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Children’s Problem Behavior Understood Through Brain Science

Mona Delahooke’s "Beyond Behaviors": Knowledge, compassion, and creative ideas.

PESI Publishing & Media
Source: PESI Publishing & Media

I love Beyond Behaviors for a whole lot of reasons. First, I think, is the message of compassionate non-judgement. Mona Delahooke shows how important it is that parents be compassionate with themselves, and practice good self-care techniques as necessary prerequisites for intelligently responding to their challenging children. She also illustrates why children need understanding—not judgement or discipline—when they’re behaving badly.

Dr Delahooke shares dozens of case histories from her decades of working with challenging children and their families. In all these cases, she shows how misbehavior is usually an adaptive and unconscious response to an internal reality for the child. That reality is often hidden from the adults in the child’s life—masked by their own anxiety or annoyance at the behavior—until they begin to ask themselves why the child is doing what they’re doing, and how that particular behavior helps the child cope.

Does the Child Feel Safe?

One of the big messages of Beyond Behaviors is the urgent necessity of safety. Children behave badly when they don’t feel safe.

The first question to ask when a child is not behaving is whether the child’s body and brain are experiencing safety. If not, the top priority is to figure out what to do to help the child feel safe. “Safety,” Delahooke writes, “is the foundation upon which children build the many skills of emotional and behavioral self-control.”

Using neuroscientific understandings and clinical experience, Delahooke argues in this book that misbehavior is very often the body’s response to stress, and not intentional: “When we see behavior that is problematic or confusing, the first question we should ask is NOT ‘How do we get rid of this behavior?’ but rather ‘What is this telling us about the child?’”

Practice Precision Parenting

Delahooke shows how individual differences make a world of difference, not only to children’s developmental trajectories, but also to the strategies and responses that will be useful. Each child is unique genetically, environmentally, and in every other way, with thousands of interacting variables creating a complex and particular human being. One size can never fit all when it comes to knowing how to respond to, and what to expect from, a challenging young human being.

Healing Starts with Love

Another foundational message of Beyond Behaviors is the healing power of love, safety, and connection in relationships. This is true for all children, but those with a vulnerable nervous system can perceive threat even when they’re safe. The first step to helping such a child is to build a relationship they experience as secure.

Behavior is a Clue, Not a Disorder

Delahooke writes about behavior as an adaptation to stress or anxiety, a lack of safety. Parents and other caregivers can help children by asking what the underlying problems are, not by labeling the child as having a disorder.

We need to ask what the child is experiencing, rather than what’s wrong with them: “Seriously and persistently challenging behaviors are responses to a child’s subconscious perception of the lack of safety in her environment (including the lack of relational safety).”

Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

Too often, we automatically address children’s behavior as intentional or willful, trying to talk and reason with kids to change their behavior when what they really need before they can do things differently is to feel safe.

Delahooke makes a distinction between bottom-up behavior that is rooted in our senses and unmet subconscious needs, and top-down behavior that is mediated by our intentional thought processes. It is only top-down behavior that is susceptible to conversation, consequences, and logic, which is why so much of what we do with chronically challenging kids just doesn’t work. Conversation, consequences, and logic assume a level of self-regulation the child doesn’t have, and isn’t targeted at the underlying causes that are bottom-up.

Because stress derails the capacity to reason, it is essential to start by ensuring a child feels safe. The foundation of behavioral change is relational security. Nothing is possible without that.

Take Care of Yourself

Children are highly sensitive to their parents’ and caregivers' feelings and moods; sensitive kids don’t feel safe when the adults in their life are impatient, anxious, or irritable. It is therefore essential that parents and others interacting with children acquire and practice good self-regulation techniques themselves: “We can best support a child when we are calm ourselves.”

Delahooke illustrates how a parent’s emotional tone is the “raw material” that allows them to help a child with behavioral challenges. Sometimes all a child needs is the calming, warm presence of a loving adult who is completely present to the child, both emotionally and physically (with no distractions like cellphones and other electronic devices).

She includes in Beyond Behaviors several tools for developing mindful self-compassion, and writes, “This concept of self-compassion is not popular in our culture, in which we often manage children first through our authority rather than through connection and engagement… when human beings sense safety, their social-engagement behaviors (the opposite of challenging behaviors) unfold naturally, and the fight, flight, or freeze behaviors recede into the background since they are no longer necessary.”

One of the best features of this book are the practical, empowering, step-by-step ideas for finding the calm self-acceptance necessary for building a healing, supportive relationship with even the most challenging and frightened child.

Sensory Processing Problems, Autism, Trauma, and Neurodiversity

Dr Delahooke has worked with a variety of challenging situations. She describes how she and the multidisciplinary teams she works with understand and help children with severe chronic behavioral issues. She describes how what looks like misbehavior is sometimes a result of an overactive sensory system, or some other issue that makes self-regulation impossible until that issue has been addressed.

Simple Ideas for Happier Kids, Happier Families

In the final few pages of Beyond Behaviors, Mona Delahooke provides profoundly simple ideas for parents who want to provide an optimal environment, where even their most challenging children feel safe.

  1. Quantity matters (not just quality). Kids do best when they have lots of calm, easy, positive experiences with their parents, so it’s good to slow down and be present. When we stop doing so much, and start just being present calmly together, it gives a message of valuing the child for themself.
  2. Intentionally look at the child with warmth and connection. Just sit for a moment, focusing on the child and taking in their inherent goodness through your senses.
  3. Ask the child what they would like to do with you. The time of connection and interaction doing something of their own choosing is when real magic can happen for a child.
  4. Take a slow, mindful walk outside. Slow your pace to allow yourself and your child to take in the experiences around you, step by step. Allow yourself to feel wonder, gratitude, and appreciation for your child and the world around you.
  5. Make mealtimes opportunities for social connection. Try to slow down, and have meaningful conversations around a shared meal.
  6. Find time to play and have fun together. There is strong evidence that enjoyable, playful activities with children decrease stress and anxiety, and increase health and vitality, for both children and adults.
  7. Move the body. Physical movement is good not only for children’s bodies, but also their minds and social/emotional development (as with adults).
  8. Listen to music. Discover the kind of music your child likes to listen to, then listen to it and dance together.

Case Studies, Summaries, Visual Models, Exercises, Checklists, and Worksheets

In addition to theoretical understandings, Delahooke provides many practical tools that parents and others can use in their work with challenging kids. She shares valuable resources she and her colleagues have developed and used in their multidisciplinary clinical practices.

Connections: Unconditional Positive Regard

I’ve recently reviewed two other books that are remarkably in sync with Mona Delahooke’s Beyond Behaviors. They are Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, and The Orchid and the Dandelion, by W. Thomas Boyce.

In each of these three books, the author considers the topic of challenging children. Who are they? What makes them do what they do? What’s the best way to understand and respond to them? Each of these authors is writing on the basis of extensive clinical experience as well as their own experience as a parent, and then making connections to relevant research and theory. And although they come from divergent backgrounds, and bring disparate research to bear on the topics at hand, these authors come together in recommending compassion and self-compassion for parents and challenging kids.

Each of these three authors—Delahooke, Kurcinka, and Boyce—emphasizes the importance of unconditional positive regard in healing and parenting. It is too simplistic to say that all you need is love, but I think each of these experts would agree that good parenting and teaching starts with love.

Further Reading

The Orchid and the Dandelion: The Science of Spirited Kids

Helping Your Spirited Child’s Sensitivity Become a Strength

Bad or Spirited? Picky or Discerning? Rude or Honest?