Monday, January 20, 2014

Bad Behavior NOT Bad Kids


One of the cornerstones of working with children and parents is teaching the distinction between a child's character and their behavior.  This concept is incredibly important to teach children - "you are not a bad kid, you have bad behaviors."  Coaching a child who struggles with bad behavior through the use of a tangible monster is an effective way to process their behavior.  Bad behavior and trauma are both difficult for a child to discuss.  Therefore, using a creative method that allows a child to externalize the behavior or trauma provides a base from which these tough conversations can be had and be productive.  Typically, children who have experienced trauma act out in some way, which is often a catalyst for the involvement of a therapist.  As a therapist, after building rapport with a child, explain that everyone has bad behaviors and sometimes those behaviors can feel out of our control (there are many ways to say this; assess the child and use a style that feels authentic).  At this point, you can introduce the idea of a monster (you can also use “a part of ourselves” if the term “monster” is triggering in some way).  Highlight that this monster is not who the child is, but only a part of them.  Tell the child that it can help to create a monster to talk about behaviors or bad things that happen.  Have the child make their monster three dimensional.  You can use clay, paper dolls, or have the child decorate a nondescript stuffed doll (they can add items to personalize the figure).  This 3D creation will allow the child to externalize the parts of themselves that may have been labeled as "bad," and enable them to talk about what that monster is thinking and feeling.  Children who struggle with bad behavior are not only often convinced they are bad people, but also that they should hide this part of themselves.  If there is a history of trauma, this “monster” can be used to begin to talk about what happened, which allows the child to form a connection between what has happened to them and how they behave.  This process is delicate, and would likely be an intervention best utilized once a solid rapport has been established.

4 comments:

  1. Very interesting/helpful way of re-framing a common interaction between an adult and a child who is chronically acting out. I think that people's first reaction when they see a bad behavior being exhibited by a child is to "correct" it by letting the child know that what they are doing is bad - sadly this usually comes out as "bad boy" or "bad girl". Of course the child isn't bad, it's just the behavior!

    This reminds me of a recent article I read about how telling a child they are smart over and over again will actually cause them to give up more easily when they "fail" because they are more likely to feel that they must not be that smart if they are all of a sudden having a hard time with something. On the other hand re-framing the same interaction and using the word hardworking actually encourages the child to keep trying harder even when they are up against challenges. I agree completely that children are not bad because of their behaviors just like someone who may be highly intelligent may have to work harder at certain subjects.

    The point is our words have a great influence on a child's development and self image and perhaps we should focus our energy on choosing wisely.

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    1. Caroline,

      I very much appreciate the point you highlighted from the article you read. It is an important reminder of the power of taking an extra moment to praise a child for what they do instead of labeling who they are. Saying to a kid "you just held the door open for me, that was really nice," is so much more meaningful than just telling them they are nice. Our goal should be to teach children positive behaviors, not that they are good or bad based on what they do.

      Thank you for writing in,
      Megan

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  2. It is easy for the well-meaning parent to unwittingly give unintended feedback to their child. Your suggestion about a way to externalize the negative behavior, especially if it is the result of trauma, is an interesting therapeutic tool. Clearly, children internalize the labels and feedback we provide. As Caroline G. said, we should choose our words wisely.

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    1. I'm glad you mentioned "the well-meaning parent." It is always important for providers to operate from a strengths-based prospective by reminding parents that of our intention to teach and not criticize.

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