Why a Child’s Behaviour may not be what you think?

Let me ask you a few questions and be honest how you answer?

Where do you thoughts go when you see a child behaving ’badly’?

Do you go to blame the child, the parents, the grandparents etc?

Do you think, What’s wrong with that child? Or What happened that child?

Can you see the big difference? Changing just one word in that question, opens us up to curiosity?

As adults we can be guilty of holding children accountable for behaviours that as adults, we wouldn’t be able to maintain ourselves.

We have all been taught what positive and negative behaviours are. What is acceptable or unacceptable. These may be because of social conditioning and may not even be conscious.

What if it’s not the child’s fault? What if they are reacting to their environment? A narrow lens may give us the perspective that the child’s behaviour has a purposeful intention and we must change that behaviour to be something more acceptable. There’s that need to ‘fix.’

I have been learning and studying for many years and credit the work of amazing people like Dr Stephen Porges, Dr Mona Delahooke, Dr Gabor Maté, Dr Dan Siegel, Dr Tina Bryson and others to help me understand human behaviour and in particular children’s behaviour. Looking through a different and wider lens and using Mind – Body Science, Neuroscience, Neurobiology and the Polyvagal Theory, I can offer something that may help you or your child(ren) when it comes to behaviour.

“See a children differently, see a different child”

Stuart Shanker

Beyond Behaviour #adifferentlens

Not all children will be disruptive, having public meltdowns, hitting, screaming, running around etc. Some will be quiet and submissive. We need to keep in mind that all behaviour is communication and all behaviour serves a purpose!

Knowing this, opens up a new perspective and a new way to approach it.

What is going on when a child is exhibiting Challenging Behaviours?

Often, it’s a teacher who identifies a behaviour and addresses it with the parents. They may be aware of it or it may be new news. Either way, a parent will want a way forward to help their child.  My own journey with this many years ago led me on a journey to find out ‘What is wrong with my child? How can ‘I fix them’? My child was so quiet in school he didn’t want to be seen or heard, so he shutdown and then when he got home, he had a meltdown after holding it in all day.

I hear similar stories from other parents. The child is exhibiting what is known as ‘after school restraint collapse’.

What is After School Restraint Collapse?

Children often hold it together all day in school and then when they get home – Boom! This is why teachers often don’t know what you are talking about when you address this with them. The reason you see this at home is because they feel safe at home and it’s somewhere safe, where they can dump their emotional baggage. Often it will be the children who are more sensitive or have learning difficulties that this affects but not always.

Did, I know what to do when this was happening with my child? No! I wish I knew then what I know now. Hindsight’s great, isn’t it!

What I know now is these children are operating in Survival Mode.

Challenging Behaviours vs Survival Behaviours

All behaviour is adaptive and is to serve some other purpose.  As human beings, it’s our sole purpose to survive and this is why our autonomic nervous system is always asking us to evaluate our environment based on 2 questions:

1. Am I safe?

2. Am I in danger?

This has been coined as neuroception by Dr Stephen Porges and our understanding of this will give us great gains into understanding our own reactions and survival mechanism and that of the child(ren) we are trying to support.

It’s important to note that an individual’s nervous system may perceive danger even if others perceive safety. Even the removal of ‘danger’ does not mean we will feel safe.

For simplicity, I have outlined these survival behaviours into 2 categories hyperarousal (fight/flight) and hypoarousal (freeze/collapse).

Hyper-arousal labels may be given for the following behaviours and children are not limited to 1 of these: Mania, ADHD, ODD, PDA, Behaviour problems, Anger management problems, Reactive Attachment disorder, Separation attachment disorder, ASD, Conduct disorder, Anxiety disorder. 

Hypo-arousal Labels may be given for the following behaviours and children are not limited to 1 of these: Panic, Phobia, Catatonic, Lazy, Disengaged, CFS, Day Dreamer, Lack of Motivation, OCD.

Behaviour is NOT a Diagnosis

Currently we are living in a mental health crisis, with long waiting lists.

Children need to be understood and they need supportive adaptive approaches to help them develop and reach their potential. We need to spend time to understand the origin of the behaviour before we respond to it and customise a response appropriate to the child’s social and emotional development.

Where do we start?

We start by looking at the child as a whole person not a set of behaviours. We look at the child’s history. We observe the behaviour and to get the right answers we need to do this in a compassionate way. Rather than trying to eliminate behaviours, we look to see their purpose and provide a pathway to safety.

What is safety?

Remember that neuroception system and the 2 questions around safety – Am I Safe or Am I in Danger? Well, we can use this and Dr Porges’s Polyvagal theory, seen as the ‘Science of Safety’ to understand Safety.

Safety is perception and should be determined by how the child feels not by the removal of threat. The history of the child is extremely important to understand what is going on for them.  How they move their bodies will give us big clues into what is happening in their world. Again, if a child is operating in survival mode and displaying behaviours which are showing us this, then we return them to safety. They don’t need a label to for this to happen. In fact, where would we even start with something like Anger? Anger is just the tip of the iceberg and hiding many, many other emotions. When we take this polyvagal informed approach, it moves us out of the model where it is believed that children are manipulative, their behaviours are incentive based and they are in control of themselves. The methods used based on this belief include exclusion, seclusion, isolation, violence, shouting and reward systems are often put in place for compliance of the preferred behaviour. Where professionals adapt a slant towards using a ‘Top-Down’ only approach, then no matter how well-intentioned they are, they will often fail children. This is why I work ‘Top-Down’ and ‘Bottom-Up’.

The role of the adult

A child needs a caring adult to help them return to safety. They need an adult who can help them regulate through co-regulation and someone who can titrate cues of safety.

We expect too much from children and expect behaviours from them that an adult isn’t capable of. Not all adults are capable of self-regulation and spend most of their lives disassociated or ‘numbed out’ to their environment. It is worth noting that self-regulation is difficult for young children and it’s something that is learned. We know that the prefrontal cortex which is involved in planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour is not fully developed until approximately age 25. This is why co-regulation is important for children and required even more so, for children who have developed survival behaviours and cannot self-regulate. The nervous system craves co-regulation and when an adult isn’t available, a pet can do the same thing. Once a child feels safe in brain and body, the possibilities for learning and growth increase, expanding a child’s tolerance for new experiences, sensations, feelings and ideas. This is particularly relevant in the classroom.

Recognising that a child in survival mode, has a dysregulated nervous system we can offer cues of safety and engaging the Social Engagement System will assist the nervous system in moving the child from sympathetic to parasympathetic mode. Once safety is established the children will not need to fight, flee or shutdown.

What is the body telling us?

I’ve mentioned the messages coming from the body and how we need to pay attention to these. Training in the Neuro/Motor/Sensory system with the Masgatova Foundation and Rhythmic movements training institute taught me the primitive and primary reflexes have a huge and profound effect on learning and behaviour. The reflexes are part of our survival mechanism as human beings and if these were never integrated fully at the time in our development then they will still be active and causing all types of havoc in our brains and bodies. They are also there for survival, so if we perceive threat then they will ‘pop up’ to protect us. If our neuroception is receiving cues of danger, rather than cues of safety then we they will be active all the time which in turn will be displayed in behaviour and our ability to learn will be affected. We can also use reflex integration methods to help the body return to safety, calm the nervous system and engage the brain for attention and learning. The brain loves movement and it’s important to move to learn. It is imperative that the brain is getting the correct information in for the body to respond appropriately. Practicing the Polyvagal theory and approach to safety we can introduce cues of safety in the moment and can assist someone to move from danger to safety. These cues can also be used as ways to create safety in the environment.

How Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy help?

Anything that can regulate the nervous system will help. Using Biodynamic Craniosacral therapy supports the whole system and whole person. Helping that child come into their body, establish a mid-line and support any birth patterns they may be holding.

I witnessed my own children benefit from craniosacral therapy. It’s also my go to! Anything, that supports the autonomic nervous system and down-regulates the brain stem will be valuable. Biodynamic craniosacral therapy is a gentle, therapeutic hands on treatment and the child’s nervous system may be craving this type of touch. Biodynamic craniosacral therapy can ease the tension patterns of children on the autism spectrum, helping them feel more comfortable, safe and aware of the world around them.

Biodynamic craniosacral therapy can help kids with ADHD by easing tension and building up a feeling of safety.

Children who have dyslexia and dysgraphia usually have very quick, sharp minds, but they may have difficulty demonstrating what they know. For kids with dysgraphia, Biodynamic craniosacral therapy can reduce tension in the arms and hands, which makes the process of writing easier. Dyslexic kids often have difficulty processing visual and auditory information; Biodynamic craniosacral therapy can reduce tension patterns around the eyes and ears, so all areas of the brain that process language will function better.

Biodynamic craniosacral therapy also works with emotions and the stress these kids may feel about being different from their peers.

Need this help, support and knowledge in your home or classroom. Contact me for a chat to discuss how I can help. I have case studies and success stories from parents of how their children have changed. Many children now enjoy going to school and they are progressing academically. Children will learn ways to help their systems self-regulate.

When our children are happy, We are happy!

Check out my School Readiness Programme.

Article by Rita McAlonan.

Child and Adult Therapeutic Services

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