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Behavior Challenges - “The Train Wreck”

Does Your Child…

  • Throw extreme or frequent tantrums, beyond what you would expect for his/her age or developmental level?
  • Often refuse to do what you ask?
  • Automatically say “No” to you, before you’re even done asking?
  • Defy rules, then “hold you hostage” by begging, crying, arguing, or destroying things until you give in?
  • Not seem to learn from “time outs?”
  • Show aggression, such as by hitting, slapping, pinching, or kicking himself or others, if he doesn’t get what he wants?
  • Fall on the floor like a “limp noodle” if you try to guide him or pick him up?
  • Seem unchanged by rewards, punishments, or consequences?

Often, desperate parents try to treat these issues by imposing their will, yelling, nagging, giving in, giving more frequent or consistent “time outs,” setting up star charts, rewarding more, punishing more, and trying to give more “logical” consequences.

As Dr. Phil would say…"How’s that workin’ for ya?" 

In some cases, these kinds of behavioral techniques will work…for awhile.  In other cases, nothing seems to help.

That’s when parents and teachers typically seek therapy for their child and family.  When I first see a child with behavior challenges in Spokane, their parents often ask what kind of “more severe” punishments I can recommend, or which kind of “reward chart” will work better. I ask:

“What do you feel is the problem?”

“Well…” the parent will answer, “The problem is that he kicks, hits, punches, yells, won’t do what I say, falls down on the ground, and…” (You can probably fill in the blank here).

As we explore this issue, it becomes clear that the parent’s definition of the problem is just that – the parent’s problem.  When children hit or scream or fall on the ground, these behaviors create problems for the parent (or teacher).  However, are they problems for the child?  Often…not really!  In fact, many children could keep up these behaviors all day, all night, all week, all month…and even beyond! 

No, the child’s problem is often something else entirely.  And it typically happens long before the parent ever sees the behaviors they are concerned about.

In explaining it to parents, I compare the child to a train.  The train is going along on a nice flat track, and feeling very fine, thank you, when suddenly, the child has a problem.  This is the invisible problem that we have not noticed and the child often cannot communicate.  The child cannot fix this problem, so the train begins to go downhill. The child gets cranky or they start getting “mouthy,” or they try slapping someone to divert attention or vent their anxiety.  Very soon the train picks up speed, hits the bottom of the hill, and Kaboom!  Train wreck!  A huge mess at the bottom of the hill! 

This train wreck is what the adult sees – the refusals, the hitting, the oppositional defiance.  But it has very little to do with the real problem – the child’s problem.  I call the train wreck the child’s “shtick.”  He knows how to do it, and he pulls out these behaviors each time he is overwhelmed and his train hits the bottom of the hill.  Some kids use aggression, while others clam up and refuse to talk.  Some kids become more oppositional; others yell and run.  But in whatever way your child handles it, you are only looking at the train wreck, his “shtick.”  Although it’s a problem for us, it’s not very informative if we’re trying to fix the problem.  And because it’s not more of a problem for him than what happened at the top of the hill,
your child will not stop doing it until he can fix the real problem
.

Instead, I want you to think back, before your child started to come undone.  There was a problem there, but we missed it.  The most common child problems in my practice have been (in no particular order):

#1 - Fuzzy Limits (at Home and/or School)

#2 - Anxiety over a Social Issue, Personal Conflict, or Imbalance in the Child’s Life

#3 - Interpersonal Needs (Love, Friendship, Power)

#4 -  Neglect/Abuse/Stress

#5 - Low Skills for the Task

#6 - Negative Problem-Solving

#7 - Impersonal Relationships to Others

There are some others that are less common as well.

Once we determine which of these (or which combination of these) the child is experiencing, then we have a chance of solving the problem, or at least making some good progress.

Need an example?  OK…A child cries, kicks others, and calls others names whenever he loses a game.  A problem?  Although he may get grounded, kicked out of school, or banned from the playground, the truth is…this is not the problem!  It’s the train wreck, so we should pay very little attention to it.  When we look back at what happened before the train wreck, we realize it started when he lost a game.  Some children become very anxious when they lose a game.  Some also have self-defeating or unhelpful thoughts, such as:

“He’s a cheater!”
“I’ll never do this right!”
“Everyone’s looking at me!” or
“If I lose, I’m a loser!”

From a therapy or treatment standpoint, some skills the child might need to solve or improve the problem may include:

  • Learning to tolerate anxiety, if this is difficult.
  • Becoming aware that losing creates anxiety, which may feel like an emergency to your body, when it is not.
  • Learning that his unhelpful thoughts are inaccurate and cause him stress.
  • Learning to gain perspective about the win/lose process.
  • Learning better game skills.
  • Learning to see things from both perspectives.
  • Dealing with the bullying that is occurring during the game.

And so on.  These things are seeable, actionable, and often teachable.

So the next time your child is crying, screaming, hitting, and doing the limp noodle, remember

“This is not the problem!”

“ It’s just my problem.”

“It’s just a train wreck.”

“What might be my child’s problem?”

Some problems will seem easy to solve after you have this perspective (“Oh, he’s just hungry…that’s why he’s crying,” or “He needs to learn how to make friends.”). 

For others, you may need to seek a professional who can evaluate the situation and work with you and your child through this process.


Need more help?  Call  (509) 448-1506 or Click to Email 


Deborah Skalabrin, MSW, LICSW

701 W. 7th Avenue, Suite 15
Spokane, WA  99204
(509) 448-1506 - Phone
(509) 624-7500 - FAX

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