Who Owns It?

“It’s not about YOU,” I explained, although I had that dreaded sinking sensation that although the words flowed by her ears and pinballed through the processing areas of her brain, that although she was hearing and listening and understanding the verbiage, the other staff member was also not really understanding what the hell I meant. Meanwhile, the children around us were bouncing around in various levels of happiness, impulsiveness, mild disobedience, and general obliviousness to rules. As long as no one was getting hurt, the minor details of behaviour didn’t matter; this was yet another day at the city pool, in a long line of such overly-hot summer days at the city pool.

“It’s not about what you’re doing,” I tried in vain to rephrase, although my efforts were getting to be pretty lame by this time in the afternoon, what with the combination of summer heat, the impact of children’s high-decibel noise aggravated by hyperacussis, and the strain of trying to track a dozen children despite mild faceblindness. “I mean, how you handle it does matter, but …” I stared into the distance, as one of our charges was wandering around with her bathing suit bottom halfway up one buttock. I kept track of our children by remembering what bathing suits they were wearing, so I was predisposed to notice such. “But it’s not about you.” I finished, flapping my hands a bit in agitation as those words were still in my verbal buffer, but I was instead needing to formulate some kind of sentence directed to another staff member closer to our wayward girl.

“Oh, he’s just being defiant, and I’m not going to let him,” she replied in the self-assured manner of the barely-twenty-something, and left me to go refill her cup of iced cola. I heaved a big sigh at the idea of “letting” someone be defiant, and went to intercept one of our autistic boys so he wouldn’t toss bits of paper into an air conditioner fan.

There are some children who are just explosive in temperament, for any number of reasons. Handling such children is always tricky, because it’s all to easy to get sucked into the whole situation and end up aggravating the dynamic instead of damping it.

Some children get angry because they are being defiant, and are pushing you into a power struggle. We’re familiar with how this works with toddlers who return instruction with a, “NO!” The best approach for such is to give them choices that are acceptable to you – the toddler feels they now have some measure of immediate control over their life, and yet you are still in ultimate control by being able to select options that are appropriate. Teenagers are sometimes like toddlers-with-hormones, and frequently benefit from similar tactics. In any regard, you shouldn’t respond to the power struggle, but rather respond to the situation and help the child understand the options they have available to them, and how to anticipate the results of their choices. (Sometimes I hate to use the word “consequences” because it has gotten so laden with meaning punishments.)

This particular staff member was predictably playing into the power struggle, and was determined that she was going to “win” by proving something or another to the child. However, this child wasn’t really being defiant in the volitional sense. The defiance wasn’t premeditated or consciously malicious. This was just one of those children who didn’t have sufficiently well-developed mental “brakes” to be self-aware, anticipate things, and stop himself before he reacted to situations. Such children frequently have low frustration levels, which are also a result of this kind of dysfunction.

The issue here was many-fold. For one thing, the staff member was reacting to the effects of the problem (the blow-ups) instead of the cause of the problem (the child’s processing dysfunction, plus the ongoing presence of situations that fed into the blow-ups). For another thing, the staff member believed that she had a lot more ownership of the solution to the problem than she did. She probably also likely believed that the child had a lot more ownership of the cause of the problem than he did. But although the child rarely meant to get so upset or angry, he still had to have some responsibility for what he did, otherwise he would end up reneging on most of his personal responsibility and go from being a child with a problem to being a brat with a problem.

It’s one of those weird little subconscious glitches in our brains that leads us to make fundamental attribution errors – our own lapses are caused by environmental reasons (“I of course couldn’t help but be incoherent as the heat and noise was making me tired”), but other’s lapses are caused by their moral failing (“but she was being foolish”). Staff members, teachers and other people usually assign successes to themselves, and failures to the children.

But in real life, education “takes two to tango” – both the teacher and the student need to work at the process. So does engaging in arguments – the second person has to continue to give the first person enough responses that reinforce all the hollering and carrying-on.

Diffusing these explosive situations is difficult. We have to figure out just when a child is being truly manipulative, and when it’s some kind of cognitive dysfunction, and when it’s a child with some kind of cognitive dysfunction that on that day is just being manipulative – life is messy! Sometimes we can identify what kinds of situations tend to spark these meltdowns, and then during a good time, discuss with the child what ways we could work with them to change things so they would be less problematic. We can also defuse or at least reduce those meltdowns by not giving into the power struggles. We have to remain compassionate, but detached. Be calm, remove extra people from the situation, give plenty of personal space, have open and friendly body language to reduce the feeling of threat, even be silent sometimes to let the argument fizzle out. After the child has calmed down then we can reflect with them in an objective manner about what happened, what needs to be done to rectify the problem by restitution to the others who were involved, and work proactively to reduce such future events.

But as I redirected the boy from flicking bits of paper to flicking pool water, I realised that I would not be able to “make” the other staff member understand something until she was ready to look beyond the necessity for “not letting” him do something. I could not control her need to “win” the argument any more than she could control his need to not quit an activity when it was time to leave.

4 Comments

  1. Jai said,

    27 August 2007 at 3:51

    Lovely post. I wonder where did you get this great information anyway. I’ve been trying to get the similar info to share with my list but fail to get one. I’ve bookmarked your website. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Michael said,

    17 June 2007 at 15:26

    Give her a copy of the Explosive Child, by Russ Greene. If she doesn’t get it after reading that book, I’ll be amazed.

  3. mcewen said,

    28 March 2007 at 18:55

    This is so resonant for me. When the toddler has a meltdown, no-one is unduly concerned, they are not expected to control their reactions to a wide variety of stimuli. But when the behaviour continues as the child gets older, especially when their reactions may become stronger and or more entrenched, the ’cause’ is devalued and everyone concentrates on eliminating the behaviour as it manifests.
    I also think you’re right about not being able to make any impact upon people who are not ready to listen or have their own agenda.
    Best wishes

  4. Club 166 said,

    28 March 2007 at 11:43

    What a great post!

    I have gone thru several IEP’s and conferences with teachers trying to explain that my 7 year old is not willfully disobeying them and throwing tantrums, and that we need to look carefully for the antecedent conditions that “set him off” and try to address them.

    At the same time Buddy Boy will sometimes announce calmy and cooly that “I can’t help myself, I’m autistic.” This I also find unacceptable. If you’re totally calm and collected enough to say that, then you’re also in control enough to search for a solution to the problem at hand. I usually respond to him with something like “You can not change that you are autistic. Everyone has something that makes them different. But you are still responsible for how you react to people, and how you make them feel.” I then attempt to identify with him possible solutions to his problem at hand. It’s not a perfect response, but for times when I feel he’s capable of stepping up, it seems to work


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