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What do you need right now?

Posted by Lauren Roberts on January 29, 2020

LaurenWhat do you need right now?

As a clinical team, we have been regularly discussing the importance of treating the underlying experience of our clients not their behaviors. We work regularly to coach our staff in how to do this with clients in the field. As someone on the front line, be it a staff member, a parent, a partner, a sibling, a friend, it is easy at times to become caught up in how someone is acting and behaving and treat it from a behavioral standpoint. However, it is much more profound to step back and really listen to what the behavior is saying. In his book No Drama Discipline, Daniel Siegel often discusses how connection moves a child from reactivity to receptivity. This is true of all humans. I work with young adults in the field and a twenty-year-old is looking for connection just as the three-year-old does. Often times this means we have to slow down our own reactivity and look at why this behavior may trigger us and how we may be reacting verses responding to that behavior so we can truly connect.

As a mom of a three and one year old, this has been a daily challenge in my current life. My three year old has been in an especially difficult phase the last couple months. This can often look like aggression and defiance. When I slow down to really listen to the behavior, I see that he is jealous of the attention his sister is now demanding more of as she becomes a toddler. He is struggling with the fact that he no longer rules the roost and someone else wants to play with
his toys. He also seems very curious about cause and effect and is experimenting to see how we as parents might react to his behaviors.

As a therapist, I know how important it is for us to do our own work. I am learning that this becomes even more crucial as a parent. Part of doing our own work means knowing our hot spots and triggers and making them ours to work on, not our children’s job to fix or make better. For me, the two behaviors that currently most trigger me include my son intentionally trying to hurt his sister by “bonking her over” and his desire to climb on top of furniture and counters and throw everything on the ground. Just a few weeks ago both situations arose as I was trying to make dinner. I surrendered to putting his sister in a backpack while I cooked so he couldn’t “bonk her over.” So instead he decided to turn his energy to throwing everything off the kitchen island. The triggered and irritated part of me really wanted to react and scold. Why was I triggered? I tend to be a talk-oriented person and I was aware of the night slipping away and was becoming hyper focused on feeding my children so we could move to bedtime. I also was annoyed to clean up another mess!

Occasions like this take place for all of us all the time. The recent article written in the New York Times called “Do You Really See Your Child” says that, “Showing up means bringing your whole being — your attention and awareness — into this moment with your child. When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child right now.” (Siegel, M.D. & Bryson, Ph.D.) In Siegel’s book No Drama Discipline, he talks about teaching our kids to pause and take time for inner reflection in order to reduce impulsivity and reactivity. In order to do this, we have to role model doing the same thing. So Instead of scolding or losing my temper, I took a deep breath and said, “Sweetie, what do you need right now.” He looked at me in all seriousness and said, “Just love.” I couldn’t help but to laugh out loud… and of course smother him in love.

Just recently a similar situation happened in the field. One of our clients had just been working on a very emotional letter to his parent. He was interrupted to start a dinner cycle in which he had multiple chores to attend to. At some point in the dinner process while doing his chores, he lost his patience and made a passive aggressive comment to one of the staff members. He came back and apologized and took accountability. The therapist working with him was able to pull staff aside and do some in the moment coaching. She explained that by having him take “accountability” for his actions in the moment we were treating the behavior and missing the opportunity for him to go deeper and explore and then express why he lost his temper. Byfollowing up with this client, it came out that he was feeling really sad and upset about the topics from the letter and really just needed a space to share his feelings and receive validation and love. 

All of our clients “just need love”, but clearly don’t know how to ask for it. In The Journey of the Heroic Parent, Brad Reedy states, “Before rushing to change a child’s behavior, it is crucial to take the time to understand what the behavior might be telling us (p.21).” He goes on to tell us that we may miss an opportunity to discover the core issue if we just focus on the behavior. It is our job as therapists, staff, parents, relatives to see beyond the behavior, move past our own triggers and resulting emotions and offer compassion, love, and acceptance. In doing so, we teach that: it is not “good” behavior that makes them loveable and “bad” behavior that makes them unlovable, that is ok to have a hard time and big emotions and that there are people that will be there for them unconditionally and create a safe place to be raw and vulnerable.


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