Why We Misunderstand Traumatized Children’s Behavioral Challenges and How We Can Do Better

By the time he turned eleven, “Luke” had consistently displayed such challenging behavior that he had been kicked out of four foster homes. Finally, a social worker placed him with parents who had been trained in a program that focused on behavior management.  That placement was also unsuccessful, and he landed in a residential school for youth who were severely emotionally disturbed.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that the last home didn’t work out. Too often, those who train foster parents don’t realize that some types of parent training programs are outdated and can even be harmful. These approaches are based on older behavioral paradigms that are particularly unsuited to children who have experienced toxic stress and trauma.

The approaches have their roots in research from over a century ago by scientists who initially studied how to manipulate the behavior of animals. Decades later, psychologists applied these approaches to human subjects, giving birth to the field of behaviorism.

By the mid-20thCentury, behaviorism gained a significant following, particularly since it appeared to be effective in curbing self-injurious behavior in at-risk autistic individuals.

But neuroscientists studying the brain in the 1990s (the “Decade of the Brain”) came to realize that the approach overlooked two essential factors: the significance of the targeted individual’s emotions and the importance of engaged, safe relationships. Just because you could alter behaviors didn’t mean that you were enhancing quality of life or improving outcomes for vulnerable children. Consider, for example, that only 30 percent of foster children graduate from high school—and only 2.5 percent from college.

Still, to this day, many people call behavioral approaches “evidence-based” because they are based on research studies. But such “evidence” doesn’t necessarily mean that an approach is good for children. Healing the human mind and spirit is very different from, for example, testing a drug to treat diabetes. A particular intervention might well reduce “negative” behaviors but fail to improve a child’s neurodevelopment. A child may become more compliant, but also more stressed out.

The reason many foster children display challenging behaviors is that so many adults failed them over the years. Their behaviors are instinctual, protective responses to threat.  As Dr. Stephen Porges, the neuroscientist, explains it, “behavioral responses represent how a person’s nervous system is constantly regulating the body’s response to stress.” So a child’s persistent behavioral challenges indicate that the child’s nervous system is automatically adjusting and responding to these various forms of stress. 

When we focus on ridding children of these behaviors instead of on rebuilding their trust in other people, we are failing them. When we punish traumatized children for displaying challenging behaviors, we actually increase their already heavy stress loads. And when we use behavior management programs that don’t acknowledge the significance of trauma, we fail to recognize behaviors for what they are: stress responses.

Instead of showing low tolerance for “inappropriate” behaviors, we should have a high tolerance for them.  Instead of punishments and time outs, we should use compassion. Instead of withdrawing and ignoring, we should offer relational safety and interaction.

In my career, I have met far too many children like Luke—kids who are docked privileges or sent into isolation when they have stress responses in the form of challenging behaviors. We fail these children when we simply target their behaviors, which are only the tip of the iceberg. Instead, we need to examine what is causing the behaviors. Only then can we properly address the pain and suffering that fuel the behavior. If you are a parent, you should know that you have a choice between approaches that target behaviors (known as behavioral approaches) and neurodevelopmental (relationship-based) approaches that emphasize safety in relationships and individual differences.

For children exposed to ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), we should replace reinforcement schedules and negative consequences with love, tolerance, safety and understanding that a challenging behavior signals a response to perceived threat.  These children don’t need less tolerance, they need more.  They need caregivers who understand that their behavioral meltdowns aren’t intentional misbehavior. Traumatized children are instinctively doing what humans do to protect themselves from harm.  We need to treat them with compassion and be the caring, engaged adults that they need—and certainly deserve.

My latest book, Beyond Behaviors is now available on Amazon.

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