Everyday Responses to Demanding Children

Sometimes it helps to practice therapeutic responses day to day.  I.e., therapy does not have to be confined to office sessions.  I have been recalling the following interaction, and thought others might benefit from reading about it.

Some time ago we lived for a few years in Canada, a lovely country back then where most of the population lives near the southern border with the U.S.  (Now an ugly country even under Trudeau, tearing up its soil muskeg and its aboriginal treaties to produce trainloads and pipelines full of tar sands Bakkun crude — the worst of the fossil fuels — further damaging a climate already on life support.)

One of our neighbor boys, about age seven back then, was the youngest of three siblings.  While usually fun and within normal limits, he could sometimes be unusually ‘demanding’ — in need of attention.  One day he snuck up on me while I was mowing with our electric lawn mower.  Jabbing me in the sides from behind, he seemed intent on experiencing my reactive startle.

“Ow!  Don’t do that,” I said with minimal eye contact.  (Eye contact can be very rewarding to misbehavior.)

— “Did I scare you!?” he demanded, moving closer to watch my face.  But he had not acknowledged my directive.  No biscuit.

“Don’t do that!” I repeated with no pleasure in voice or face.  I call this non-juicy limit-setting.  I recommend it for serious teaching around serious disrespect.  Simultaneously I give zero response to the offender’s agenda.  He had a turn steering the bus and he blew it.

— “But did I scare you!?”  This ‘broken record’ technique of repeating a demand was invented by kids, because it works.  Except with me.

I called up my sharp-voiced inner alpha dog.  Alpha dogging has a limited place breaking up disrespectful agendas.  It uses a short ‘broken record’ with just a little shame, served with a no-fun facial expression.  (And keep this very short.)

“Don’t do that.  Do you understand?!

— “Yes.”  His tone submissive, we were done.

Time to change the subject.  “Did you guys have lunch yet?”  And so we moved on.  Lesson delivered, learned, and behavior stopped.

Well, almost stopped.  A few months later I was working in my garden when he appeared with a plucked flower.  He grinned to himself and tried to tickle my face with it, forcing adult attention.

“Hold on, Pardner.  You need to ask before you touch other people’s faces.”

— “Can I touch your face with this flower?”

“No, but thanks for asking.”

Whereupon he tried to do it anyway, eager for any attention from a safe adult.  Probably having a bad day with his older sibs.

I could have gone back to alpha dog again but his behavior was not dangerous, as when I was power mowing.  So I did a field impression of Empathic Therapist.  (Convincing because it is real.)

Big voice, moving closer with eye contact: “Wow, you didn’t listen to me!  That is so helpful, because it tells us that somebody didn’t listen to you when you wanted them to stop!  We’ve got to figure out who!!  Who didn’t listen to you?!!”

With unexpected vulnerability he answered sadly, “My brother.”  “And my mom.”  “And sometimes my dad…”

Maybe that was accurate, maybe exaggerated, maybe imagined (probably not).  What mattered was that he was finally focusing inside and sharing his inner life (thoughts and feelings) at that moment.  So I responded with acceptance and empathy, allowing us to feel like friends instead of opponents.

Me: “I’m sorry.  Not feeling listened to can be really hard.”

(Not a good time for defensive put-downs such as, “How do you YOU like it, huh?!  Now you know how it feels, right?!!!”)

After a pause, he chatted about something else, and we had our usual good visit.

 

Recommendation: practice looking under the surface so that when kids do annoying things we are ready to focus on inner thoughts and feelings.  I.e. “What’s going on inside?”

 

 

“May I Get a Copy of the Refrigerator List?”

This request arrives by email after every presentation when I run out of handouts.  The most desired handout is the Refrigerator List.

It is called the Refrigerator List ever since some of the first foster parents to receive a copy — while attending my talk in Indiana — told me later they stuck it up on their frig for quick reference.  It helped them in the heat of the moment when they struggled to maintain understanding and empathy for newly arrived foster children.

The Refrigerator List suggests that acting out behaviors are a coded language — the best the child can do to communicate given the insecurity of their inner thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes the child is simply testing the waters — as children need to do to find out for themselves where the rule are.  But an emotionally struggling child is often saying as best they can, “This is what I was given, and this is the safest way I learned to ask for help — to just dump it on you and hope you can figure me out…..please?  PLEASE?!  Nobody has gotten it yet, and I’m going crazy trying to regulate my awful thoughts and feelings.  Here, have some….show me how to manage them!”

And next thing you know you are feeling frustrated, resentful, even furious and despairing.  But it didn’t come from you.  You weren’t feeling those feelings before.  They came from the child as a desperate gift to you, in hopes of getting help they have been asking for since their development was left behind.

And the catch is — their horrible paradox — they have to reject, refuse and hide from whatever direct help you offer, until you have been tested to the bone for about three months longer than you can possibly stand it.  Hang on to your sense of humor, your supports, and your capacity to consult for outside help!!

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The Refrigerator List

Suggestions for decoding behaviors — possible explanations

by Robert Spottswood, M.A., LCMHC      Norwich, Vermont

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Violence, picking fights
— (Chronic fear of being deserted.  Feeling abandoned usually triggers rage in humans and primates.)  The surest way to prevent desertion is to keep you mad and angry at me for fighting.
— Please stop me!  I’m begging to feel contained and safe!
— I need closeness but I do not deserve it; hitting is the safest way to be close, while disguising both my need and shame.
— My endless fear, sadness and loneliness only gets a moment of relief when I put it into other people and then laugh at them for feeling it for me.  That temporarily numbs my own anguish — when I can laugh at seeing others feel my pain for me, outside of me.

 

Bizarre goofiness, endless pestering, whining
— I have to be in your thoughts all the time or I’m afraid I’ll disappear!  (I feel empty inside; don’t yet know who I am.)  Are you thinking of me now?  How about now?  Now?  Still?  What about now?….
— I didn’t have much for role models, so I provoke other people to react so I can observe them and try to learn.
— I’m so under-socialized, this is the best I can do. I’m so used to being called ‘weird’ it feels normal.
— Closeness, intimacy — terrifies me.  This behavior keeps people annoyed and at a safe distance.  Not hard at all.

 

Hiding’ behaviors
(sneaking, tricking, lying, stealing, hoarding, cheating, shoplifting,……….all very annoying!)
— I know I’ll be kicked out of this home, so I have to practice hiding and sneaking for when I must survive on my own.
— I don’t deserve to have my needs met.  You don’t realize that yet, but I realize it.  Nobody will give me anything I need after they realize how bad I am.  Sneaking will be my only way to survive.
— Depending on adults is like volunteering for a concentration camp; not possible, not on radar, can’t happen ever again!
— Since I am a shameful being, but you think I’m good, I’ll try to preserve our doomed relationship as long as possible.  I will sneak around and lie to protect you from the horrible reality of who I am; because you are so nice.
— Lying is my way of trying to tell you about my past; it’s what I had to learn in order to get along in my old life.  Can you talk to me about that, or are you just too freaked out by lying to help me integrate my past nightmare life?

 

Oppositional defiance
— I need to feel safe by maintaining control.  So whenever you suggest something, I immediately say NO, to create some safe space to think it over.  Then maybe I can say Yes.  This is me coping.  And it starts over every time.  Sorry.  Help!
— Saying ‘I’m not coming!’ and then screaming ‘Don’t leave me!!’ recreates an early conflict drama, over and over.  I’m trying to work it out, and need help, but can’t accept help.  (If that doesn’t make sense, welcome to my world.)  All my shame about this I must project onto you: you’re wrong, you’re mean, you’re stupid; I have to make my failure be about you.  (It hurts too much that it’s really about me.)

 

Letting adults down, disappointing them
— Positive adults make no sense to me.  All I can do is humor them until I run away or fight again, and watch their fragile dreams for me crumble over and over.  Are they stupid?
— The horrors I lived through (including neglect) are not even in the middle class vocabulary of conceivable experiences, so what do I do with these nice people?  Let them think their big thoughts and make their big plans for me, until I have to act out my real shame, letting them down over and over.  Sorry, nice people.
— Get over your disappointment and stop caring about me.  I did.

 

Avoiding
— You’re moving too fast.  First I need emotional safety. Second I need you to co-regulate my huge emotions.  Lastly I might talk about all your great ideas….. But make me feel safe first.
— Getting involved with closeness or even with conversation means getting vulnerable.  Can’t happen ever again, thanks to my past.
— I never learned normal conversation, so I feel stupid when you talk to me.  Just leave me alone so I don’t feel stupid.

 

Blowing up when told No; zero frustration tolerance; big rages when limits are set
— I’m stuck back in the Toddler’s Dilemma, back when kids normally come to accept that grown-ups who love us can also say No, and may set limits.  I never was helped to resolve that back then, and I’m still trying to intimidate and terrify people into always saying Yes.  I need help learning this lesson late, sorry.  Please help.  (But remember that I have to reject your help.  Good luck, and don’t give up!)
— Too much choice, freedom, and independence!  And too soon!  I can’t handle it, but I can’t refuse it either – just like if you let me drive the car.  I’m stuck!  Please step up to the plate, take charge, and don’t let me intimidate you out of it, because I’m really stuck.  Did I mention that I’m stuck?  Need more Momma!  Need more Papa!
— Though I can’t ask for help, I need help – it is scary to be aging with only infant skills to handle frustration.  So please be confident, be in charge, figure me out, and set loving yet firm limits I can struggle against without being shamed; early and often until I am done with that struggle and can move on. I don’t need screen time, electronics, or stuff.  I need parents and I need them to be in charge.  I’m just a kid trying to figure out complicated stuff.  (This is so frustrating….)

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“Murder-suicide” — but we usually know who did both

Current events:   A few days ago there was a murder near our town in Vermont, and yesterday the suspect was caught in Kansas — a thousand miles away — but only after he’d killed himself.
I mention this because it was (ho-hum) another one of those guys who kills the girl who just broke up with him — and I think men need to attend to this.

“Murder-suicide”.  In a patriarchy we know without asking which person did both.  And this is my answer to stopping one more generation of it.

Boys grow up wearing shirts that say “I don’t know karate, but I know crazy” and they think going crazy-violent is something we (males) practice for when we experience shame from feeling attacked or abandoned.  But men need to be giving boys daily feedback as they grow up — feedback when they do something pro-social (“You rock!”), or anti-social (“Bogus!”), or when they forget how to articulate their inner thoughts and feelings (“What’s going on inside?”).

Even if they reject it at first, I think it means the world to boys to hear guiding feedback from men who are safe, who pay attention, and who care enough to talk to them.

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When Adults Appease Children to Keep the Peace

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.

Question: Why do child survivors want to watch horror films?

At the end of 2014 a pediatrician emailed an interesting question — Why do some child survivors like to watch scary films?

On Tue, Dec 30, 2014 at 9:44 AM, Dr. Mike wrote:

Dear Robert,

I would appreciate your brief insights on why it is that many kids who have experienced adverse events like to watch horror movies? I am trying to wrap my mind around this.

Thanks,
Mike

Hi Mike,

Great question. I have wondered the same thing, even about adults. Here are some thoughts:

It appears to me that horror movies consistently try to create a feeling of total abandonment – the more isolated and hopeless and painful and unfair, the better the horror movie, it seems.

If so, that would allow the trauma survivor of any age to:

— experience relative relief: ‘I had it bad, but not nearly so bad as that guy has it.
Whew!!’

— pretend that suffering is, well…..pretend. ‘It’s just a movie. It’s just acting. It’s not real!!’

— temporarily identify with the overwhelmingly destructive force (validates any remaining Stockholm syndrome).

— view others going through overwhelming pain, despair and abandonment, and laugh with anxious relief while they can briefly view those feelings from outside, in someone else. (Peter Fonagy articulates this dynamic in a U.K. lecture where he explains the psychology of attachment failure. He illustrates the lecture with the case of an adult client who had been convicted of a cruel murder.)

Other thoughts?

Thanks for a really good question!

Robert

Norwich, Vermont

Lawyer: “I don’t understand kids!”

A very good lawyer, who was a kind, single parent of two young children, once shared his anxiety that, “I don’t understand kids — I don’t know what they need.  I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.”

Thoughtful, gentle……and serious.
I offered the following short version of children, recalled here as best I can:

Barring very unusual situations — like at the extreme ends of the relational spectrum — what most kids need, bottom line, are two things from at least one safe adult (preferably a caretaker, but not necessarily):

1) pay attention 

(“She thinks about me.”  “She remembers me.”  “She asks about me.”  “She keeps me in her thoughts!”)

2) care enough to be in charge 

(“She has boundaries she won’t let me cross.”  “She sets limits for me.”  “She corrects me.”  “She has rules I am expected to follow!”)

If the adult is safe and reasonably consistent, the affected child will likely be okay –- able to learn appropriate dependence as they grow.  (I.e., they feel safely contained by and connected to a safe, caring adult.)

Later, as adults themselves, they can transform that safe childhood experience of appropriate, vertical dependence on caretakers -– think caterpillar metamorphosis -– into a safe, mutual, horizontal, adult interdependence with a partner.

I.e., achieving dependence as a dependent child supports appropriate interdependence as an independent adult.  Conversely, it can be hard to manage adult interdependence if we failed to experience safe dependence in childhood.

Sexual boundaries make sense in this context.  Whereas the childhood dependent relationship with an adult makes overt sexual relations developmentally premature for the child and pathologically exploitative for the adult, the later, interdependent relationships of adults can accommodate overt and mutually enthusiastic sexual relations.

Sometimes adults show up for counseling with their own early, unresolved issues getting in the way of parenting the way they would like.  We may end up working with the parent or caretaker to resolve this, and it can take time.  It may require an extended, boundaried counseling relationship with a safe therapist who can stay empathic to the testing and stumbles which were never allowed or possible during childhood.

Because children slowly but progressively develop their independence and identities as people, infants will need more physical care, while older children will need more social and emotional care and attention to their increasingly complex inner thoughts, feelings and concerns. 

Finally, as adolescents, they re-introduce us adults to the exciting-frustrating integration of living in the home while working on peer and other outside relationships.  (Who am I really?  How do I fit in?  How do I get physically close outside my family in ways that feel safe and good?)

Sorry, is that more than you asked? I asked.

“Wow, no, that’s really helpful!” said the lawyer.  “Thanks!”

Welcome.

Answers to Parents’ Questions — part II

3. “What about setting limits and boundaries?”

Limits and boundaries mixed with sincere appreciation of the young person’s inner life (their thoughts and feelings) is something which young folks desperately need from adults.  Their early childhood experience of rules, boundaries and limits from adults who cared about them (and for them) is their best chance to internalize a sense of safety and security later in life. Rules mean structure, and structure is a form of attention.  (This is why children usually enjoy school.) Teens, of course, need to push, challenge, and test the rules all over again.  They can evade and avoid rules and even brag about it, but what counts ten years later is that adults never changed the rules or limits under pressure or threat.  “You returned an hour late.  I am not happy.  I expect better from you.  And the rule stays the same.”  Done.  Don’t apologize, and don’t explain twice. (Saying it twice is lecturing.)

Put another way, kids who grow up learning that ‘rules don’t apply to me’ stumble into adulthood without key skills in self-control and self-discipline.  They usually work out their impulses and emotional needs against police, mental health agencies, and other systems of authority for floundering adults.

4. “What are appropriate expectations?”

Appropriate expectations increase with age, and are best set slightly higher than a young person’s emotional age inside.  (A growth challenge.)  Does that make sense?

High-functioning child?

Try increasing choice, freedom and options. When they test and take advantage, you can apologize for moving too fast, and dial things back a notch. An adult’s job is to help young people grow at a pace appropriate to their emotional stage. And to do it without shaming.

Struggling young person?

Is the teen still denying, projecting, and hiding, as if much younger? Dial down the choices, freedom, and independence because they are crying for more structure, limits, and eyes-on supervision until they can catch up emotionally. And do this without shaming. Finally, the same young person may swing from one extreme to the other and back in a matter of days. Be prepared.

5. “What about suspending judgment?”

Openly judging actions, choices and events is important in a democratic society.  However, judging people is best done discretely because people need one anothers support and encouragement to stay connected in community and to grow through struggles.

Put another way, when I am struggling and making quite a mess of it (“It’s all your fault!!”) what is most helpful is to continue to see a better image of me in your eyes as you continue to relate to me and share your observations.  A judgment from you, on the other hand, can nail my sense of myself to my worst and hardest moments.

Answers to High School Parents’ Questions

1. “What Does It Mean to Listen?”

Parents who listen are paying attention to both the words and the feelings, because a parent’s role is  a) to keep their young person in their thoughts (I love to learn about you and your life; I can’t learn enough), and b) to care enough to respond at any given moment with a brief mix of support and limit-setting.  Parents then keep paying attention so they can respond in a timely way when the limits are tested.  If this sounds hard, it is probably because we did not have it modeled enough when we were young people.

Tip: “It’s my job to keep you safe,” (i.e. like the dog) is less helpful than talking relationally.  “I want so much to feel close to you.”  Of course, you may expect snarly in return.  But speaking relationally out loud is what counts.

Bigger tip: Reassuring (“It will be okay,”) is less helpful than giving Empathy (“That sounds hard; I’m sorry it’s hard,”) and Curiosity (“How did you find out?  Huh.  What did you do then?”).

Young people who listen are highly sensitive to three things: a) the word “but”, b) feeling judged, and c) lectures.

a) Try “and” instead of “but”.  In most cases it works.

b) Judging others can sneak up on us, as in “constructive criticism”, arguing about who is right, and compliments!  Compliments are judgments with a positive coating. Try starting compliments by asking, “May I give you a compliment?”  It feels very respectful to be asked before being judged, either positively or negatively.

c) At about word three of a lecture, young people stop listening.  We all do.

2. “What is respect?”

Respect is an attitude which reflects our perception of worthiness.  To respect a person reflects my own respect for myself.  If my history gave me enough positive images of myself as I was seen in the eyes of others (especially adult role models), I will have internalized a sense of self-respect; and I can give respect to others with little difficulty.

If I show a lack of respect (i.e., disrespectful behavior) that is often my hidden request for help.  I may also have a rule that I don’t deserve any help, so while asking indirectly for help I will also reject attempts to help me.  Welcome to my confusion.  Please find a way to help.  Your motives are good.

(Next blog:  “What about setting limits and boundaries?” and “What are appropriate expectations?”)