Challenging behaviour – going back to the future…

“How do you feel when I do this?” A teenager once asked me.

He then pulled his hoody up over his hair and peered at me malevolently from under the hood.

Photo courtesy ©123RF/Cole

Photo courtesy ©123RF/Cole

He went on to explain that he used this pose as a way of keeping people at a distance.

Why does the past matter today?…

You see, Dan felt unsafe. He told me so. His way of dealing with it was to pull his hoody down, try to look mean and hope people didn’t bother him.

And they didn’t!

You see, kids do things because they work for them. They adapt their behaviour in order to make the best of a bad situation. Whether it’s…

  • Abuse or other maltreatment
  • Danger or trauma
  • Stress or even life-threatening violence – as in Dan’s case…

…When we face these things, our behaviour adapts in order to help us cope. We do the best we can in order to survive and come out of the other side safe.

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It works, so keep doing it…

Another thing Dan did was, whenever anyone he didn’t know approached him, he would clench his fists and scream, “Fuck off!” at the top of his voice.

Unsurprisingly, as he said, “people would give me a wide berth after that.”  I certainly would!

In this way he achieved his two-fold objective:

  • To keep people away, and…
  • To feel safe again

He learned over a long period that if he behaved like this, people would leave him alone. And they did.

When something like this works-when it gets us the result we want-we tend to keep doing it.

Right for then, wrong for now…

The problem with adaptive behaviour is that it only really “works” in the threatening environment it’s designed to work in.

So for Dan, his mother’s partners-a number of whom abused him physically and sexually-began to leave him alone. The behaviour worked.

But now there’s a new problem. No-one was trying to hurt him anymore. In fact, I was trying to engage him in therapy. His carers in the residential home were trying to look after him and help him recover.

But still the behaviour continued. For months! He assaulted staff. He threatened the other kids. He wouldn’t let me get passed his defences.

His behaviour was designed to keep people away, but we were people he could trust – he just didn’t know it yet.

Forget compliance…

Our primary task in helping troubled young people, I believe, is not to teach them compliance. So that they can behave in socially acceptable ways. So that they can stop being anti-social, criminal, dysfunctional.

Our job is to help them understand that their behaviour made sense given the environment they grew up in. 

Ask the “why” question…

Sometimes the behaviour of troubled young people is hard to understand. But there is one thing we can do to help guide our thinking.

Ask the “why” question…

  • Why might this behaviour have developed?

Another great question is…

  • What might the function of this behaviour have been?

What sort of environment might provoke this kind of behaviour in someone?

Once I knew a little more about Dan’s history of violent & sexual abuse, neglect, parental suicidality & prostitution, and the rest, I could begin to see why he behaved like he did.

He’d spent the best part of his childhood feeling UNSAFE! His behaviour adapted to try and keep himself a little safer.

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Back to the future…

So, to help kids understand their behaviour, we may first have to ask about the setting in which it developed – the past. Then we can begin planning for the future as their behaviour slowly adapts to the safety of a new setting.

Hang in there…

Behaviours take time to develop. Years, in fact. So we shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a while for kids to start trusting us and for their behaviour to cool off a little.

It took over a year of twice weekly therapy for Dan. But we got there. He got there!

Your thoughts?

  • What kinds of adaptive behaviours have you come across? How have you dealt with these? 

Please let me know – join the conversation by leaving a comment below or by clicking here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2014


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