If you have a “behavior” kid, then you know what I mean when I call them behavior kids. I don’t mean to say that they’re defined by their negative behavior, but instead to say that their behaviors often drive the mood of not only their own days, but the days of their family members, as well.
These are the kids who have to deal with disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder, and sometimes even Autism Spectrum Disorder. They struggle to behave in ways that society finds acceptable.
They work hard for weeks at a time to have one or two “good” days.
One of the biggest questions I’ve had since working in behavior has been… why do kids who’ve struggledso long to reach their goals, intentionally destroy their own progress right before reaching those goals?
It happens over and over again amongst behavior kids so I know it’s not an isolated problem.
I once worked with a little boy who only needed to go two school days without physically hurting someone in order to reach his first reward. We went as far as marking off each individual hour, celebrating every one that he achieved without hurting someone.
But do you know how long it took him to reach his goal? Something like six months. Time is fuzzy in my memory of that year because it seemed to stretch on forever, but it definitely started in September and was still going on well after Christmas.
For a while, we thought maybe we’d made his goal too difficult because it was taking him too long to reach it, but that really wasn’t the case. He’d made it WEEKS before without hurting anyone, but as soon as two days was his goal, he could suddenly only make it 47 hours.
Every time, in the 48th hour, he’d ruin it.
When we tried briefly to decrease the amount of time he needed to be safe in order to reach a reward, he would simply decrease the amount of time he could be safe. When his goal became one day, he could only make it 23 hours. When his goal became half a school day, he could suddenly only make it 2 or 3 hours.
The closer he got to success, the more anxious he became so he ruined it before he could get all the way there.
I think most of the time, these kids are afraid of what that success will mean. For some kids, particularly those who’ve been through trauma, chaos is comfortable. Living within the lines is foreign and anxiety-inducing so they create their own chaos to feel more at home.
For others, being celebrated feels uncomfortable. It involves unknown plans and unknown emotions. Even if they’re told ahead of time what’s coming, there are still too many variables. How will it feel? How will their family feel? How will people treat them? What will that new treatment feel like?
Fear of the unknown often causes them to stick with what they know.
Kids who struggle with emotional regulation, trust, and attachment also don’t know how to accept love and affirmation. They know how to accept consequences and frustration–they’re usually pros at that–but they don’t know how to accept positive emotions and attention. Giving up the control they have over their own chaos might make them feel like they’re giving up their “place” in the family as the person who brings the chaos.
Being part of a family is hard, but being the only character in your own story is much simpler.
One of the other big reasons behavior kids sabotage their own success is because success often feels too good to be true. They don’t trust the people around them so they don’t believe that obeying will bring them good things. They might think their caregivers are lying, they might not believe that those “good” things will actually feel good, or maybe they just live in a constant state of waiting for the other foot to fall… because all they’ve ever known is that things eventually end up sucky.
Do you have a “behavior” kiddo in your life who seems to self-sabotage? Do you see any patterns in their behavior? What ways have you found to help them?