They Would Behave Better if They Could

Originally posted January 28, 2014

I have worked my way through the book “The Behavior Code:  A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students” by Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport.  It is the first book in a long time that I highly recommend to parents (whether your kids are in public school or you homeschool), teachers, school counselors and other professionals in the field.

I initially bought it to help support the school one of my children is attending.  As always, I knew that anything helpful for the school setting might also be helpful at home.  I was right.  I have highlighted half the book and integrated a huge amount into our daily lives at home.

There are a few passages I am making myself read and reread and reread.  I’m stating them out loud to other parents so they will continue to become a more regular thought in my brain.  I’m considering tattooing it to the back of my eyelids.

“A student would behave if he or she could.  If the student is displaying problematic maladaptive behavior, it is a symptom of an underdeveloped skill.  When students blow up or act out, it is a sign that they are stuck and can’t cope with the situation.” (emphasis is mine)

As a parent, when I first hear this I immediately have a wave of, “But, but, but …. are we supposed to just say, ‘Oh, you are stuck.  You can’t cope.  So, you can just behave however you want to without consequence!’?  Because that sounds STUPID and I’m not buying it.”

Maybe that’s just me, but I’ve felt that a lot when reading books and resources.  The feeling is real, even if it’s not actually true.  When we are juggling challenging behaviors (yes, I know – understatement!), we tend to focus on the negative.  And we just want the behaviors to stop. Because it feels like they never will.

Look back at that quote.  Find the underlined portion.  “Underdeveloped skill.”  That’s where the truth lies.  There is a reason underneath the behavior and there are things we can do to help our kids.

Our kids are acting the way they do because they cannot cope in that moment.  If we can sit around and take a deep breath, we can all agree that even we do that to a certain extent.  The times we act out as adults, the times we regret our words and actions the next day, are times we are having a hard time coping with our feelings in the moment.  Many of us can calm ourselves more quickly, or use the skills we do have to keep it from getting completely out of hand.

Our kids are simply trying to survive the moment.  They do some of these really unbelievable things because the skills they need to make a more positive choice are underdeveloped.

They need two things from us:  1) patience, space and understanding when they get into that emotional quagmire, and 2) resources and help in developing that skill during the times they are not stuck and triggered.  They need both.  And when both are provided, they start to slowly develop those skills on a level they are capable, and slowly they will be able to do more of it on their own with less “help” from the adults in their life.

It makes sense.  Yet, it’s hard.  It’s really hard.  Just this morning I wrote to some friends that I’m just tired of it.  Today.  I would just like a break today from needing to be the person to create that space.  And then I preached to myself.  Reminded myself that sometimes the best way to create that space is simply to know when to remove myself.  Walk away from the battle.  Let the battle go.  Do the opposite of the fight.

I practiced that this morning.  When one of my kids gets really stuck, they start to snowball consequences.  If they can’t get me to engage, they start to try to involve siblings.  And it just builds and builds and builds.  After a tough night, I was not surprised I woke up to the same need for a fight.  I actually did lay out a threat of, “If you can’t do a-b-c in the next 15 minutes, I guess I will need to do x-y-z.”  And I walked away.  I could feel it in the air.  I had actually engaged in a way that was going to only increase the fight.  I had handed them a way to consequence themselves on a silver platter.  This ain’t my first rodeo.  I knew how this could go down.

My kid would behave differently if they could.  Last night and today.  They were stuck, and it was not the time that any skills could be developed.  It was not the time that they could use cause and effect thinking or rational reasoning.  The feelings had taken over and they needed a safe space to exist until they were more regulated.  To push the situation and insist on compliance would only create a bigger fight with more threats, more engagement and more things not being accomplished.

So, I messaged some of my people.  I wasn’t even sure if they were in a spot to respond to me, so I just started writing as though we were talking it through.  I talked myself through it.  I reminded myself not to engage.  Then I asked myself, “What is hanging in the air?  Where have I handed this kid a fight that they most likely cannot walk away from?”

That’s when I shifted my thinking.  I thought of the expectations I had insisted on in the previous twelve hours.  I went through the house quickly, while they were in the shower, and did those things FOR them.  The only thing waiting for them would be breakfast and walking out the door.  Some of the things they had worked so hard to lose the night before were sitting there waiting for them.  No big fanfare.  Just right back where they were.  I removed every argument.

I turned on Spotify and started streaming their favorite music very quietly in the background.  For the record, that was the VERY last thing I wanted to listen to so early in the morning.  It was hard.  I hated doing it.

And then I started to breathe.  I had a huge desire to be sarcastic.  I was working hard to remove the fight and the battle so we could get to the other side of this stuck place.  But I wanted to jab.  Gaaawwwd, did I want to get in a few verbal jabs.  I didn’t.  I made bets with myself that I could get through the next half hour without going there.  I promised myself a reward if I did it.

I stayed calm and quiet.  I took a page from my friend, Lindsay‘s, playbook and answered all statements with, “Yup.”  I agreed and kept my commentary to myself.  And we got the things done and we got to where we needed to be.  On time.  Done.  They tried to create some new arguments.  I was the “Yup.  I see that.  Interesting” QUEEN!

Later, when there is calm and regulation, we will talk through how last night and this morning could’ve gone differently.  I will listen to whatever is said and not correct or disagree.  I will give them a voice, and know they are expressing themselves the best that they can.  I will create a space to start to develop those things that need to grow a bit.  We will utilize our therapist, practice other choices and reconnect, all when we are both in a place that our brains can absorb it.

They would behave better if they could.

I’m going to try to behave a little better this week, too.  And be okay if I have my own underdeveloped skills I need to work on.