Resilient parenting involves seeing the needs behind challenging behaviors

by Bob DeMarco •

Webster’s defines resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Resilience is toughness, inner strength. Without it, we wither when hard things happen to us.

Our Kids Are Resilient!

All children in foster care or who have been adopted have endured the trauma of being separated from their biological families. Many have endured even more traumatic events.

Out of necessity, these children learned to adapt to their circumstances. For example, the child who was neglected may have learned to care for himself and his siblings. To avoid the pain of being abandoned, a young girl might develop a more palatable story that elevates her mother’s actions to the heroic. The boy who moved from home to home and family to family might close himself off to affection to avoid the inevitable broken heart.

These are all ways children who have been through hard things demonstrate their resilience. They are learned through the school of hard knocks, and they are learned well.

But Adaptations Can Be Challenging

Unfortunately, our children’s adaptive behaviors can sometimes be the ones we find most challenging: stealing, hoarding, lying, hurting animals, parenting their siblings, running away, fighting, disobedience, sabotaging a new placement . . . the list goes on and on.

Destructive and ultimately self-defeating as they may be, these behaviors are ways that a child protects herself or meets a perceived need. The needs behind the behaviors run deep, so the behaviors themselves cannot be easily overcome.

Seeing Beyond the Behavior

When struggling with challenging behaviors, try to see beyond the behavior to the child’s underlying needs. This accomplishes several things. First, it allows us to see the child’s true heart. When we can do this, our perspective changes from seeing a “problem child” to seeing a child with problems.

This shift makes all the difference. It moves the parent-child relationship from adversarial to a partnership. Rather than struggling with your child, you can stand shoulder to shoulder together against the demons that chase him.

When we get really good at seeing beyond the behavior, we may be able to see some real positives in children’s resilience. Instead of seeing a kid with tough skin, we may begin to see them as truly courageous and strong. Maybe they persevered through years of abuse, or they may have such a sense of loyalty to their siblings that they would do anything to protect them. Maybe they have such deep love and compassion for their parents that in spite of what the parents have done, the child is willing to forgive and try to forget.

Choosing to see children who have experienced trauma in this way can infuse battle-weary parents with much-needed hope and the will to persevere through the storms children’s pain can bring into our homes.

Seeing beyond the behavior also helps us to be better advocates for our children. We can work on our children’s behalf, helping others in their lives to see them as we do. We can focus our child’s support system to target true needs, rather than merely managing behaviors.

We must proactively address our own needs in a healthy way so we have the strength and perseverance to do the hard things we are often called to do.

Reflecting on OUR Adaptations

My original thought in writing this piece was to focus on our children’s resilience and their adaptive behaviors and to encourage you to think differently about them. This is important to be sure, but I’ve come to see that’s only a part of the picture.

It occurs to me that, just like our children, we resource parents develop adaptive behaviors and attitudes to meet our needs. If I’m honest, I have to admit that some of these behaviors and attitudes can be self-defeating and destructive.

In the five and a half years our kids have been with us, my wife and I have learned lots of “survival skills” that help us in the short-term, but not in the long run. Things like trying to control our children’s every move (even when they aren’t being unsafe), or stepping away from support systems that may be difficult to maintain, or being overly skeptical about our child’s intentions more often than we ought, or choosing to do whatever is easiest for us in the moment.

All these adaptations were born out of necessity in response to some crazy thing that’s gone on, but I have to ask myself: “Is my behavior or attitude motivated by what’s best for my child? Is there a better way?”

“What Is My True Goal?”

I think the answers can only be found when we focus on the right question: “What is my true goal?”

Sure, if my goal is to just get through the day without a major blowout, then the best thing for me to do is put on the TV and let the kids veg out. I can guarantee there will be no problems if we do that.

On the other hand, if my goal is to help my children overcome their maladaptive behaviors so they can live the best life they can, I arrive at a different answer.

In my way of thinking, we have sacrificed far too much over the years to have it all turn out badly because I was too tired to do my best. These sacrifices, along with my deep conviction about who my kids can become, fuel my commitment to helping them grow and heal. When I parent with my children’s long-term interests in mind, my success as a parent is no longer dependent upon their short-term behaviors and I can put my head on the pillow each night with no regrets.

My wife and I chose this life because we felt a higher calling to help some kids through some really rough things. While it’s true that we really couldn’t grasp the changes and difficulties in front of us, we adapted just the same. We don’t know what challenges still lay ahead, but I think it’s clear there will be some.

In light of that, I choose to think, act, and live for the long game rather than the short. As anyone in my house will attest, I often fail at this. But being committed to long-term thinking means that when I do fail, I have to get back up, dust myself off, and start fresh again.

That means I need to be willing to look honestly at my motivations and behaviors and adjust accordingly to work for the best outcome. It means that on a daily basis I have to make the hard choice to look beyond my children’s difficult behaviors to see who they really are and what they really need. It means fighting past my tendency to take the easy road or give in to fatigue.

As parents to kids who have experienced trauma, purpose-driven resilience demands that we proactively address our own needs in a healthy way so that we have the strength and perseverance to do the hard things we are often called to do. It requires us to understand that our kids’ negative behaviors give us an indication of both their vulnerabilities and their strengths. It takes a lot of patience and work to overcome these challenges…but it’s worth it.

Bob DeMarco is an adoptive parent in North Carolina.