Kevin and his mother are sitting in the living room watching television.
Joel, Kevin’s little brother comes in to watch television as well.
As Joel walks by Kevin to sit on the couch, Kevin lifts his leg to trip Joel. Joel falls on his face and starts crying.
“What?” Kevin yells at him. “Why are you crying? Shut up!”
Kevin’s mother has just seen Kevin trip Joel. “Stop yelling at your brother.” She scoops up Joel to comfort him. “He’s crying because you hurt him when you deliberately tripped him.”
“I didn’t trip him.” Kevin yells at his mother.
“I just watched you trip him. Don’t lie.” His mother responds calmly. “You don’t get to bully people, yell at them because you hurt them and then lie about it. That’s not how life works.”
“I didn’t trip him. He just fell.” Kevin continues shouting. “And I’m not lying.”
Kevin’s mother has had enough of the yelling and the lying. Why won’t he take responsibility for his own actions?
“That’s enough, Kevin. You’ve earned yourself a time out.” She says.
“Why?” Kevin demands. “I didn’t do anything!”
“You can have a time out for hurting your brother, lying about it and yelling at everyone. We don’t treat each other that way.”
Kevin crosses his arms with a defiant expression on his face and says, “No, I’m not going to.”
“Alright then,” his mother responds, silently boiling at the blatant disrespect, “You’re not getting your snack until you’ve taken your time out.”
Time passes and Kevin still refuses to take his time out. Snack time rolls around and everyone but him is provided with a snack.
“Where’s mine?” Kevin demands, anger dripping from his words.
“You’ll get yours once you’ve taken your time out.” His mother calmly replies.
Kevin stands up and throws his chair to the ground. “Ugh! I hate it here. This place is so stupid!” He slams a cupboard door and picks up an item off of the counter and throws it across the room. “It’s your fault that I hate it here. You’re always so mean to me.” He kicks the wall and storms upstairs yelling about how it’s Joel’s fault that he’s in a time out because Joel hurt himself.
His mother gives him a few moments to himself before reminding him that if he wants his snack, he must first take his time out.
“I am in time out.” Kevin yells as he whips toys and books around the bedroom, although he clearly is not taking his punishment as he should be.
Now, there are some things to understand about Kevin.
His actions and the things that he says come off as immature, defiant, disrespectful and abusive. He is often impulsive, he will argue about anything and everything, and he seems to refuse to accept any sort of responsibility for his actions.
But the thing is that he’s not a bad child. Nor is he the product of bad parenting.
Kevin’s behaviors can fit the diagnosis of Opposisitional Defiance Disorder (ODD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) although it’s not diagnosed in childhood, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) ; just to name a few.
Whichever diagnosis he actually has is irrelevant to this article. What is important is that Kevin really does have legitimate reasons for his explosive behaviors even though they are invisible reasons.
When we assume that a child is being willfully defiant, disrespectful, dishonest or manipulative, then we feel a need to discipline them for their actions and force them to want to do the right thing.
Let’s break the scenario down.
1. Kevin trips Joel: Kevin is impulsive because he lacks the skills to think ahead before he acts or says something. He is unable, in the moment, to realize that he is going to cause harm to another person or think of the consequences that will follow his actions. Impulse control is a skill that needs to be taught to him.
2. Kevin yells at Joel: Kevin knows that he’s done something wrong and he lashes out at Joel out of guilt and out of fear that he will be punished. Kevin has very poor emotional control. Every time he is hungry, tired, scared, frustrated, overwhelmed, feels guilty or he feels wronged in some way, he reacts with explosive anger.
He reacts with anger because his emotional age is not lined up with his physical age. He has not yet learned to successfully interpret, balance or communicate his emotions or his emotional needs. It is a skill that needs to be taught to him.
3. Mom makes accusations and Kevin lies: The accusations that Kevin’s mother make Kevin feel more defensive, and Kevin’s defense is offensive. Kevin is feeling very overwhelmed by his emotions right now and doesn’t know how to handle it so his anger increases. He lies because he is afraid of being punished.
4. Mom says “Time out.”: Kevin is being punished for things that he could not control and he simply shuts down and refuses to listen to anything. Shutting down is a common defense mechanism for people who struggle with emotional control. They simply cannot deal with the emotional overload anymore.
5. Kevin has a tantrum: When Kevin is reminded that he has to take a time out, he throws a tantrum because his extreme emotions have been ignited again. At this point he knows that he must be punished for his inability to control his actions and he has become enraged. He is also exhibiting black and white thinking; where things are either all good or all bad. After his time out, his mother could give him his favorite snack but in the moment he still feels as though she is the worst mother ever who is always unfair to him.
Kevin often feels as if he is a bad child because he struggles so hard to control his behavior and often fails. His self esteem is low. He wants to be a “good” child, but he doesn’t know how.
When we look at why a child is explosive or unruly instead of focusing on the actions and the age of a child, we can better understand that the behavior is that of someone who has lagging skills and not that of someone who is intentionally attempting to inflict pain and misery on the family.
Then that begins us all down a path to solutions and healing.