“It is often said that if you give children an inch they will take a mile…which is particularly the case when they have been given only inches.” Alfie Kohn
Contemporary research and accessible information on Aggression, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Reactive Attachment, and ADHD, tend to favor theory based in both diagnosis and biopsychosocial causality. When your child or teen is acting out in an aggressive manner, it is a lot easier to reduce their experience to a diagnosis or biological component such as a “problem with Serotonin.” If you have been to a competent Mental Health provider and received an evaluation along with a diagnosis, you are correct in connecting the aggressive behaviors with the diagnosis you have been given. Unfortunately, diagnoses are reductionistic in nature and limit the scope of treatment because they have a tendency to foster invalidation of a particular experience by discounting the context of the experience. In fact, there are times when falling back on a diagnosis as the reason for acting out behaviors may promote more unwanted behaviors. If a child or teen is diagnosed with ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder, is acting out aggressively, although there is a biological component involved, it is only one part of the acting out experience. If we begin to rely on diagnosis alone as a means of helping and interacting with our children, we set up a dynamic whereby the child is left feeling unheard, isolated, singled out, and broken. Moreover, children, especially teens, have a keen sense of authenticity; a strong ability to connect with the nuances of interactions with others and although they may not be able to explicitly identify the fact that there are large pieces of the interaction not being addressed, they may communicate their awareness to you by acting out even more. How many times have you heard the adolescent cry “It isn’t FAIR!”? I can tell you that far more often than not, they are accurate in their assessment of the situation. It is not to say that an accurate diagnosis is not valuable, in fact, I believe it aids in the process of finding the right approach, but we cannot discount or ignore context and humanness, which I believe diagnoses often facilitate if used as a sole method of understanding the child/teen experience.
Below I have listed 4 steps you can take toward your child/adolescent in order to facilitate a more open, collaborative, and authentic experience. These steps are guiding tools to get you thinking differently or reframing your perceptions about your interactions with your children. The key to each of these steps is to begin to open space during difficult interactions instead of shutting it down; to collaborate instead of dictate; to consider the context instead of reducing the experience.
1. Rethink your position on how you and your child communicate. A famous psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers said, “Communication involves union. I cannot communicate alone. All truth presupposes another.” Jaspers was taking a position that forces him to consider how the different ways he behaves when communicating affects the communication. When you child is acting out, take a moment to think about what happened before the confrontation arose. Often times children act out because they are in need of attention. If you have been gone all day and are staring into your phone during a conversation, acting out may be a way of your child communicating they need more from you. As adults, our worlds are busy and full of challenges, and an appropriate response may be to calmly acknowledge that you are busy, state how much more quiet time you need to finish up and that they will have your full attention then. Understanding the nuances of a confrontation gives you the ability and resources to communicate more accurately and authentically. Don’t forget, we are ALWAYS communicating, even when we are not talking to each other. Non-verbal communication such as body language says just as much to us, and can provoke us to the same degree as a verbal communication. Be aware of how you are non-verbally communicating with your child and what messages you might be sending without intending. Children, unlike adults, have not developed defense mechanisms to cover up their emotions. This gives adults an opportunity to help their child experience these emotions in a safe space.
2. Access your adolescence. My mentor Todd DuBose, Ph.D., M.Div. said “Whatever our chronological age, whenever we are assessing the cost value of whether or not “I am acceptable to the other as I am”, we are tweening-in-the-world—whether our interest is in being chosen to start for the baseball team, being seen as pretty, able to be promoted vocationally, or seeing any connection as predicated on the buying power of status, no matter how much or less we have “ If you can remember what it is like to be a teenager, and how often we frequently value the same basic acceptance that was so important to us as teens, it may be easier to see how important heading to a party may be or taking an overnight road trip to Bloomington with friend is. Teens don’t have the same responsibilities as us, however that does not mean that the stakes are not as high. The intense feelings of anxiety and anticipation you get from a job interview for a possible promotion are no different than being asked to prom or having a love interest call for the first time.
3. The myth of adolescent immortality. Unfortunately, children and teens do not perceive time in the same way we do as adults. Often, the difference in perception of time can cause confrontation and acting out. As adults, we see time as something to cherish and treat with care. Teens on the other hand often take a “seize the day!” attitude throwing caution to the wind, tending to not look before they leap. Teen’s experience of “Why be thoughtful when life is short?” may seem impulsive, yet it is a normal part of development. For adults, this can be a provocative because we have learned how fragile life can be and that the world is not always a safe place. Although teens often seem immune to danger, this does not mean that as a parent you should not set limits. On the contrary, it is very important to set limits. However, understand how a teens views limitations and limit setting will help mitigate acting out behaviors. For teens there is a paradox of seeing limits as unlimited and eternal. It is important to acknowledge how difficult it is to adhere to the limits you set with them, but at the same time its also important for them to follow the rules you set forth. Tolerating their feelings of infinite limitation will be an important part of helping them manage the tension and stress around following the limits you set forth.
4. The fight against commodification. Children and teens want to be acknowledged as unique, special and valued. They have a keen sense of when they are being interacted with as if they are a general problem to be dealt with. In such interactions they feel like a commodity, their identity lost and their uniqueness sacrificed to quell confrontation. They feel invalidated, misunderstood, and often act out as a means of communicating to their parents that they are not being heard or valued for their opinions. It is also important to understand that although teens desire more freedom, they do not want to feel abrupt abandonment by their parents. They do well with the guidance of their parents, who help teens develop a personal sense of freedom by trusting them, and gradually give them the opportunity to make their own decision. Take a moment to really listen to you teen, collaborate and take confrontation as an opportunity to open communication instead of closing it down. Remember, they are relatively new at this process, and the raging hormones don’t foster an easy transition, however, with some hand holding and genuine understanding you will be surprised at the results.
Written By: Dr. Jason LaHood