Why We’re Not Talking About That Behavior…Yet
By Sarah Earles MS, LPC, NCC
You brought your child to therapy because of a behavior (or behaviors!). Whether the behavior is angry outbursts, stealing, acting out, or something else, it is a problem, and you want it fixed. You want it fixed not only for yourself and your family, but for your child because the behavior and its consequences are also limiting your child. You want your child to reach his or her full potential! As a therapist, I understand, I empathize, and I desire the success of your child too. However, I probably will not start treatment with talking to your child about his or her behavior. Here’s why.
Behaviors typically come from a place of pain. They come from trauma, negative self-image, feeling unsafe, and more. When I start session talking about the behavior, I immediately turn on your child’s alert mechanisms, making it less likely that your child will engage the relational or thinking parts of his or her brain. Without those parts of the brain online, little of what I say will actually register.
Immediately talking about a behavior can also cause a child to feel shame. Shame does not draw out the strengths of your child, nor connect them to you (Selva, 2017). Rather, it can contribute to feeling stuck, hopelessness, and often, continued behaviors.
What is the point of therapy if I am not going to talk about the problem behavior? You might ask. Well, I am not saying I will never talk about that behavior. I am saying that I probably will not talk about it until we have done a few other things. The time it will take to do those other things varies, but they are crucial to successful treatment for your child.
First of all, I need to build a relationship with your child. Whether your child experienced abuse, or trauma, or simply a lack of feeling comfortable in his or her environment, your child first needs to know that they are safe. This means that my first job is to help them know that I am safe, and that therapy is a safe place for them (Gobbel, 2022; 2008 Presidential Task Force). Secondly, the child needs to know that they are worthy, just as they are (Gobbel, 2020). Only when a child senses this connection can he or she start to consider change, dropping behaviors that serve a purpose in protection. Once feelings of safety and worthiness are established, I need to help your child build skills.
I need to help your child build regulatory skills. These are the skills that help your child get back to baseline after he or she is triggered. If your child comes from a place of complex trauma, it is likely that he or he is very sensitive to triggers and apt to respond in explosive ways (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, n.d.). Although my intent in teaching regulation is not directed at the behavior itself, it may help reduce the prevalence of the behavior. Moreso, it will help your child feel an increased sense of control of his or her own life. The benefits of this sense of mastery are myriad.
Next, I want to help your child learn to identify and name emotions. Naming an emotion is part of helping tame it (Earles, 2022). Once a child can name an emotion, he or she might be able to move to the next step using the regulatory skills taught in therapy, and/or resourcing another person to help him or her. At this point, we might be ready to go back to the presenting problem: the behavior.
When your child knows that he or she is safe, when your child knows that he or she is loved, when your child can recognize and cope with his or her own emotions, then he or she might be in a place to explore further. He or she might be ready to explore and process trauma that dysregulates them and leads them to acting in anger. He or she might be cognitively able to consider how stealing or acting out soothes in the moment, but not in the long-term. Your child might start to see therapy as a place of healing, rather than a place of further hurting.
As a parent, your hope for therapy may lie in changed behaviors. That is okay. As your child’s therapist, though, I encourage you to hope for more. I encourage you to walk with me through the whole process of therapy, through trying to help your child experience inner healing, rather than just adherence to external expectations. The more the child heals, the more you as a family heal, and the less of an issue the behavior of concern will become.
2008 Presidential Task Force on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma in Children and Adolescents. (2011). Children and trauma: Update for mental health professionals. American Psychological Association.
Earles, S. (2022, April 4). Name it to tame it. Arizona Family Counseling.
Gobbel, R. (2020, January 18). How behavior changes. RobynGobbel.Com.
Gobbel, R. (2022, July 26). When your child doesn’t participate in therapy. RobynGobbel.Com.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Effects. (n.d.).
Selva, J. (2017, June 14). Shame resilience theory: How to respond to feelings of shame. Positive Psychology.