This was originally an article in the Self-Reg Parenting Magazine Vol 1 Issue 2
Children have such different ways of responding to being over-stressed. Some get physically ill. Some get nervous and anxious. Some become manic and hyperactive. Some have trouble going to sleep and others don’t want to do anything but sleep. Some won’t say a word and others won’t stop talking. Some become emotionally volatile and some shut down. Some get clingy and others become distant. Some can’t focus on anything and others have problems with hyper-focus. And some kids get very angry and aggressive.
What all these children have in common is that they behave in a characteristic way when they are over-stressed. This becomes a sort of patterned response. But what markedly distinguishes between them is how we react.
Seeing a child suffer brings out the nurturing side in all of us. There may be an exception for the child who responds to their distress by becoming angry or aggressive. They’re the one we see as having a “character problem.” The one who is yelled at, punished, restrained, shunned. The one that we automatically react to harshly: never asking “Why?” or “Why now?” when they lash out.
The “bad kid” is the one who gets labelled as having some “personality flaw.” They’re the one who is said to have “low frustration tolerance”; to be “unfeeling” or “oppositional.” They’re the one who is seen as having poor self-control; a lack of empathy; no sense of right or wrong. Just hearing a child labeled with one of these terms is enough to determine how you will always see that child.
The worst part of all this is not that it completely misses the mark. It is that it often brings about the very thing you dread. Treat a kid as if they’re bad and before you know it, they’ll start to see themselves this way. They’ll be the first one to write themselves off; the first to be upset by behaviour that they no more understand than you do. They’ll see all adults as threats. Before you know it, they’re behaving in the very ways they’ve been told they’re likely to behave.
Recognizing the difference between misbehaviour and stress behaviour is the first step to helping a child who is subject to angry explosions or aggression. Like all children, they need to feel safe and secure with us. But that is not going to happen until we realize that there is no such thing as a bad kid.