In the line of work that I do, many frustrations when working with children who present with behavioral concerns almost always lead back to the parents. It’s common that parents will send their kids to therapists thinking their children are the ones who need to be “fixed” while they, the parents, don’t have to do anything to modify their behaviors. “My kid is behaving poorly and that’s my kid’s behavior, not mine.” Trying to help parents understand that their behaviors and actions greatly impact how their child behaves sometimes can feel like trying to teach my cats to give me hugs. Not impossible, but very challenging.

But once in a while, you get parents who totally get it. They understand access to mental health interventions is as important as modifications to their behaviors as a parent. Those parents are awesome. And parents who can respectfully and calmly advocate for their kids? Even better!

A few years ago, I had my first dose of working with young school-aged children. When I think back on how I behaved as an “adult,” I am quite embarrassed that I wasn’t able to treat them better. I know, those things are learned, but I still feel awful sometimes, especially to the kids who were the “trouble kids.” There were a few who had “behavioral issues.” I found those kids to be particularly challenging and “stressful.” Despite how I was choosing to respond to their “bad behavior,” I always tried my best to be good, kind, and caring nonetheless.

I was cleaning out some things and came across a letter a parent had written to me. I knew her well – her kids were the “trouble kids.” She was aware of their behaviors, but she loved them dearly and always tried to teach them better. (Trust me, those kids were scared of their momma.) Anyway, she wrote to me stating that at the end of the day, when I would say to the kids, “Go home” she found that particularly hurtful. While I may have intended it to be a joke, the impact was not the same. It was one of the first times where I needed to be mindful of my speech. It was also very helpful that she delivered her message in a way that was not only well written, but came from a place of honesty. She didn’t attack or make assumptions about me; she explained why she felt what she felt. That’s what I loved about her letter. I didn’t feel the need to be defensive; I felt sad that I had caused pain.

Rereading that letter today reminded me of how far I had come. I still work with kids every now and then and there is a almost always child who could easily be labeled as the “trouble kid.” I have since learned to give all kids the benefit of the doubt. A “trouble kid” isn’t “troubled” – it’s a kid who has yet to learn the “appropriate” social responses to their emotions and impulses. Providing a positive space for that learning to happen in a safe manner will greatly benefit everybody involved. I’m glad that I’ve been able to modify my own behaviors and be more inclusive with parents. If I could re-do that year I did, I would in a heartbeat. Nonetheless, I’m still grateful to have learned what I’ve learned and to continue learning.

Behavior in Context

Tonight, one of my professors said something really good: he said that we, as clinicians and social workers, must take into account people’s behavior in context. For example, if a child is running and screaming – is that appropriate behavior? If I didn’t tell you any other information, you wouldn’t really know how to judge that question. Is the child in a library? A church? Is this occurring during a church service? Or did they create a fun day?

Carrying this thought onto the work that I do is crucial. At one point does my client’s behavior become inappropriate and in which context, for the client, does it seem appropriate? By whose definition of “appropriate” am I going to judge the behavior? Even outside of my clients, I can use this for my relationships with people. In context, it was very understandable – though appropriate is another question – about why my dinner partner was in a crappy mood: he was late to work, had a lot to do, was given a new assignment on that day, was waiting for a response from a coworker, and it was mid-week when his stress level is probably pretty high. If I didn’t take his behavior into context, I could have demanded that he change his behavior to accommodate me and instead, I offered solutions such as declining or rescheduling dinner if modifying his behavior was not a viable option at the time.

If I apply this concept to myself, it will give me a better understanding of how my behavior is affected by the context in which it occurs. There is so much context in one’s behavior – the fact that I have chosen to do something is based on years and years of experience. Behavior is a learned trait – not necessarily innate. For example, I have acquired a lower-than-average self esteem based on years of criticism, years of watching children in media receive praise, years of receiving praise from others but my parents, the lack of “fitting” into the “physically attractive” category, being taught that there will always be someone better or that I can always do better, indicating that my “current” state is not enough, and so on and so forth. In context, in knowing all of this information about my history, I can see that I was not able to channel those experiences in a more positive direction and thus spawned the low-self esteem. I didn’t learn the tools in order to fight the crappy self-talk and only now am trying to acquire better cognitive reflexes to deter that thinking. It’s taking work, but I’m glad to be on this uphill path.

I’ve been trying to acknowledge at least one good thing I do each day. This acknowledgement must be my own – not after I’ve received feedback from someone else, but a thought that I came to by myself. Only then will I be satisfied in knowing that I didn’t allow for someone else to affirm me and that I was able to do it for me.

Jar of Affirmations
It’s so colorful!