. Your child’s behavior is probably brought on by a very same narrative.
  2. It’s an unmet need being expressed. When I realized this several years ago…GAME CHANGER! It was a game-changer in how I reacted, game-changer in how I approached my child, and game-changer in how I handled melt-downs, tantrums, etc. Yes, the behavior may be bad, and what he or she is going at the moment is bad, but keep in mind that because of trauma, they don’t know how to ask something or express something appropriately. You have to weed through the tall grass of this until you get to a clearing. That takes time and patience.
  3. It’s not about you. It’s fueled by trauma…it’s an unmet need. Gosh, I feel like a broken record here, but this needs repeating. When your daughter pushes you away because she suffers from severe attachment issues, that’s not about you. When your child is feeling anxious or is stressed out, that’s fueled by something that precedes your involvement in their life. It’s…not…about…you. I know it’s hard to not take it personally, but you have to remember that there is much more going on than just your interactions with them.

So, if this is the truth, what should you do? Because, let’s be honest…if you’re anything like us, you’re struggling to see the waterline with this kiddo. And you’re surely struggling to believe that everything I just told you is true. Here are a few strategies that we’ve used, as well as others in our community, that have some success (not guaranteed always, but often)…

  1. Connection before correction. I used to snap and scream, “What’s wrong with you?” Or, “What’s your problem?” Those questions were useless and just fueled their meltdown even further. I’ve since learned to ask, “How can I help you?” Or, “I see that you’re upset. Can you tell me what you are thinking or feeling?” Replacing “What’s wrong with you,” with “How can I help you?” builds a bridge…a connection. Taking the words ‘wrong’ or ‘problem’ out and replacing them with ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’ communicates to your child that you are on his or her side. Connection before correction can drastically lower the temperature of the room.
  2. Redirect. In many situations your child’s behavior is a hyper-focus on something that their brain is telling them they need, or want. With one of my children, it’s food (as I shared earlier). He will ask us repeatedly when dinner is, or if he can have a snack. He can become really anxious and even belligerent quickly over this. And while we never deny snacks (we always have healthy snacks on hand for our kiddos), we often will redirect by saying, “Hey buddy, it’s 4:15, and dinner is in 1 hour. So, if you look here on the clock, the big hand is on the 3, and the little hand is just past the 4. But it’s going to move all the way around and when the big hand gets to the 3 again and little hand is just past the 5, it’ll be dinner time. This does two things: 1) it redirects his focus away from the narrative in his mind, and 2) it is interactive. He can actually see how long it is until dinner. And then we will offer him an apple or banana and we’re usually good-to-go.
  3. Calm and collected. You’ve got to maintain control of you. Stay calm and collected. I know this happens all the freaking time and you’re tired. But keep in mind what is playing out in your child’s mind. In a recent post, I talked about 3 big questions you can ask yourself to help you gain the right perspective on the situation. Read that post here.
  4. Gentle but firm. Remaining calm and collected doesn’t mean you become soft on the boundaries. You need to gently, at the right time, remind your child of the boundaries, or the consequence for destroying things in the home. We went through an entire situation several years ago, when our child was throwing a full-blown tantrum (breaking Christmas ornaments, etc). We said nothing while the tantrum was happening. Didn’t even react. But then, after the dust had settled, and he was finally calmed down, we reminded him that he needed to clean up his mess. We were gentle, but firm on the boundaries.

You may have to repeat yourself a billion and 12 times before seeing results. It’s frustrating. We know full well. But, as our good friend Dr. Ira Chasnoff often says, “Repeat, repeat, repeat!” Remember, you are parenting a child who, because of their past trauma, has an altered brain. In the case of pre-natal exposure to drugs or alcohol, he or she has a damaged brain. In many cases, when you’re wondering, “What are they thinking?” they may not even know the answer. They are grappling…grasping….fighting for something they can’t even articulate.

Even when their behavior is manipulative and conniving. Again, hard to remember in the moment. It’s way easier to embrace and have compassion for a kiddo who is melting down, sobbing, broken-hearted, than it is for a kiddo who manipulates, is sneaky, steals, lies, etc. But, they are doing the same thing the child who is sobbing is doing. They are expressing an unmet need, a fear, or an anxiety.

One more thing I want to add on to the strategy list. Call it Number 5, if you will…

  • Believe that your child has hope and a future…in-spite of what is happening right now. You simply cannot predict his or her future based on their present situation, or behavior. You just can’t. Everyone has hope…and everyone can change. Your kiddo is no exception to this.

Have hope, dear parent. You are not alone. Foster care is worth it. Adoption is worth it. Your child is worth it!

Question: How have you handled these situations with your child? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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