safety is job one


As promised, here is the first of several articles inspired by the Back-To-School teleclass I attended with Dr. Bryan Post and Heather Forbes from Beyond Consequences Institute (BCI).

In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I've already absorbed and integrated this material into my own internal database, so it may well be that I have diluted or contorted their message. Pop on over to their website: for the purest dose of their profoundly transformational wisdom. Needless to say, I am a huge fan of their work!


Parents and professionals alike often operate under the mistaken assumption that misbehavior is a power play or control tactic by the child. BCI proposes a re-assessment of the roots of oppositional defiance: some children, whether due to trauma in their early life or temperamental disposition, perceive new situations as threats, and the fight or flight response kicks in.

Once that adrenaline rush occurs, the child is in survival mode, and higher functions stop; higher functions such as thinking about consequences and redirecting aggressive impulses into verbal communication. Generation upon generation of evolution (or a magnificent Creator, if you wish!) designed humans so that when we are fighting or running for our lives, all non-essential body and mind functions shut down to funnel every ounce of available energy to our muscles and heart. The thinking brain takes the back seat on this ride. Basically, the child becomes like a caged animal fighting for its life. Anything goes. He or she may appear frantic and defensive, and things can get ugly fast.

Attempting to reason with your child while her or she is deep in reaction to a perceived threat is a waste of your time and energy, and carries a large opportunity cost in that it does not foster connectedness and love between you. Remember, reasoning is a higher function, and it is not included in either fight or flight. Before your child can think at all, which includes absorbing the fact that their current behavior is not going to work well for them, they must relax. And before they can relax, they must feel safe again.

And so, Parental Job One becomes crystal clear: Create/restore safety. Which means no yelling, no accusations, and no punishment. Instead, we can reduce the stimulation level when possible, and increase their feeling of connectedness with us by deepening our listening, showing empathy, and focusing our attention on the answer to the question that can lead us both out of the danger zone: What is the underlying fear that is driving this child's behavior?

By taking these steps, we help our child to anchor themselves to our stability and protection, thus allowing them to experience the feeling of safety again. If we yell, shame, blame, or punish, we are only contributing to their feelings of fear, insecurity and danger. The time to teach alternatives to misbehavior is AFTER the child has calmed down.

It is important to know that you may or may not share your child's perception of what counts as a threat. Anything unpredictable could trigger certain children into survival mode.

To some kids, recess is a nightmare. All that freedom with so little supervision and protection! Adult equivalent: the downtown mall during Christmas season.

Transitions can be bewildering, because the line that defines the change in expectations is not always clear. Think of the differences between the rule in your home and the classroom, and between the classroom and the playground! Giving your child warnings and time to prepare in advance can help. It can take time to understand and master the distinctions and boundaries. In the meantime, it's stressful trying to keep track of it all.

The cafeteria at lunchtime can be sensory overload. I know I don't need an adult equivalent to understand that one! I can still hear the noise and feel the energy levels bouncing off those concrete block walls as if it was yesterday.

A substitute teacher might ruin the whole day, no matter how sweet and kind she is. Imagine spending months learning to please your boss and then a new one comes along with an entirely different set of requirements.

I think you get the idea. It's not a leap to grasp that kids have as much stress in their lives as we do, once we look at things from their perspective. Add to this fear and anticipation, and yikes, it's amazing they aren't acting out more often!

So to recap: kids do not misbehave in order to gain power or control. They act out after being triggered into an instinctive mode of dealing with a perceived threat: fight or flight. Their need in these situations is for protection, safety, empathy, and reassurance. Our guidance and education about how to handle future such situations will only be effective after the child has calmed down.

There is so much more to write about, but my kids will be home any minute, so that's enough for today. Stay tuned, more articles to follow ...


PS: I offer parenting consultations by phone and email, as well as in your home if you live near Boulder, CO. Give me a call if this sounds like just the kind of help you have been wanting ...
720 771 8915

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