Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Understanding to Respond

Dawn so often makes me think. She wrote today about Madison crying at pre-school and how understanding adoption issues helps her to deal with it. I left a comment about parallels in children who foster, but there are already comments there about why she has to think about adoption in order to deal with Madison crying. I mean, lots of kids cry at pre-school right? Does it matter why? Don't you just deal with it?

Those comments have got me thinking -- how much does understanding the cause of our children's behaviors matter when we have to deal with those behaviors?

For me, understanding helps a good deal.

It helps because I am such an imperfect parent. See, I have this tendency to think that behaviors are somehow about me, or are at the very least behaviors that I should be able to fix easily.

If I had a kid, like Madison who was cheerful, friendly, and confident who cried whenever I dropped her off at preschool I might be inclined to think that the child just didn't want to be there and was trying to manipulate me. Or when Frankie just won't stop talking, I might think he was trying to annoy me, pushing my buttons, seeing how long I could hold out before I screamed. When Ann would absolutely refuse to follow a direct command, even one as simple as "Put on your seatbelt" I would see it merely as a power struggle -- a rebellion against ME.

And if I feel personally insulted, my emotions come into it and ... well ... it goes badly. But if I understand that it is not about me, if I take the way it makes me feel out of the equation (not easy) and understand it from the child's perspective, it is easier. At least a little.

So let's take Ann becoming defiant at anything expressed as a command. First I know that children, like other human beings, tend not to respond well to direct orders, but her reaction is excessive. I did not bark "Put on your seatbelt." I just noticed that it wasn't on.

If I did not understand her, I think I would have just gotten angry. I would have seen only a child who refused to do even the simplest of things. I might think, "I am the parent and I will not let her get away with this." So I would order her to do it. She, of course, would become more defiant. And we are off to the races.

But I "get" Ann and on that evening at least I was on top of my game. I knew how little control Ann had had over her life in general and in that moment in particular. On that particular drive I had picked her up from visiting the place she had lived for seven years, the place she wanted to go back to. I was driving her to my house where I knew she felt guilty for, in some ways, being happier. Her life was unstable; adults she didn't even know were in the process of deciding where she would live, and she was barely holding it together. She needed to feel like she had some control in her life.

So knowing that, I knew it wasn't about me. So I did not feel hurt and angry.

I also knew it was not safe or legal for me to drive with her unbuckled -- and I knew she knew it too. So I pulled over to the side of the road and said, "I'll wait." She sat with her arms crossed staring out front. I waited. She said, "Are you really just going to sit here and do nothing!" "Yes. I can't drive unless you are buckled up."

She glared. I waited.

She said, "This is so stupid!" I said, "I quite agree." She said, "I HATE it when you say that." I said, "I know" and I turned on the radio, put my hands in my lap and waited.

After another minute or so she put it on and I drove off. I made a "conversation start" about something. I don't know what. Probably not "Read any good books lately?" but it was something unrelated to seatbelts.

Now did I need to understand her to handle this fairly well? Technically no. Psychologically yes.

If I had seen the behavior as being (just) a challenge to my authority, it would have been much more difficult for me to stay calm. Seeing it as the understandable attempt of a girl to excerise just a little control over her environment made it easier to be sympathetic and patient while I waited for her to realize that this particular thing was also not something she could control.

Understanding is not a magic bullet, it doesn't always "work."

Even though I know that Frankie isn't talking non-stop to annoy me, I get annoyed. Even if I understand that controlling that behavior is difficult for him, I still get frustrated when I am tired and he Just. Doesn't. Stop.

And there were times when I did turn to Ann with fire in my eyes and said loudly, or with quiet rage, "You will NOT talk to me like that young lady." That never worked as well as saying, "Come find me when you are feeling better and we will talk", but I did it.

And there were behaviors that no amount of understanding allowed me to deal with. I could understand her need to establish a pecking order with the kids. I believe that, given how she had lived for so long, establishing and re-establish her dominance was what she needed to feel safe. I also saw what it was doing to Andrew and Brian and I finally had to call the social worker and say that this was not going to work out.

So there is no magic here, but still I find that understanding where my children's behavior comes from helps.

At least some of the time

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes I worry that I overanalyze and make typical/"normal" behaviors fit into some adoption/past-issue box. But, on the other hand, knowing the roots of his issues is so important in helping him overcome them. And it helps me stay sane, too.

    I wrote a post a while back called Determining the Communicative Intent. That's the issue here. Sometimes the behaviors are the same -- yes, lots of kids cry when they're dropped off at pre-school -- but the reasons, the intensity, and the emotions behind the tears may be different.


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