Everyday I see quotes like these on social media:
Behavior is not a kid being bad, it’s a form of communication.
My behavior is a symptom of my trauma, not willful non-compliance.
These types of sentiments garner thousands of likes, shares, and re-tweets. But for families like mine, they simply don’t ring true.
My son, Devon, has been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), a result of early childhood trauma. My husband and I adopted him out of foster care when he was 4 and prior to that he was neglected and did not form a close attachment with a caregiver. This is called “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert Bessel van der Kolk.
Kids who experience chronic neglect and abuse may begin to default to fight-or-flight mode in even minimally threatening situations. Developmental trauma can also disrupt the brain’s development causing impaired or under developed cortical brain functions including cause-and-effect thinking and abstract thinking. RAD is a common diagnoses for these kids.
I liken RAD to a tug-of-war. For example, Devon will become belligerent over anything from what color socks he’ll wear to if he’ll use a seat belt. His screaming fits last for hours – literally hours – and often include property damage and dangerous physical aggression. Devon treats every situation as though it’s life-or-death, in a desperate attempt to control the people and situations around him.
Are Devon’s extreme behaviors related to his developmental trauma? Of course. He’s driven by the unconscious trauma scars etched on his psyche.
His behavior IS communication.
His behavior IS a symptom of his trauma.
That doesn’t mean his behavior isn’t also willful.
Devon makes a choice when he refuses to buckle his seatbelt. He chooses to tip desks over in his classroom. He chooses to break windows and chase his siblings with a baseball bat.
Certainly, there are some disorders where symptoms are involuntary such as schizophrenia and alzheimer’s. However, RAD is a behavioral disorder. Control and anger issues are symptoms of this disorder.
Kids with RAD can be both unconsciously motivated by underlying trauma scars and willful. These two things can and do coexist. In fact, this is what makes parenting a child diagnosed with RAD so challenging.
Our child enjoys pushing our buttons because it gives them a feeling of control, which they unconsciously crave. That’s the underlying motivation and the pay off, but that doesn’t negate the child’s role in making a choice to engage in certain behaviors.
The idea that a person has no control over their behaviors is not healthy for anyone. I refuse to take away my son’s agency. If he has no control over his behaviors. then he has no hope for a better life and no hope for the future.
As a parent in the trenches, here’s my take on the social media quotes I listed above:
- I recognize my son’s behavior is a symptom of his trauma, but also as willful non-compliance.
- I listen to the communication behind my son’s behavior, but I also tell him his behavior is bad.
As I like to tell Devon, a sneeze is involuntary – stabbing someone with a pencil is not.
Let’s acknowledge that our children’s mental health is complex and nuanced. Let’s stop painting with such a broad brush. Causes behind our children’s behaviors aren’t always simple enough to be encapsulated in a snappy social media quote.