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To Break a Will (Or, why your kid is still acting out instead of listening)

For those of you who know me, and some of you who don’t: I’m Eli, I work at a Behavioral Health Facility.I work with kids with behavior problems, some kids with specifically mental health issues, and lots of kids with trauma and post-traumatic stress or drug related problems as well as abuse and family issues.

I see issues on a daily basis.

Believe it or not, having worked at my job for the past 9 months, with only anecdotal observation: Kids with fundamentalist parents fare worse in terms of emotional stability and openness to change. Sometimes, we get a kid with behavioral issues who then hides behind this undying vow to serve God and is at one minute cursing and kicking and punching people and sometimes within the same breath is preaching hellfire, brimstone and eternal damnation. Fundamentalism is based on extreme polarization, so the children raised with a fundamentalist worldview simply demonize and caricature those who confront them and hide behind self-justification.

My Friend Elizabeth Esther posted something the other day that prompted me to respond in kind with my observations, as well as some general facts from the field of mental/behavioral health, where I work. She said,

What really troubles me is the underlying belief that breaking a child’s will is right and good. This is a belief found in many, many Christian circles. In my experience, that one belief was used as justification for all kinds of physical and spiritual abuse.”

Too true.

The ‘Us Vs. Them’ mentality is an all too prevalent feature among parents who have become too lazy to listen, too busy to pay attention, or too emotionally blunted to respond in kind. Now, that’s not to say the children are faultless, because they’re not. But more often than not, it’s either ignorance or neglect that causes issues in the kids I work with when it’s not direct abuse. Setting yourself up as a person intent on “breaking the child,” or “breaking their will” as you would a horse only furthers the sense of alienation that likely exists between a parent and child if the child is acting out.

People come in all the time thinking that at the end of the day what the kid needs is a good ol’ fashioned whoopin’ to set ’em straight. I’m not here to argue whether corporal punishment works with some kids better than others, but I am here to offer this: I personally believe and am part of a treatment program that is modeled on the idea that relationship building is the most effective means of correcting behavior.

People expect behaving children to act robotic in their responses, or at least it seems that way to me. What I’ve developed on the unit I work on is an ongoing conversation with people, young people, but people nonetheless. The answer is rarely found in strict disciplinary measures, or trying to break a kid down, sometimes it takes that strict discipline to create a sense of safety and consistency, but the discipline itself is only a means to that common ground.

1984 was a novel, and should never be considered a way of life, especially when it comes to proper parenting (Though, sadly,I encounter this all too often). An ongoing conversation treats the child like a dialogue partner and asks them to assert responsibility for their actions and responses even as I engage to relate and join them where they are, so that I can follow them to where it hurts before I lead them out into a new horizon.

So, here’s the deal.

If you’re a drill sergeant parent who has an oppositional/defiant child at home my question is:

When’s the last time you really stopped to listen? When is the last time you showed your child a caring ear, and that you’re trying to understand their feelings?

Pope Benedict XVI Says:

Love when it truly meets us, reorients our lives, our very selves in a new and unfathomable direction. It could not have previously been known, nor could it have been anticipated by anything that has come before, it asserts itself by virtue of its own self-disclosure.

I know that on my unit, the best progress has come through a mixture of limit-setting, as well as a general trying to understand kids based on the principles of Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. The idea is that building a relationship is far more important in the long term than making sure you get your way.

So here are a few small things you can do when communicating to a child who needs someone to listen, or respond.

  1. Pay Attention: I can’t stress this enough. Read body language, look at the child’s face and eyes, are they playful, are htey happy, is there any tension in their expression or body language? What is the tone like?
  2. Focus on your non-verbal responses: Are you communicating attention by having an open demeanor and making eye contact? are you really letting the child express what they have to say, or are you pre-formulating your repsonses. Even if you’re intelligent enough to predict what the child is bringing to the table, wait until they are finished before you start speaking, and let them see you think a bit as your response develops.
  3. Match their tone and expression: Sometimes, kids just need to know that someone gets it. Sometimes when I have a screaming kid in front of me who appears to want nothing more than to scream and shout, I get excited with them. I may not scream but i’ll raise my voice and try to match the rate at which they are speaking to let them know I’m on their level in a non-threatening way.
  4. Avoid Power Struggles: When you need to impose discipline for a teenager, or even a youngster flirting with rebellion, avoid turning it into a a massive struggle for dominance. If the kid is going to buck you and buck you, find out why they’re doing it. Get inside their head. Try to listen and see. Sometimes kids act spoiled and are needy, sometimes they might need a hug, or a time out. Figure out what works best for your child, and repair the relationship with your child as soon as possible, try to make conflict a small thing, and push past their defenses to get to the heart of the matter.
  5. Are you affirming the child? Even if you disagree with the feeling, are you allowing room for the child to feel that way and to express their feeling? Are you trying to “step into their shoes?” We call this process “join, and follow to lead.” When a kid I’m dealing with is escalated, the best thing to do sometimes is join them, and see what I can do to show them someone cares. If they’re throwing things, I won’t throw things, but I’ll do something high-energy like dance, or do jumping jacks, or laps around them, to show them that someone is on their level and understands their need to respond to their emotions in a high energy way.
  6. All You Need is Love: This may seem really technical, but it’s really just a way of showing love. As I engage the child by matching their energy and intensity and demonstrating listening that asks kids: 1. How they Feel. 2. What they want. and 3. What they’re willing to do to. 4. Examines how acting out isn’t working and shows the child alternatives; then it’s all about making sure you’re really there for the child, and willing to offer them a love that surprises them.
In regards to number 5, I was very oppositional/defiant as a teenager. I remember getting caught doing drugs one day, and expecting to get the beating of a lifetime, and i dared my mom to do it, I was expecting it with everything that I had in me, and I was fuming. I was ready to get hit and have a reason to explode. I remember anticipating the moment where she had fire in her eyes, and she did.
She looked at me with fury, and suddenly, something snapped in her, and she hugged me instead. She wrapped me so tight I could barely breathe, she hadn’t broken my will, she had set me free to love her instead of my own selfishness. She had short-circuited the part of me that loved only myself and through opening up to me, had made room for herself in the midst of my distress. I’ve never forgotten that moment, or the clarity it brought me. My mom loved me enough to not break me, but to accept that I was already broken, and needed someone to care.
After all, The Christian God’s answer to our behavior problems isn’t coercion or the hell-fire touted by fundamentalists, it’s a relationship. God the Father sends the Son, so that mankind can see just what relation to this specific God can do for humanity, and offers this relationship as God’s answer to our sin problem. It’s the relationship to God that saves by showing us just how selfish we’ve really been, and after all, that’s just like the Christian God, isn’t it? DDP, does much the same, through a proper relationship, I create common ground to confront children on their behaviors. I open up to them, and meet them where they’re at.
God offers us Himself and an eternity of relationship building as a means to correct our behavior, and he provides the ultimate therapeutic facility for that to take place: The One Church. If you really want to change behaviors, give love; Jesus did, it got him crucified. I do, and sometimes it hurts. Other times, to give love and see change becomes the most rewarding feeling, to know I’ve spent time caring for a child that has built a non-traumatic relationship, with someone who has allowed them to be a broken person, and been able to let them wrestle with brokenness. After all, whether you’re a parent, work with troubled teens, or just would like to be a better friend, all you need is some know-how and a whole lot of love.