One common first-visit presentation in my office are caretakers complaining of out-of-control behavior by a child. Usually the child has learned that the adult will ‘give-in’ if the child has a big enough rage, including the threat of violence.
The caretaker may be intimidated into giving in, or be desperate for their child to be “happy” (something perhaps the adult did not get to experience as a child), or maybe the adult cannot risk feeling ‘triggered’ by any amount of yelling due to their own past. Sometimes the child is playing a split between parents – learning that one will say No, and the other will undermine by saying Yes – an adult relationship issue.
My first response is to give empathy to the exhausted caretaker. Then I supply a brief map of why children may go out of control when adults fail to do two things: show up emotionally for the child, and care enough to set limits. Here is an example of my spiel:
“Kids are pattern-dependent organisms so they need to experience both attention and structure, or they go crazy trying to create patterns by themselves using their primitive little brain-stem-level defenses, designed for life-or-death survival responses. That means that, like infants left alone, they have no way to regulate their own behavior or emotions – sadness becomes despair, fear becomes terror, anger becomes rage and happiness becomes euphoria. Your best two ways to help them are to pay attention, by being present with acceptance, curiosity and empathy, and to be in charge, by caring enough to say No — something kids can’t say to themselves.”
Sometimes I quote a lovely, simple mantra by the successful Burch Ford, former Head of Miss Porters School in Connecticut: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘No’.” Then we move the adult-child therapy forward in any of several directions, because most adults are now oriented to what children are needing from them – though the child may deny it as part of their opposition.
Relief soon follows.