Guest Blog Post: Addressing Difficult Behaviors

By Denise Rice, LCSW, ACSW, LAC

What are Behaviors?
All behavior meets a need and has a function. Let me say that again, there is a function and a purpose to every behavior! A behavior is an external expression (communication) of our internal emotions. Sometimes, we as adults forget that how we behave is our way of communicating how we feel, just as it is for our kids. It is how we often communicate our emotions, positive or negative. When children experience trauma, their most pressing need is survival. Many behaviors we would label as “bad,” “maladaptive,” or “inappropriate” were necessary at one point for the child’s survival; and let’s be honest, our children and teens are master survivors.

We need to reframe our thinking about behavior. Especially when it comes to understanding trauma. If you want to really practice a trauma sensitive or trauma responsive type of parenting it is critical that you see the behavior of your child or teen through a trauma informed lens. Rather than seeing the behavior as negative and hostile, we need to see it as a highly functional survival skill that kept our kids alive in their previous environments and now that behavior isn’t working as well in the current situation. What parents and caregivers are tasked with is how to decipher the message underneath the child’s behavior. What is your child telling you they need through their behavior?

If hiding, stealing, or stashing food away was the only way your child ate when their parent went on a drug or alcohol bender, that behavior has become a survival skill. However, if the same child is hiding, stealing, and hoarding food under their bed and in their closet in your home that same survival skill is now described as “inappropriate” or “disruptive.” This behavior is getting in the way of this child being successful in a different situation or connecting with you because it drives you crazy and is considered “disrespectful;” but, these behaviors that kept your kids alive before, will not simply disappear after a few days, weeks, or sometimes months or years after being placed in your home.

Keep reminding yourself that often the behavior isn’t about you. It may feel like the behavior is aimed at you, but remember that the child is behaving the only way they know how, and when our brains are stressed, we regress. We regress to previous behaviors that may have disappeared for some time. I know that it is extremely difficult to not take some of the behaviors personally. Especially if you are not taking care of yourself and your own stress is impacting the healing relationship with your child.

Responding to Difficult Behavior
Remember that trauma that occurred in the context of relationship, will only heal in a relationship. This is the HOPE we all must hang on to. Think about these strategies for responding to children’s difficult behaviors:

  1. Prevent: Become a behavior and sensory detective. Look for clues about when behaviors happen and what is going on in the environment around the child. Once you see a pattern, make changes that prevent the possible behavior from occurring in the first place.
  2. Teach: Just as the child learned a series of behaviors that kept them alive and functioning in their previous homes, they can also learn new behaviors that meet the same need and are a better fit for their new environment. The goal is to identify the need or function of the behavior and then teach a new skill that allows children to get this need met in a new and different way. Caution: Never remove a coping strategy or survival skill without replacing it with another equally or more effective strategy. We want to maintain the sense of safety that these behaviors have provided in the past.
  3. Respond: To support children in using new skills we need to respond differently to the old behavior and spend more time and energy responding positively to the new behavior. Provide opportunities for re-do’s and for our kids to make a different choice. Parents can model re-do’s when we make a mistake, own it and ask to try it again. The brain only learns through repetition. We all need opportunities to practice…again and again.

Positive responses to the new behavior can be given in a wide variety of ways, including verbal and nonverbal praise and acknowledgement, earning privileges or special activities, or one on one time with you. What is most important is the frequency of positive responses. Especially when a child is trying to learn a new skill, positive feedback needs to be frequent and specific. Again….the brain only learns through repetition. We are helping create new neuronal pathways in the brain and this can only happen with repetition. So being a broken record does have its advantages!

Most importantly, we need to remember that we want children to feel lovable, even when they are demonstrating difficult and challenging behavior. Choose your words carefully. Avoid statements that imply blame or express anger or impatience. Focus on the behavior, not the child. Sometimes the greatest response is not in our words, but our ability to be fully present, regulated, and reinforce healing in the context of the relationship.

Caring for Children Who Have Experienced Trauma: A Workshop for Resource Parents (2010) by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN-www.nctsn.org).

Helping Yourself and Your Family

Parenting a child or youth who has experienced trauma can be challenging. Families can sometimes feel isolated, as if no one else understands what they are going through. This can put a strain not only on your relationship with your child, but with other family members as well (including your spouse or partner). Learning about what your child experienced may even act as a trigger for you if you have your own trauma history. Being affected by someone else’s trauma is sometimes called “secondary trauma.” Remember….you cannot give away that which is not yours to give! (Juli Alvarado; http://www.alvaradoconsultinggroup.com)

The best cure for secondary trauma is prevention. In order to care for others, you must take care of yourself first. Here are some things you can do:

  1. Be honest about your expectations for your child and your relationship. Having realistic expectations about parenting a child with a history of trauma increases the chances for a healthy relationship.
  2. Celebrate small victories. Take note of the improvements your child has made. It is often baby steps, not all or nothing with healing trauma.
  3. Don’t take your child’s behavior personally. Your child’s struggles are a result of the trauma they experienced; they are not a sign of your failure as a parent.
  4. Focus on your own healing. If you have experienced trauma, it will be important for you to pursue your own healing, separate from your child.
  5. Seek support. Your circle of support may include friends, family, and professional support if needed. Don’t be afraid to ask about resources available like respite, wraparound services, crisis intervention options, and support groups. It takes a village to be a parent and a caregiver, so find those with the same passion as you!

(Child Welfare Information Gateway. Available online at https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/child-trauma)


Denise Rice, LCSW, ACSW, LAC has been collaborating, training, supporting, and partnering with those in Child Welfare and Mental Health for over 18 years. Whether as a local and national trainer, therapist, consultant, crisis assessment specialist, or front line worker, Denise’s mission is to share the message Have Hope! Honor Healing! Practice Peace! Denise currently works as a Crisis Assessment Specialist in the emergency department for Penrose-St. Francis Hospital, is an adjunct faculty at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, and is a contract trainer for The Adoption Exchange and AspenPointe.  Denise conveys the passion to inspire those who are caring for and supporting children and youth by transitioning into a more regulated life!   Denise lives in Colorado Springs with her kitty, Chloe. You can reach Denise at DeniseRice@Hotmail.com.

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