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How Self-Reg helped my son (and me!) to understand his past stress behaviour.

By: Vicki Parnell

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” 

At the end of every school day, I’d wait outside of my son Calum’s grade three classroom, hoping that he would come bursting through the door along with his classmates. Usually, though, I would see the other children emerge, eventually followed by an exhausted teacher. She would come to the door, catch my eye, and ask: “Can I talk to you?”

My son’s behaviour problems at school varied: rudeness, defiance, hitting, kicking, or throwing objects. One time he made a sweet, sensitive little girl cry by shouting into her face. Each time, the teacher and I would gently but firmly remind Calum of our expectations. We’d express confidence that next time he would “make good choices.” Calum and I would trudge home after each of these conversations, keenly feeling his failure to meet everyone’s expectations.

The thing is, my son wasn’t a bad kid. He was funny, brilliant and often showed compassion for others. We’d tried various home therapy programs, and the school was offering a lot of support. Calum had an IEP, and his educational assistants, teachers and principal all believed in him and wanted him to succeed. He had heard so many patient explanations of the rules that he could probably have taught a class on appropriate school behaviour. In spite of everything, though, on most days the demands of the school day would get too big. Calum would explode, and we’d have another conversation about “good choices”.

Intuitively, I think the teachers and I understood that Calum was not making a deliberate choice to behave this way. He was keenly disappointed in himself whenever he didn’t do well. Since we didn’t understand what was motivating his outbursts, we assumed he needed to exercise better self-control, to try harder, to choose to be kind and reflective instead of aggressive. One day Calum told me, very seriously, “I think I’m just a bad kid.” Why else, he reasoned, was he constantly “choosing” to do all of these bad things?

Today, the explosive outbursts are a thing of the past. Calum was treated for sensory and auditory processing disorders, and we found a new consultant who helped us to strengthen Calum’s ability to make social connections with others. Using the lens of Self-Reg, I can now see that these supports were reducing stressors for my son. Self-Reg explains that Calum’s brain had used up so much energy trying to cope with hidden stressors in the classroom that his “survival brain” had taken over. The defiance and aggression were a stress response.

I recently apologized to my son (now 15) for having framed his explosive behaviour as a choice. I told him what I had learned about stress behaviour and the fight-or-flight response. As I saw him processing this information, I’m pretty sure I saw him sit up a little bit straighter. It was a relief to both of us to see him understand that he never was a “bad kid”.