Let's talk about ... behaviour
Many moons ago now it seems, I attended an understanding autism course; autism 101 if you will. One of the main messages given on that course was that "all behaviour is a form of communication". They propounded that as parents of autistic children, one of our most important jobs was to be a "behaviour detective", to understand the root cause of the behaviour, in other words, decode the communication. SPOILER ALERT: what has become very apparent to me since then is that absolutely all behaviour is a form of communication; it's as true for autistic children as it is for neurotypical children, adults and even our own behaviour. And that being "behaviour detectives" is a pivotal skill in life, whether that be in regards of our own behaviour or that of others.
This revelation proved to be an important turning point in my parenting and in my understanding of the very challenging behaviours that my son was displaying. Up to this point I had considered the behaviour that I deemed "unacceptable" as: him deliberately defying me, he was being naughty, wilfully choosing to behave in such a way, he was acting out for my attention, he was embarrassing me. My response, as per conventional parenting advice, was to: withdraw attention, punish, isolate, control, exert my will, dominance and authority as "the parent". The problem was, none of this was improving the situation. It was, in fact, fuelling an increasing fracture in our relationship, I felt more and more incensed by his behaviour, it was an escalating battle of wills that I felt I had to win, the tension and disharmony in the household was rife.
Look back at the sentence I placed in italics. What do you notice? Yep, it was all about me.
One of the reasons I think we find "unacceptable" behaviour in our children so triggering is that we (mostly unconsciously) make it about us; we take it personally, we view it as what they are doing to us. In other words: "my child is giving me a hard time". The other reason I think our children's behaviour can be so triggering is that we feel an acute societal message that a) our children's behaviour is a reflection of us b) "good" parents control their children. Interestingly again, when you look at this, it is still all about us; external judgement/perception/(in)validation of us. I found the realisation that I was viewing my child's behaviour as all about me, a shocking and uncomfortable one. The fact that there was another perspective that was around my child's ability to communicate had not really crossed my mind. At this point I had a some choices: dismiss it and carry on, lose myself in anger, guilt and shame, or learn and grow. I chose the last option.
As a starter for being "behaviour detectives" the course proposed a number of possible things our children could be communicating, many of which were sensory in nature. These included: are they thirsty, hungry, tired, overstimulated, under-stimulated, hot, cold, in pain, unwell, needing to attend to a bodily function, is it too noisy, too bright, too busy. In order to be able to decode this behaviour/communication we need to aware of and understand our children's sensory needs. The more we are connected and tuned into them, and their lives, the easier it becomes to identify. A sensory basis to behaviour is in fact, relevant for all children; all people. It's just especially true for autistics where sensory perception and regulation can be atypical. I know myself that after a bad night and I wake up tired I am more likely to be short tempered, intolerant and snappy (what we might consider "unacceptable behaviour" in children).
Sensory needs, however, are not the only things being communicated by behaviour. Emotions are another important component. The development of emotional intelligence is key in the building of good mental health, well-being and healthy relationships. Emotions create both an internal and external physical/physiological response. Guiding our children (and ourselves in many cases) to recognise the emotion being felt, validating it, sitting with it and learning to express it in a healthy manner, is the way to develop emotional intelligence. Emotions such as anger, anxiety, disappointment, frustration, jealousy, sadness, shame, embarrassment can often lead to large displays of "unacceptable" behaviour. Society often classes these emotions as "bad" or "negative", and stigmatises the emotion (and sometimes the child), it seeks to repress the emotion and it's expression. Sadly, this often leads to poor self awareness, poor self esteem, poor emotional intelligence and unhealthy expression (both internally and externally). ALL emotions are valid and a part of the human experience. It is the way we learn to recognise, express and learn from these emotions that is important.
We have touched on sensory and emotional communication, but there is another important area that behaviour can communicate, and that is psychological needs e.g. need for attachment, connection, unconditional love, validation, autonomy. It is worth noting that in this area behaviour/communication may not just be in response to an immediate need, but could be a reflection of a learned trauma response from a historical hurt. For me personally, I have found these some of the hardest things to decode and Gabor Mate's work has been invaluable in building my understanding in this area. Both my children are autistic variant PDA*. PDA can be understood as an anxiety driven need for control or, put another way, they have an extremely sensitive sense of threat to their autonomy. A breach to their autonomy triggers the fight/flight response which can result in significant "unacceptable" behaviours. Focusing on the root causes and viewing the behaviours as flags has been my strategy in successfully dealing with this for nearly a decade.
In the main sadly, parenting advice and school systems focus almost entirely on the actual behaviour. The focus is on control of the child to stop and/or control the behaviour, via reward, punishment and/or shaming. There is none, or almost no, attempt to understand the root cause/driver/communication behind the behaviour. In this paradigm, there is little space for healthy development of emotional intelligence, nurturing of self awareness, facilitating learning or meeting needs.
Healthy relationships, of any kind, should never be about behavioural control and/or dominance of one person by another. Healthy relationships are built on mutual respect and connection. Children learn from what they experience and what they observe far more readily than what they are told; behaviour is no exception to this. I don't think that I'm speaking out of turn if I say that as parents we want our children to be have healthy relationships with other people throughout their lives. In this case the foundation is for them themselves to experience, observe and have modelled for them respectful and connected relationships as the norm as they grow up.
So when faced with "unacceptable" behaviours these are some of the main principles I employ:
Reframing the situation to focus on my child. Rather than "my child is giving me a hard time" I think "my child is having a hard time".
I detach from unhelpful societal expectations.
If safety is a factor, then I focus on that first and foremost.
I look beyond the behaviour (which is the flag) and start trying to decode root causes/communication
I endeavour to stay calm myself. It is very hard to model, support and guide the behaviour you wish to see if you yourself lose your cool. It is also important to accept that sometimes we don't stay calm and in this case it helps to practise self compassion. How we then handle the situation, make amends, apologise to our children and show how we are learning is also really powerful learning for them.
I aim to hold safe, loving, non-judgemental space for them. It is hard to see our children struggling and it is tempting to pull any "lever" to make it stop. Often "being" with them, rather than "doing" something leads to more learning and growing.
I separate the behaviour from the child. Rather than thinking (or saying) "you are a bad boy", I disconnect to "you are a child having a really hard time communicating in a meaningful, respectful way, I can help you with that".
I totally reject labels such as "bad" behaviour, "bad boy", "naughty", they are unhelpful, hinder connection and stunt the development of healthy self esteem.
I remind them of my unconditional love, even and especially if I am the focus of violent/aggressive behaviour. In this situation I gently but firmly block and say "I can't let you hurt me, I love you and I am here for you"
I always wait until the storm has passed and all is calm before dealing with the actual behaviour. This can take a long, long time, but I have never had a productive outcome where one or both of us is still in the moment or emotion etc. Only when all is calm will I open a non-judgemental discussion into what happened and how we can both learn and move forwards.
Over the past decade there has not been a single behaviour (in my children or myself) that I have not been able to decode the behavioural communication back to a root cause. It is not always obvious or easy, sometimes it can take several days to make sense of it, but the work undertaken to understand, then learn and grow together has always been worth it.
Neuroscience and research into brain development clearly demonstrates that strong emotional control, impulse control etc happens far later in a child's life than societal, educational and parental expectations demand. Ensuring we have realistic, developmentally appropriate expectations of our children is so important. This needs to be applied over the two biggest influences on our children: how they are parented and how they are educated. Healthy emotional control and expression is developed through: observation of the desired behaviours, having a lived experience of these behaviours, seeing them modelled regularly and consistently, experiencing respectful and connected relationships which foster empathy, compassion, respect and non-judgemental guidance/mentoring. When we seek to understand rather than judge, when we are able to facilitate a solution rather than impose a sanction, when we respond to and meet needs and patiently, gently, lovingly guide our children, over time, to recognise their own needs and build their own strategies; then we are promoting true growth.
*PDA: Autistic variant Pathological Demand Avoidance
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