I AM NOT A BRAT, JUST A CHILD WHO NEEDS HELP
Imagine the child you see at the supermarket, the one who makes you want to drop to your knees and shout out loud, “Thank God he’s not mine!” We’re talking about the hitter, the kicker, the spitter, the fit thrower, the screamer, the child who attacks parent and peer with so little provocation that you can’t help but ask if he is possessed. The problem comes when you can’t just walk away, privately shaking your head and wondering where his parents went wrong, because you are the parent, he is your child, and he’s going home with you — just as soon as you can drag him out to the car and find a way to keep him buckled in. What is a parent to do?
Why Does My Kid Act Like This?
When parents call my office to make an appointment for a child who is about to get kicked out of kindergarten, or a child who has brought them to within half an inch of social isolation from neighbors and friends because of behavior problems, they have one thing on their minds: “Why does my kid act like this?” Parents — mothers in particular — are natural scientists when it comes to this question. They spend hours developing hypotheses about why their child acts the way he does, pondering and worrying themselves sick. What mother, way down inside, doesn’t suspect that her exploding, tantrum- throwing, melting-down child is just a brat? But if you are one of those moms or dads whose child’s tantrums are the stuff of kindergarten legend, simply labeling him as a brat does nothing to quiet those nagging suspicions that something deeper is going on. The problem with the “B” word is that it fails to tell you why. That why is the itch that has to be scratched if you are to come to a true understanding of how to help your child. As you will soon learn, the answer to why children explode is far more interesting, and far more complex, than the brat hypothesis.
The first step toward arriving at why is to come to an understanding of the different types of explosions that children display. While most dramatic tantrums may look and sound pretty much the same to the overwhelmed parent who is standing there watching, all explosions are not created equal. I will demonstrate this to you briefly. Before I do, though, I want to ask you to do your best to avoid falling into either of two traps. The first one is confusing symptoms with causes. When working with children who explode, you might be tempted to think that the explosions are the problem, or, in medical terms, the disorder. Common sense should tell you, however, that children do not sit happily playing and then Bang! explode for no reason. There is something hidden, something working beneath the surface that sets them off time after time. The second trap is lumping all of the possible causes of childhood explosions into one heap and claiming that there is a universal technique that can be used to treat them. Such thinking is like saying that a pain in your head must be caused by the same problem as a pain in your leg, your stomach, or your shoulder and that all of them can be treated with an aspirin.
Steven and Henry Think of explosive outbursts as icebergs. The observable part, that one-tenth that sticks up above the surface, is the yelling and screaming, the bulging eyes and flailing arms, the spitting and kicking and cursing that exploding kids let fly in the midst of their fits. The nine-tenths that we can’t readily see are the actual causes of the explosions. This is where we become detectives, entering into the mystery of incredibly powerful forces. Once you learn to consider all of these forces, you will begin to understand why your child is responding to the world in a very specific manner and the blowups will begin to make sense to you. This is not to suggest that you will like or condone your child’s explosive behavior. You will, however, understand what makes it happen and be more able to respond in a way that will decrease the explosions. The following two examples will show precisely why the iceberg analogy is useful. Steven and Henry were both first graders, and both were assaulting their peers. Steven did it at the bus stop. Henry did it mainly in the school cafeteria, but also sometimes in the hallways or in the school library. Before coming to my office, the parents of both children had tried time-outs, loss of privileges, rewards, and talking/lecturing/yelling/spanking/bargaining/bribing/ counting, all to no avail. The assaults simply continued. Both boys were in danger of being placed into alternative educational settings. Their schools and other parents had begun to label them as oppositional and explosive and were demanding that something be done quuickly. Steven would strike most parents on first glance as quiet (mousy actually), anxious, and certainly not prone to display the in-your-faaaaace, coequal-with-the-parent attitude typically seen in oppositional children and adolescents. At the bus stop, though, he would climb onto the backs of the other children and pull their hair, or pull them backward off the steps of the bus by their coats or belts. On one occasion, he clawed a child’s face so badly that she had to be taken to the doctor’s office. Henry, by contrast, was a beefy little guy with a chronic frown. It was easy to believe that he could be an angry actor. His method of assault was more straightforward than Steven’s. He would punch the kid he was mad at right in the face. Being roughly a third bigger than most of his peers, he could do a lot of damage. What I found when I got to know Steven better was that his thinking had a marked obsessive streak. He had developed the belief that he had to be the first one on the bus every day. As he walked to the bus stop with his mother, he would begin to whine anxiously if he saw that another child had arrived there before him. The battle that his mother fought with him every morning was precisely the opposite of what goes on in most homes. Most kids have to be threatened to leave in time so as not to miss the bus. Steven would have gladly left an hour early if his mother had been willing to put up with it, and his need to get there first created tension at the breakfast table every morning. Steven believed that he had to be the first one on the bus in the same way that you or I believe that we have to breathe air. The power of this belief caused him to assault any child who tried to get on before him. From his viewpoint, being first was a life-and-death issue.
Now, back to our friend Henry. He had what is referred to as sensory processing disorder. He wasn’t a worrier and he wasn’t compulsive in any manner. Instead, he had an exquisite sensitivity to touch or pressure. Tags in his shirts bothered him horribly, and when he was younger, he was guaranteed to pitch a world-class fit if the toe seams of his socks were not lined up just so. He always complained that his clothes were too tight. He would stretch the necks of his T-shirts out so far that they would almost slip over his shoulder. Along with all of this came an exaggerated need for personal body space, because anyone brushing against him, even lightly, sent him into orbit. The bane of children like Henry is the fact that young kids spend lots of time standing in line at school. When other children bumped into him or rubbed against him, he felt assaulted. He hit back out of what seemed to him to be self-defense. The chronic frown on his face was there because he believed he lived in a world in which he was constantly being attacked by others. By identifying the causes of each boy’s meltdowns, the solutions became clear, and I am happy to rep...