We all need support in getting our needs met. When a child’s behaviour does not meet our expectations, is it helpful to use Behaviour Management Techniques?
This article is not meant as a criticism of parents and others who may be using a behaviour management approach. On the contrary, I have no doubt that you love your children and are doing your best to help them.
The aim of this article is to provide an opportunity for you to reflect upon and consider what are the most fulfilling ways of being with the children in your care.
Parents and others who have children in their care need support and understanding to deal with their own emotional needs in order to be in the best condition to help their children.
Behaviours have a cause and a purpose. When a child behaves in ways that we consider bad or unacceptable, we may resort to behaviour management techniques to change the child’s behaviour.
This is like turning off an alarm or a flashing red light on an instrument panel, because we find it disturbing. A child’s disturbing behaviour is, in fact, a sign that the child is unhappy or unwell because some of his or her needs are not being met.
Core Development’s approach to Counselling and Somatic Psychotherapy would seek to discover the cause of the child’s behaviour and explore how we can help the child get his or her needs met.
So next time you find a child’s behaviour disturbing, consider this:
If a flashing red light appears on the instrument panel of your car – or on a flight that you’re on – or if the smoke alarm goes off in the building you’re in – would you switch it off or disconnect it because it annoys you, or would you take the trouble to find out what is setting off the alarm?
Whilst I have used a boy in the example below, this applies equally to girls, and to adults.
Imagine a boy in his late teens, having a few beers in a pub with some of his mates.
He tells a story of an incident that he was involved in when he was at school.
He describes how he lost his temper and went berserk, smashing desks and windows and punching and kicking the teachers who tried to stop him.
He talks excitedly about what happened as the police and ambulance were called in, and how police officers had to jump over fences to apprehend him when he tried to run away.
Can you imagine how he felt in this situation?
What would prompt a child to act in this way?
Could it be feelings of hurt, frustration, anger and powerlessness?
When we feel happy and able to fulfill our needs, we have no need to hurt others or to exert influence and power over others.
When we feel powerless, on the other hand, a common response is to try to recover a sense of power and self-worth by exerting power over others.
In the situation and mindset that this boy finds himself, his violent reaction serves a purpose. It appears to be successful, if only temporarily, in fulfilling his need to feel powerful and important.
This association of violence with feelings of power may be reinforced each time his violent behaviour evokes a powerful reaction from others.
It’s one of the ways that are available to him that enables him to maintain some integrity in his particular situation at that time. Other possible reactions to feelings of hurt and powerlessness are self-harm or collapse.
When we adopt a Behaviour Management Plan or approach, do we ask why the child is behaving in this way?
Do we attempt to understand the underlying cause and purpose of the child’s behaviour?
Do we ask ourselves if there is anything that we need to change in order to help the child?
Or do we assume that the child’s behaviour is the problem and that it’s the child who needs to change?
This reminds me of the story of a Buddhist monk who wants his student to look at the moon. So he points his finger at the moon and what does the student do? He grabs the monk’s finger!
A child’s behaviour is like the monk’s finger in the example above. It is pointing to the fact that some of the child’s needs are not being met.
Behaviour Management techniques usually involve using reward and punishment, sometimes in subtle ways, to manipulate a child’s behaviour – to get the child to behave in ways that the adults approve of.
Is this how you were treated when you were a child?
In all these cases, are we making an attempt to understand how the child is feeling?
Are we able to empathise? Or are we reinforcing the child’s feelings of powerlessness by labeling his behaviour as dysfunctional and making him wrong?
If we label the child’s behaviour as dysfunctional and wrong and try to get him to change, is this not likely to increase his feelings of frustration at not being seen and understood, and not having his needs met?
Surely we need to ask, not how can we change his behaviour, but how can we help him fulfill his needs? When his needs are fulfilled the violent behaviour will stop because it will no longer be necessary.
Whilst I have chosen a boy as an example, the same reasoning would apply to a girl. It would also apply to emotionally violent behaviour such as bullying and shaming.
What message are we giving children? What are we teaching them?
What message are we giving children when we use techniques to manipulate children’s behaviour rather than asking how can we help them fulfill their needs? What are we teaching them?
In “The Path Of Least Resistance”, Robert Fritz makes this comment:
“Parents and teachers tell children what to do and not to do in order to help them be accepted and secure in the family and society.
Children may cooperate or rebel, but it is clear to them that the adult’s job is to know how life should be.”
“Children are really learning about power. What they learn about power is that they are powerless. They are also learning about their purpose in life. Unfortunately what they learn is that they are insignificant, and that they need to conform.
Under those conditions, what purpose or meaning does their life ultimately have? The epidemic of teenage suicide is one outcome of this experience of purposelessness and powerlessness!”
When we try to force children to conform to society, to be the way we want them to be or think they should be, rather than allowing them to be themselves, we are, in effect, teaching them that they are not OK.
We are teaching them that they are powerless and we are breaking their spirit.
In most and probably all cases we do this with the best of intentions, because that is what has been done to us.
Children need the freedom to be authentic, to be respected and valued, to be themselves. Without that freedom their creative spirit wilts and dies
Donald Marmara is the creator of Core Development. A process of change and personal growth developed from his professional training, personal therapy, life experience, and over 40 years experience in somatic psychotherapy, counselling and emotional learning.