Vol. 16, No. 1 • November 2011

When Your Child Engages in Difficult Behavior

by David Pitonyak

Several years ago I was asked to speak to a group of parents in Vermont. The title of the presentation was “Supporting Children With Special Needs.” Five minutes into my talk, a parent stood up and interrupted me. She insisted that I stop referring to her daughter as someone with “special needs.” I had been using the term a lot.

“My daughter does not have special needs” she said. “My daughter has the same needs as anyone else. She has a need to live at home with her family. She has the need for a good education, friends, fun, and a supportive family. Sometimes you professionals — in your efforts to provide special services to people — forget the ordinary, everyday things that people need.”

As awkward as I felt about the evening, I felt grateful too. I learned one of the most important lessons I have ever learned as a professional: sometimes, in our efforts to provide “special” services to people, we often forget the ordinary things people need every day—friends, family, interesting and fun things to do, safety and security, and a chance to make a contribution to the larger community. In short, a chance to belong.

What follows are ten things to remember if your child, because he or she exhibits difficult behaviors, is at risk of not belonging. If you don’t have the time or energy to read one more word, remember these two ideas:

Taking care of yourself is one of the most important things you can do. If you don’t, it will be very difficult to take care of anyone else.

Remember that your child’s problem behaviors have meaning. Finding out what your child needs is the first step in supporting your child, and the people who love your child, to change.

1. Be mom and dad first. Your love is the most powerful treatment any of us can imagine. If all the other stuff you have to do first interferes with being a parent, stop. Someone else can do some of the other necessary stuff, but nobody else can be Mom and Dad.

2. Think of challenging behaviors as “messages.” Difficult behaviors result from unmet needs. Through his or her behavior your child might be trying to say I’m lonely, I’m bored, I have no power, I don’t feel safe, You don’t value me, I don’t know how to tell you what I need, or even My ears hurt.

A single behavior can “mean” many things. The important point is that difficult behaviors do not occur by accident, or because someone has a disability. Difficult behaviors are expressions of real and legitimate needs. All behavior, even if it is self-destructive, is “meaning-full.”

3. Learn about person-centered planning. Unlike traditional approaches to planning, which ask questions like, “What’s wrong with you?” and “How can we fix you?”, person-centered planning focuses on questions like, “What are your capacities and gifts and what supports do you need to express them?” and “What works well for you and what does not?” and “What are your visions and dreams of a brighter future and who will help you move toward that future?”

4. Don’t assume anything. Don’t underestimate your child’s potential because of his labels or because he has failed to acquire certain skills. You can speak volumes to your child about his self-worth by always including your child in conversations and explaining things as clearly as you can. Even if you doubt your child’s ability to understand your words, know that at the very least your child will understand the tone of your voice; make sure it reflects dignity and respect as often as you can. Never speak about your child as if he was not in the room.

5. Remember that relationships can make all the difference. Loneliness may be the most significant disability your child will ever face. Many people with disabilities, young and old, live lives of extraordinary isolation. Friends are often absent altogether. Encourage, guide, and support your child to make friends, be a friend, and become a part of the community.

6. Help your child to have more fun. Fun is a powerful antidote to problem behaviors. Count the things your child enjoys, the places she likes to go. Compare this to the number of things other children enjoy, the number of places other children go. Ask yourself, “Is my child having fun? Is she experiencing enough joy? Is this an interesting life?” Help your child add to her list of interesting (and really fun) things to do. Spend time in regular community places where people hang out. Make having fun a goal.

7. Take care of yourself, take care of your partner, and join with other parents to support each other. Before you became a parent—or a foster parent—many of you were a partner in a relationship that had enough love, nurturing, and respect to want children in your home. Don’t lose sight of that relationship. Before you were in that relationship, you were a person that someone found attractive, vital, and loving. Don’t lose sight of that person. Get connected with parents of children with and without disabilities. Speak up whenever your child’s future is at stake.

8. Help your child make a contribution to others. We all need to be needed. Help your child find a way to make a contribution to others. Help your child learn to support friends (e.g., an invitation to a sleep over, learning to ask “How are you doing?” or “What’s new?”). Things as simple as helping with household chores or helping out at church can teach your child that she can make a contribution.

9. Instead of ultimatums, give choices. If your child’s behavior challenges you, help him or her find more desirable ways to express the needs underlying his or her behaviors. Instead of ultimatums, give choices.

Don’t assume that helping your child to have more choices means letting him do whatever he wishes. Limit-setting is an important and fair part of any relationship. The real question is who is setting the limits and why. If limits are imposed upon children without their input, and if the limits are part and parcel of a life in which your child is powerless, even your best advice may be interpreted as one more statement of “do it my way or else.” Expect a general disregard for advice when the person receiving the advice is never heard.

10. Establish a working relationship with a good primary health care professional. When we are sick, we are not ourselves. Many people who exhibit difficult behaviors do so because they don’t feel well. The sudden appearance of behavior problems may be a signal that your child does not feel well. Illnesses as common as a cold or earache can result in behaviors as inconsequential as grumpiness or as serious as head banging. It is important to establish a working relationship with a good primary health care physician.

Don’t be afraid of telling your child’s doctor that you don’t understand a recommendation or finding. It is important to get a clear and straightforward answer to all of your questions. Remember too that it is important to go beyond a concept of health as the absence of a disease or illness. “Feeling well” and “being healthy” involves everything from a balanced diet to a good night’s sleep. Help your child to learn about “wellness.”

Adapted from the essay entitled “Notes for Parents.” To read the complete essay, visit http://www.dimagine.com/Parents.pdf. David Pitonyak, Ph.D., can be reached through the website www.dimagine.com.

Copyright 2011 Jordan Institute for Families