I have a small group of kids that I have been working with musically for several years. They all have diverse needs, strengths and diagnosis. As I met with them this week and listened to them talk, I picked up on some things that they said. As I looked back over the years together, the quote by Maya Angelou came to mind; “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I took a look at how these kids have grown over the years, how they have learned what their strengths are, and how to use them for good. In learning how to use their strengths, they themselves have diminished their own negative behaviors that get in the way of positive, social relationships. This week, one child in particular made me realize that she has put a large amount of trust in me and our group because of how she felt there. She was able to see her own strengths and goodness by the constant reflection of her strengths and goodness, instead of what she usually receives from peers and authority alike; criticism, putdown, and punishment.
When a challenging kid is constantly met with “no”, punishment, or constant limitations, the scale becomes unbalanced. The child then sees themselves as bad, or unworthy, or in the need to constantly protect themselves in some negative manner such as attitude. This turns into a negative cycle downward; bad behaviors leads to limits, to rebellion, to punishment, and to attitude, leading to more limitations. As therapists, teachers and parents, we need to realize that change takes time (the more damage, usually the more time) but if a situation does not improve, we as adults and authority are responsible for the catalyst, not the child. We need to stop blaming the child and find and bring out the goodness, the abilities, the strengths, and reflect them often to balance out the scale. There are times we really need to search. Even if a child is just breathing at the moment and not causing a problem, we need to be quick to reflect that back to them. The more often this is done, the more often the child hears, sees, and feels that they have ability, strength, and goodness. The more the child starts to feel this, the more they begin to act that way.
All of us know these things, but challenging children (or those children close to us) can catch us up easily in this cycle sometimes. I remember my most clarifying moment with this kind of situation was with my own son, who was about five at the time. I was a stay-at-home mom with three children under five. We lived way out in the country, where there was little opportunity for adult conversation. My baby at the time was very sick with a serious heart condition, and therefore things were a bit tense in the household. My oldest son was the family thermometer (as I use to call him). He reflected behaviorally how the family was doing. In other word, if things were already tense, he added onto it (as it felt at the time). I was feeling the stress. He certainly needed limits, but nothing was getting any better. I sat down in a rocker for a moment because I could tell if I reacted to how I was feeling, it was not going to help. I was reacting to him, he was reacting to me. I don’t remember what the behavior or action was that he did, I just remember what followed. I told him very calmly and politely what he needed to do, some cleaning up for me. When he was done, he could play. This redirected him to what he could do, limited the behavior and gave him something positive and productive to do. It also gave him a “time out” or a breather from the situation, and myself too. He absolutely did not like the activity, but because he knew there was an end, his esteem had not been berated and his activity level, which was already on the rise, was not being ignited more with more negative juice. He went right to it. Not only did he go to work diligently (which was absolutely not typical for him with this kind of an activity) but he started to happily hum. He stopped for a moment, came and gave me a hug and said “I love you Mommy,” and then went back to work. This was not a con game – that was his little brothers deal – which we will leave for another blog. Someone had kindly taken what he was having trouble getting hold of, and taken charge of the situation. Children feel safer and behave better when they know someone other than themselves is in charge (so don’t let them fool you). His behavior was limited and redirected into something positive and under control. No negativity was added onto the situation. Since things had also then calmed for me, I was able to really look at the situation and realize how the negative was really outweighing the positive. From that moment on, I made a much greater effort to find, notice, and reflect the good, acceptable behaviors. I then started to see change.
The child in my music group used to be the most challenging child. As her behaviors worsened with the negativity that was surrounding her, I was very quick to recognize this (which usually happens when it’s not your own child). I made every effort to find the positive. She recently acknowledged that to me that she, this week and for the past year, has gained control in such a way to catch her own behaviors and make a very conscious effort to change those behaviors and simultaneously help me in the group with others.
As an addendum, those of you who read my blog regularly, may find this ironic that this week I am recommending a more “behavioral” approach. This is truly needed, I never said it was not. However, sometimes we need less obvious tools or a completely different set of tools to ignite change. However, the end must be kept in mind and, once again, I think Maya Angelou stated it very clearly, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will ever forget how you made them feel.”