Too many assume that a child who acts out just needs more discipline. While there’s a place for discipline of course, sometimes acting out comes from a place of inner turmoil. I am a puzzle solver by nature, always trying to get the root of things. This has always included my children’s unique personalities – with their strengths and weaknesses.
I’ve always tried to understand why they behave the way they do, using this understanding to help them to adapt in areas where they struggled. If you knew my youngest well, you could see his internal pain since he was a baby. He would never let me comfort him when hurt, would call for me only to yell for me to leave when I responded. He would cry for me to pick him up and when I did cry that I hadn’t picked him up in the place where he first cried. This pattern could repeat for hours, regardless of my response or lack thereof.
From the outside, one might see his acting out at home but not at school as a purely behavioral issue which just needed stricter discipline. Thankfully we had a wonderful first grade teacher who saw through his perfect behavior at school to the inner anguish. This helped us to learn just how much his anxiety was affecting him at school. We started medication for him, which helped with his anxiety but he still had periods of intense irritability and aggression which were getting worse as he got older
Therapists often suggested behavioral approaches – contingency charts and a strict routine. I knew all these approaches through years working with children with autism and then later through classes in my MSW program. But behavioral approaches never felt like they addressed the problem to me. I felt that his aggressive behavior came from a place of anguish which a behavioral approach could not touch. I knew he needed to learn to cope with and tolerate those hard feelings. I knew he needed to respond to his pain better. But I also knew it started with pain, not just behavior.
Last week, we started a new medication for him, one that I was hesitant to try. Three days later, he woke up and excitedly told me, “I think the medicine is working! I woke up and don’t feel mad. And I feel independent.” He has been more flexible and independent since, able to slow down to think when something frustrates him rather than immediately going from 0 to 60. He hasn’t had an aggressive outburst and just seems lighter and happier. I know it’s still soon but I am so thankful that we have found something that seems to make him feel better. I want to encourage others to not always judge an aggressive child’s behavior as a spoiled child to discipline problem, but to look at that child as a person who may be hurting.
[Shared with permission from my youngest]