Children with problems or problem children?

Children with problems or problem children? 150 150 Jane Evans

What has happened to them?

A recent BBC article on links between children’s behaviour and mental health, caught my eye. Initially I was full of optimism for a breakthrough in how we are understanding children’s behaviour as communication of their distress.

After all, as Dr Bruce Perry, Oprah and many others are saying. The most important question we can ask is not, “What is wrong with you?” But, “what has happened to you?”

This is crucial when it comes to children and young people, especially for their behaviour and their mental and physical well-being.

Sadly, these are the stand-out points from the article which I feel are really unhelpful…

  1. “But how can we tell if the child is just “being naughty” or whether mental ill health is the root cause?”

It is 2018! Surely, we have moved beyond describing children as naughty! FFS?

A child or young person may be struggling in some way, temporarily. They are overly stressed as something has changed either at school or home or both. Which means they are in fight, flight or freeze a great deal of the time. Of course, this may show up in changes in their behaviour. They may be more reactive, withdrawn or tearful along with other things.

Or, a child may have a level of trauma from something which they experienced pre-birth, during the birthing process, or/and in their early development. It has been subconsciously stored in them, so their whole being still struggles to feel safe and settled.

A by-product of such early trauma is sensory overwhelm or underwhelm. Sounds, sights, tastes, touches, smells or movement in the environment can trigger a fear response which sees them lashing out, flipping out, at themselves or others, or shutting down.

I could go on, and on, and on, and probably on…as we really HAVE to move away from ridiculous notions of naughty behaviour. Children communicate via their behaviour, end of!

  1. Girls tend to internalise their feelings – they just want to be left alone.

Jeepers! This is dangerous.

Some girls may not always outwardly go into fight or flight mode but that DOES NOT mean they want to be left alone. It is more likely they have either learned not to ‘make a fuss,’ so push everything inside which does impact their mental health. Or, they may be repeatedly flicking into freeze, then shut down, leaving them numb and disconnected from their feelings and anyone who could support them.

The links with the big increase in girls in their teenage years self-harming shows that they often internalise strong emotions. Until the numbness and/or pain is unbearable. Then some form of harm temporarily takes them away from the emotional pain, or brings them out of feeling nothing at all, and into the here and now. PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE THEM ALONE!! All teenagers do better when we keep up regular emotions based check-ins.

  1. So how can parents and teachers know when a child’s poor behaviour crosses the line into poor mental health?

Truly the most unhelpful line to create! A child who is struggling to settle, access some joy in life, friendships and learning. Could well be a child who may have early trauma which could be causing them high levels of anxiety.

Get rid of any goddamn lines to be crossed. Instead, be in a place of compassionate, curiosity to ‘learn the child’ and their needs. It takes time as it means slowing down, not judging, repeatedly offering unconditional relationship and working with them to find solutions together.

  1. “Severe and persistent behavioural problems – usually known as conduct disorders – are our most common childhood mental health issue.”

Signs a child has a conduct disorder include:

  • being argumentative, angry, uncooperative or irritable
  • having frequent tantrums and outbursts
  • being constantly defiant or blaming others for things that go wrong.

What utter crap! These are all indications of a child with a level of trauma, which means they struggle to stay emotionally and physically present and regulated. Their trauma will come out in their behaviour as they are constantly in survival mode.

It is NOT a conduct disorder. Rather these are all signs of overwhelm and distress.

Look beyond the behaviour

Mental health is linked to levels of stress, distress and fear. Our systems become dysregulated and overwhelmed which makes us sick whether we are 2, 12 or 42. Children can not put their distress into words, most adults also can’t.

With their under developed brains and nervous systems children are especially at the mercy of their survival responses which flick in automatically and often inconveniently. Feeling they may have crossed a f*+&ing line, are bad, or have conduct disorder will only make things worse.

Children do well when they can

We nurture their mental health, when we pay attention to ours. As then we can be that compassionate, safe person who is not there to judge or label but to ‘learn them’ and their specific needs. Then they can learn about life and how to access some level of emotional and physical regulation OVER TIME.

Here is an opportunity to access my training on becoming a ‘safe presence’ for those impacted by trauma.
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Jane Evans

Jane is a ‘learn the hard way’ person. She has learnt from her personal experiences and her direct work with people who have often been in really bad places emotionally, relationally, practically and sometimes professionally.

All stories by: Jane Evans

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