So many treatment colleagues have shared that prior to finding an approach that really works to turn a child’s intensity to greatness, they felt no recourse other that to look for ways to moderate the accelerating poor choices that children they worked with were making. Most relevant here is, that in retrospect, they felt that it boiled down to simply being faithful to their training, which it turns out so often is a set up to fail with difficult children.
And I can second that motion. Hopefully things have improved now, but even going to a top school in Clinical Psychology, with highly inspired and brilliant professors, only netted me a repertoire of methods that I felt ran me into a wall when actually working with clients.
Where the rubber meets the road, I felt like so many clinicians that I was actually witnessing things getting worse for the families I was trying to help and to whom I was certainly giving my best advise. Many treatment disciplines can be a burn out for the practitioner simply because of the methods we are given and perhaps worse, these very methods actually put the very children and their families we are trying to help at risk for escalating problems and further treatment that brings modalities such as medications into play.
Certainly when we wring our hands in frustration and see no rays of light ahead for a client, we feel ethically bound to recommend attempts to provide relief like psychiatric evaluations. What most people do not know is that a child and family innocently sent for a behavioral evaluation with a medical professional most often winds up with a prescription in hand that very day. Doctors surely are trying their best to help, but if all they have in their knowledge base for treatment is medication 1, 2 or 3, then medication it is.
So let me explain why, in my opinion, most treatments fail with these children. Most treatment paradigms are still medical model at the core – pathology-based and problem-oriented. All the theories and philosophies of treatment when I was a student believed that if you simply get to the bottom of a problem by talking it through, by facilitating understanding, by getting to the core of the emotions and by uncovering the depths of the currently twisted dynamics that blessed relief will occur.
This sounds so right in theory but in practice the problem is that, from my current prospective, any and all of this type of exploration, of trying to find the mystical “why” actually rewards the very problem you are trying to solve.
It’s my belief that it is remarkably easy for any child with a little more life force, intensity, sensitivity and neediness to watch their world and decide that we adults are so much more interesting, animated, available, connected – offering juicier relationship – when things are going wrong. When things are going right we are relatively low key and even boring. Even highly loving parents and teachers typically are limited to a few short praises when things are going well like ‘thank you’ and ‘good job’ whereas we can wax poetically over most anything negative. No one wants to go back to dial up – we all want better broadband. Kids accidentally discover that the best broadband is available when things are going wrong and it simply becomes habitual, and for some kids, perpetual. It’s all about energy.
How do I know this is true? When you change the flow of energy and bring it on when things are not going wrong – when things are going right – all of a sudden the most challenging children become so much more interested in making positive choices. Conventional and traditional approaches to parenting and teaching set kids up for this becoming an escalating pattern of progressively difficult behavior. Adults are simply trying as hard as they can with normal methods, and when problems emerge, out come the lectures and strident measures of correction. Lots of energy flows and that just deepen the pattern.
And there it is; therein lies the problem with traditional treatments. They so strive to engage with the child at the point of the problem that they inadvertently wind up so often making matters worse – further entrenching this child’s basic impression that they get more – more and better energy, connection, and relationship – when things go wrong.
I’ve met so many school counselors, as an example, who get called into a classroom in the midst of a problem with the expectation that they need to take the child to their office for a discussion, resolve the issues, and document the incident. The real problem is the nature of their training and the fact that they are such nice people. So they get the child to their office and talk and all might seem rosy, but guess who is back having the same or greater problems the next day if not sooner?
And then, given the progression of the child’s deepening impression that ‘better broadband’ – sweeter relationship – through negativity, before you know it the school is pushing for an evaluation and medications.
It’s a setup to fail. Our philosophies of parenting, education and treatment so often guide us and propel us in a direction that brings us to the cliff of seeing no other alternatives.
Unless a social worker, counselor, psychologist, coach, therapist is consciously daring to exit normal approaches and find an alternative that truly strengthens children from the inside out, that refuses to be problem- and pathology-oriented, refuses to energize negativity, and finds the perfect but truly available inroad to limit setting, we will keep losing these challenging children to the ethics of pathology and where that road ultimately leads.
The great news is that once the pattern is reversed and great connection is restored through energized appreciation and gratitude for a child’s good choices, good can go to great. Once that channel is open it’s easy to appreciate a child like this: “Kimberly, I appreciate that you didn’t argue when I said no to your request. You are showing me your wisdom, power and control in following that rule and for choosing to be respectful.” Just watch how things shift when children are notice for the great qualities that are always already there. They light up and begin seeing that an even higher caliber ‘broadband’ is available for doing what’s right. Then the icing on the cake if parents, teachers, and treatment professional are really daring is to take it to the level of greatness. “And Kimberly, these are all qualities of your greatness that I see in you.”
We all want better connection in some ways – call it oneness, intimacy or closeness. Watch what happens when you consistently demonstrate to a child that it’s truly available through positivity. Then we get to see children who are thriving; then the last thing we’d ever want to do is put out the fire of their intensity with medications.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
Great post Dr. I have to wonder if there is any room for teaching children to do what is right purely for sake of doing the right thing? Without external rewards (praise; gifts; lack of punishment, etc.) In other words, how do we develop an ethic with our children (Christian Ethic or pick one)?
Absolutely David. There is a fine but crucial line between between praise and authentic, recognition that is sacred acknowledgment of a child’s wisdom, judgment, choices, etc.
In our culture we think nothing of “recognizing” poor choices and lack of good judgment by way of our energies and our relationship – in a way a giving of our being to the child for what’s wrong. Why not provide profound recognition for all that’s not wrong. I’m not Christian but I love the expression of “save your soul” which to me means that I want to save my soul for the good stuff and I don’t want to give it – my being – to what’s wrong. I want to give it freely to what’s right and teach all the vital lessons in those positive “lectures”
The great child development expert and theorist Jean Piaget says that children learn from the external to the internal. They go from drinking in what they are recognized and appreciated for (external) through an eventual process of assimilation and finally integration – and my experience completely supports that premise as to how children learn to do the right things. They don’t know intrinsically. That develops over time.
Thanks for your response!
Great post I have to wonder for teaching children to do what is right purely for sake of doing the right thing?
thank you and godbless.