Decoding Those Behaviors: What is Your Child Telling You

When a child has undesirable behaviors, there are a variety of ways to view that behavior. An “old-fashioned” view sees the child as being intentionally oppositional. A more reliable and helpful way to  view their behavior instead is based on the idea that your child is dealing with a host of invisible factors resulting in such. Keep reading to identify some likely invisible sources that may cause such bad behaviors. Then you will start to see them as actual real responses within the child’s body and brain and coping mechanisms leftover from their trauma.


Imagine that behind your child’s bad behaviors is FEAR. That your child is driven from a constant threat, real or imagined, to their lives. That when they are melting down, they are not feeling safe. Can you see your child’s behaviors as adaptations that actually kept them safe before they came to you?  That instead of blaming your child, labeling their behaviors, thinking of them as non-compliant, that they are simply responding to real trauma that happened to them, yet is no longer there. That their bodies are still telling them that they are not safe. Imagine that these behaviors are not intentional, they are in fact automatic. That this is how they survived. Try to look at the behaviors as signs they they feel unsafe.


Let’s see this kind of thinking in action. Take Corey, an 11-year-old boy, adopted at 4, to a loving, stable family. His first 4 years were fraught with poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, and drug abuse. Corey was malnourished when he came to this family who so wanted him. They worked hard to get him healthy both physically and emotionally. But Corey never let his adoptive parents close to him. He often got upset and lashed out at them and his surroundings. Eventually Corey was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder. He struggled both at school and at home.

Just Making You a Smoothie

Let’s take a closer look at Corey. He learned never to trust an adult from his first 4 years. This meant his body was always on high alert for potential threats. Unfortunately, many times this hypervigilance helped him to survive harrowing situations. When his biological parents started fighting, his sensitive hearing alerted him to hide to stay out of the way of the violence. When he got to his new adoptive home, he still felt afraid. Loud noises continued to scare Corey. He was always scanning the environment for any threats.  To Corey, you never knew. Sometimes, there would be a loud unexpected noise, the dog barking, the blender whirring, and Corey’s body would automatically react. He would lose all control, yell, scream, and lash out. This tantrum is a signal that his body is in distress. To the outsider there is no real threat; after all his mom is just making him a smoothie. But to Corey, that noise sets off a whole host of chain reactions within his body and he loses it.

Getting My Way!

Corey liked to be in control of everything.  This too was a leftover strategy that served him well with his bio parents during those first 4 years.  At that home, he never knew where his next meal was going to come from or where he would sleep that night. Corey unconsciously still needs to control everything about his environment in order to feel safe. He doesn’t trust anyone and also needs to always “get his way.” When told no to something Corey has a meltdown, which can last 5 minutes or 5 hours. His parents were confused as they provided a safe home and gave him as many choices as they could. But Corey’s body knew how to keep him safe. No amount of words or love could change these well oiled reactions. Again, his reaction to “no,” set off a downward spiral within his body that ended up looking like a boy who is being oppositional. Instead, his body is just reacting from his damaging early trauma.

Good Parents

This idea that Corey felt unsafe in his new home was impossible for his parents to consider and understand. They knew he was safe now. In fact they had saved him! They went to their foster training and learned all about trauma so they thought they got it. They had raised 3 other children who turned out quite amazing. First they blamed themselves. Eventually after trying hard to really reach and help Corey through counseling, they came to blame him.


To all of the Corey parents out there, try to look at your adopted child in a whole new light. To imagine that their behaviors really are a way to tell you something. That their bodies are not feeling safe, not because of you, but because of their past. That no matter how much you love them, tell them you love them, show them you love them, that their brains get hijacked by the past sometimes. That punishment and typical consequences just create more threats for them and serve to alienate you all. That there is hope. Read the next article in the Newsletter to learn practical and doable strategies that can truly change your lives!
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