Friday, July 19, 2013

Day 19: Understanding Negative Behavior

Today's post is by Robyn Gobbel, LCSW.

What is your child’s behavior trying to make you understand?!

Behavior is always an attempt to communicate something.   Hugs communicate things like, “I love you,” “I trust you,” or “You help me feel safe.”  Angry words communicate, “I am really mad at you right now!” “I’m afraid but hate the feeling of being afraid and mad is so much more powerful!” or “I need you to LISTEN TO ME!”

When we parent a child from birth, we have the luxury of having a pretty good idea of what their behavior is trying to communicate.  We know the child intimately and develop a sixth sense about what is going on in their inner-most experiences.  This is so much harder when we are parenting an older child that we are just getting to know.  To know what a behavior is communicating, we have to slow down and listen.  Listen to what is NOT being said.  Listen to what is underneath that behavior.
For so many adopted kids, their negative beliefs about themselves and the world are driving their challenging behaviors.
First, let’s look at this in reverse.  Children who are raised by an attuned caregiver in a safe environment develop positive beliefs about themselves and their world, including:

  •        I am good/loveable.
  •       I am safe.
  •        I can trust grown-ups to meet my needs.
  •       It is safe to love and trust.
  •       My needs are important.

They learn these things when a parent always answers their cry.  When the parent knows what the cry means.  When the parents remains available and soothing even when they can’t figure out what the cry means.  When they feed, change a diaper, rock, gaze lovingly into their baby’s eyes, tenderly stroke their skin, lovingly dry them off after a bath.
If you bring home a child who missed out on those subtle, gentle, intimate, yet powerful aspects of being a cherished and loved child, you will need to consider what negative beliefs are underneath their challenging behaviors. 

  •       I am not safe.
  •       I am not a good or loveable baby.
  •       I did something wrong/this was my fault.
  •       I cannot trust moms/dads.
  •       I am not important.

These negative beliefs become “stuck” and continue to contribute to children’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  When parents are trying to determine if a child’s behavior is “normal” or related to something from their past, it can be helpful to look for the child’s possible negative beliefs.  The child who tantrums when asked to do a chore may have a negative belief that “all chores are punishments, and punishments are not safe.”  This child may have experienced harsh and inappropriate discipline.  Or maybe the child has a negative belief that "only the bad kids are made to do chores," and this hits the negative belief of “I am bad.” 

If we work hard to be attuned to our children, we can help identify these negative beliefs outside moments of severe behavioral challenges.  Then, when we are faced with a behavioral melt-down, we already have some clues about their core negative beliefs and can consider if those negative beliefs came into play.  Attuning to those negative beliefs-- truly understanding what is driving that anxiety and challenging behavior-- is the true path toward change. 

Read the whole series.

Does anyone else see negative beliefs underlying some of your child's problem behaviors?

Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a therapist in Austin, TX and the founder of the Central Texas Attachment and Trauma Center.  She specializes in helping children and families heal after attachment trauma.  Robyn blogs at in an attempt to help trauma mommas feel more supported and less alone.

1 comment:

  1. So helpful. Thanks for sharing this. I'll share it on our Hope at Home facebook page too. Understanding gives us compassion, and compassion is the door to change I think. I see some of these negative beliefs still at work in some of our children (adopted at 5, 7, and 10) even 12 plus years later. How deep the impact of lack can go. But we have also seen God replacing lies for truth regarding our children's identities, and that is just amazing!


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