Behavior is the language of your children. Unfortunately, there is no translation app available on your phone. You learn to interpret by observation, experience and understanding their big emotions. For instance, they may feel uncomfortable in a new situation and act hyper or out of control. Why is that? Maybe they don’t know the “rules“ for that situation? Taking my three-year-old foster child to the grocery store for the first time was a nightmare. She whined, begged, cried, demanded, etc. (Yes, we have all been there.) It was difficult and I had a busy schedule – I ended up leaving without finishing the shopping and was very frustrated. (Yes, we’ve all been there too!) But as I left the store, I realized that she was not choosing to be bad…but rather did not know how to “behave” in the situation. She needed to learn what I expected and practice it many times. For my own sanity, I only took her shopping when I was not in a hurry, had a deadline, or felt pressure. My self-regulation was the most important tool I had. Eventually, she learned my expectations and we actually had fun shopping.
It is easy to think of this technique with preschool children, because our older kids should already have these skills…right? After all, they may have experienced these situations often and even done well at least part of the time. So we expect them to always be capable…but that doesn’t happen. What’s getting in their way?
Adults have been taught that children choose to misbehave to get attention; “make us angry;” control a situation; manipulate us; or take attention away from someone who rightly deserves it (i.e., someone else’s birthday). But most children do not consciously think that way; often they are as surprised by their actions as everyone else. It’s not their choice to behave badly: they haven’t thought through it at all. They are just reacting to their emotions. What are they feeling? Fear of being left out? Loneliness? Curiosity? Or even that they were born bad and have no choice in the matter? These are just a few examples out of so many possibilities.
For example, your foster child acts up in the neighborhood. He entertains the other kids, making them laugh by telling off-color stories or breaking the rules. Is he trying to be bad or is he trying to make friends and feel important to someone? This is immature thinking, but many of our children are socially and emotionally half their chronological age. Ask yourself: Do you restrict him from playing in the neighborhood? Or do you have friends over so he can practice? (Remember, practice comes after teaching.) Have you taught him how to make friends? You are his safe base and biggest support in new situations.
Consider this scenario: You have a ten-year-old foster child without the skills necessary to make and keep friends. He “shows off” and “clowns around.” You and he discuss how to “be a good friend.” Maybe you have these discussions often, but they’re usually following some bad behavior in a social situation. In those instances, the child doesn’t hear what you’re saying. He’s already in guilt or shame mode and trying to protect himself emotionally. New approach: have a conversation when you are getting ready to take him into a brief social situation.
YOU: I noticed that you often say that you don’t have friends. Do you think we can work on some strategies that may help?
CHILD: It is not my fault! They always blame me.
[CAUTION: Resist the urge to say, “That’s not true” or “Well, it usually is something you have done,” or “Remember when you…”]
YOU: I am so sorry it feels that way. Let’s talk about how it feels to be a friend. When you see other kids with friends, what do you notice?
CHILD: They always laugh together, make jokes and tease each other.
[INSIGHT: That is why he always tries to make them laugh, make jokes or teases other children.]
YOU: When you have tried that, did it work?
CHILD: It starts out okay but then it feels like they are making fun of me instead of like with their friends or they walk away and ignore me.
YOU: I bet that feels bad. What if we try something else? When you [pick any successful interaction, like play with your cousin], you get along well. What is different?
CHILD: We talk about sports stats. He likes the facts, like I do. I feel smart and he likes me.
YOU: So do you think liking the same things helps?
YOU: How do you learn what other people like?
This conversation doesn’t necessarily have an end – it should be ongoing as your child grows up and is entering into various social scenarios. You are teaching him to see the world from a different perspective and helping him solve his own problems. Now, don’t for a minute think I assume this is easy! I know it’s not – at least it wasn’t for me when I first started approaching scenarios with my foster kids like this. We all have our own styles, and this is just an example. But, regardless of your style or of the scenario at hand, these are the main points to keep in mind:
- Talk respectfully with compassion and empathy even if they don’t respond respectfully.
- There is no judgment, blame or shame. This will take time and connection. It’s not about changing everything by the end of this conversation.
- This is about giving them the skills to figure things out. If they could already do this, they would.
- Stay focused. Do not jump on any rabbit-trails like “Everyone blames me.” Acknowledge their feelings but do not try to solve that problem now.
- Encourage them to think. Occasionally, they need guidance, not exact words. Be cautious. Do not give them what to think, but how to think.
- Follow teaching with practice. Keep it short and controlled with lots of positive feedback.
- Set a time limit. How long he can maintain his behavior successfully? If it is ten minutes or thirty, stay within that framework. If it breaks down, shorten the time factor. Remember behavior is their language.
Most of the parenting techniques I use are rooted in the teaching-practice strategy. A child cannot practice what they have not been taught. If a child repeats the same “mistake” over and over, it shows that he does not have the skills he needs to be successful. Our adult frustration is that we have told him repeatedly what we expect, just like we did for our other children. But, it hasn’t worked. Some children are caught up in survival mode. Some have sensory issues that get in the way of learning. Not all children are auditory learners. Some need to be actively engaged in the process of learning a skill.
If our child has struggled, it’s natural for us to restrict him from being in those situation again. Have you ever said something along the lines of, “If you can’t handle it, you cannot participate in that activity?” With our biological children, we give them time to mature and they catch up. Children with trauma histories don’t automatically mature into good behavior. They have to be taught. And how can they learn without opportunities to practice?
The technique I used most is one I called the “Circle of Opportunity.” Consider concentric circles. The inner circle is the most restrictive, such as the house or even your line of sight. The next circle may be some supervised time in the yard. Then gradually, the child moves to some unsupervised time in the yard. The next circle may be the neighborhood, still under your watchful eye. And the next would be less supervision by you, but from another trusted adult – like going to a friends’ house or school function.
These are not hard and fast boundaries; there will be a constant ebb and flow determined by the child’s success. You are sure to get comments like, “But yesterday, I….” or “All my friends get to….” You may be tempted to give up, but I encourage you: stand firm. Your child’s freedom is determined by his level of success. Each day is a new day and levels change rapidly with demonstrations of successful interaction. It is important for all involved (including the child) to understand that this is not stages of punishment but a series of opportunities for practicing skills.
So, back to our scenario above: I take my child to the library where he meets with other children. He heads to the sports section and begins browsing. Soon he spots another child with a sports “stat” book and tries to start a conversation. I observe from a distance. Is he being received well? Is he pushing too hard? Is he having a good time or spiraling? My goal is to leave while he is still successful or with only a small setback. This is not arbitrary. You have to stop on a positive note. If he feels it is going well, he won’t want to leave. Plan ahead. Make sure that he knows, from the beginning, that it will be only for a short time, and you are taking him for [another activity he enjoys, like ice cream] next.
If the situation doesn’t go well or he melts down about leaving, you still go for ice cream. On the way to the ice cream shop, you discuss how it made him feel; what went well; and plan for next time. Stay positive. Let him talk about when he felt comfortable/uncomfortable. Resist the urge to correct or interject; your role here is to empathize. He needs time to reflect without your input. While eating the ice cream, you use the time to discuss the feelings of success and a plan for next time. Recognize the small steps he is making. It’s not all or nothing to prove himself. Be authentic. (Kids know when false praise is being given, and it makes them feel manipulated.) Let him know how proud you are of his success. Name it. “I was so proud that you started a conversation.” Or “I was so proud that you found someone who likes what you liked.” Give him hope and assurance that you know he can do it.
REMEMBER: Teach, Practice, and Praise. (Repeat as often as possible.)