But How Do I Know For Sure This Behavior Isn’t on Purpose?
At the end of a recent multi-day training I facilitated, a parent participant asked a question that I’m certain eventually enters into the minds of all parents learning about a brain-first approach:
“I’m still trying to figure out how I know for sure whether or not some of my son’s behavior is on purpose. How do I know if what he’s doing is definitely about his brain differences? What if I decide it is about his differences, and I’m wrong?”
You could tell by the way this parent proceeded to describe her son that her lens had shifted — she was opening herself to the possibility that the challenging behaviors were about her son experiencing behavioral symptoms, instead of about manipulation, laziness, and selfishness. She had been listening attentively the entire training, taking notes and engaging in the discussions. The words and phrases she used to describe situations were empathetic and full of curiosity, versus being rooted in judgement. But she had experienced years of her son’s incredibly challenging behaviors, with a good deal of resentment and blame building as those years passed.
It made complete sense to me that she would still be struggling to fully embrace the idea that the behaviors that had been so disruptive to the family — and traumatic for her personally —were about something outside of her son’s control. Attempting to fully accept that these challenging behaviors were not her son's fault, but were instead a result of his disability, left her feeling vulnerable and untethered. It meant she had to let go of a belief to which she had long been attached. It required her to reorient herself to what was happening, and to evaluate everything through this new lens.
Over time, as we create more space between the behavior and our reaction to it, we open ourselves to considering an alternative explanation of what might be happening.
I’m fairly certain that every parent I’ve worked with has, at one time or another, asked some version of the question: “But how do I know if (name the challenging behavior) is really about their brain-difference, or if they’re doing it on purpose?”
I am the parent of a teenager with significant brain-differences, so I understand where that question comes from. It’s a deeply-ingrained part of our humanness that we want to make sense of what we see, and have certainty in our conclusions. This, paired with the reality that we live in a society where behavior is viewed as unquestionably willful and intentional, makes it difficult to imagine that behavior is anything but purposeful. If this a question you’ve struggled with, let’s take a few moments to explore it more together, with the goal of helping you settle further into the idea that there is more to understand about our children's challenging behaviors than what appears on the surface.
What the Research Tells Us About the Brain/Behavior Connection
Neuroscience research has demonstrated, beyond a doubt, that the brain and behaviors are connected. The two cannot ever be separated, and cannot be evaluated independently of each other. When we understand this truth, it then makes sense that the challenging behaviors we see must have something to do with the way in which our child’s brain is working differently.
If we simply look at behaviors in isolation, we’re missing more than half of the puzzle. We will find ourselves continuously baffled by the challenging behaviors our child demonstrates, and frustrated that behavioral interventions that only target behaviors never produce the promised outcomes. On those days when you find yourself wondering if the behavior is simply what you see through that behavioral lens (selfish, lazy, not caring about anything, defiant, manipulative, etc.), fall back on the neuroscientific research.
What the Research Tells Us about the Need for Connection
“Connection is a biological imperative.” – Stephen Porges, MD
As the work of Stephen Porges, Bruce Perry, Brené Brown, and Mona Delahooke tell us, human connection and engagement is what calms the nervous system, which in turn helps children settle, and then leads to a reduction in the frequency and intensity of challenging behaviors. We can conclude from their extensive research on this topic that when children are behaving in ways that make it challenging (if not impossible) to be in connection, that it’s about something deeper, something happening at a physiological level — a brain level. If we can remember that each one of us, including children with challenging behaviors, are wired for connection, it helps us soften in those challenging moments, allowing us to be more empathetic and compassionate. From there, we have some emotional space to take a step back and consider an alternative explanation for the behaviors we’re seeing.
Our Deeply-Held Beliefs and Values, and How They Keep Us Stuck
Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about the intersection of our deeply-held beliefs and values, and our child’s challenging behaviors. When a child is behaving in a way that we do not feel is good, right, or appropriate, it’s safe to assume that this will clash with our deeply-held beliefs and values about what it means to be a “good” person and to “behave appropriately.” This framework is embedded deeply into our thinking and analysis of the world; we cling to it even more fiercely when we are trying to make sense of a distressing and chaotic situation. The resulting clash is often automatic, causing visceral reactions in us as parents.
Our goal in examining those clashing moments isn’t to be perfect (we are human, after all), it’s to begin recognizing when it’s happening, and when it’s causing us to get stuck in a mindset of “she or he did it on purpose.” Over time, as we create more space between the behavior and our reaction to it, we open ourselves to considering an alternative explanation of what might be happening. You can read more on this idea of deeply-held beliefs and values here.
Your Precious Energy
One thing that was so clear to me about the parent who asked me this question in the recent training was that the question was weighing her down. It was consuming her precious energy and slowing her progress toward the paradigm shift. She was stuck in the middle between her long-held behavioral lens approach with her son (one that left her feeling hopeless and exhausted) and her desired shift to the brain-first lens. She was straddling both worlds, analyzing every interaction with her son to see which side to land on. My heart ached to see just how much this question consumed her, knowing her precious energy is limited and needed to be spent in ways that would produce the best outcomes for her, her son and her family.
So I asked her, “What would it be like for you to assume, each time you are met with a challenging behavior from your son, that it is a symptom of his disability and not intentional? How would making that your automatic default change those interactions? How do you think it would alter your approach and connection with him?”
We agreed that she would not end up in a worse place, and that there was the possibility of a different, more positive outcome than the ones she’d consistently experienced for years.
I then asked, How do you think it would change the experience of parenting?
“I wouldn’t feel so stressed,” she said. “I could let myself believe that my son really is the tenderhearted kid I’ve seen him be. I wouldn’t feel like such a failure as a parent, knowing this is about something much bigger than my discipline of him.”
We then discussed her hesitancy in making this her default lens.
“He will think I am a pushover,” the parent said. “He’ll try to take advantage of me. I’ll lose what little parental control I have.”
That provided an opportunity for us to talk about the value in remembering the differences between “giving in” and adjusting expectations to be in better alignment with our child’s cognitive skills. We talked about the essential process of circling back, which allows us to address the behavior that took place in ways that will allow us to instill our values and help our child grow in their skills.
Why We Confidently Assume That Children Would Do Better if They Could
There are many misconceptions about the brain-first approach to interpreting a child’s behavior; quite a few of these misconceptions begin with the belief that all behavior is purposeful. I certainly understand where those views come from, and why parents and teachers are skeptical (again, our society is deeply entrenched in a behavioral lens). But if you are a parent reading this right now, let me ask you this: Why wouldn’t your child do well, if they could? Why would they always want to be in trouble, losing privileges, and being the one in the family that everyone is always upset with? Why would anyone purposefully bring that type of conflict to their lives?
Kids would do well if they could.
It just makes sense.
And if we adjust our lens to that reality, we begin to see our child in a completely different light.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.