The Problem Much Bigger Than 'Problem Behaviour'

Not everyone agrees with me, but it’s a belief I hold dear that it’s not a child’s job or purpose to make their adults happy; to be easy to live with, care for, teach etc.

Absolutely we need to help them master social skills, impulse control and self-management etc., so they learn to function and thrive in the world with lots of other people’s needs in it. But that’s not the same thing.

Of course if you’re dealing with hundreds and sometimes thousands of children all in one place, as some settings are, measures have to be in place to manage that.

But where do the control measures stop, and the acceptance of young humans; with all their imperfections and inconveniences; start?

It’s definitely a fine balancing act, but my main reason for sharing this today is to not have a gripe about institutionalised problems.

I’m sharing because what usually brings ‘problem children’ – or more accurately, ‘children with problems’ – to the attention of others is behaviours which result from their fight-flight response; the emotional hijack gets in their way, and thus in the way of the adult supporting them.

We’re all familiar with ‘fight or flight’; in the children we work with, live with, and, if we’re honest, occasionally in ourselves as well; it’s hard-wired into our brain’s survival architecture, meaning we never ‘grow out’ of it.

What tends to be much less obvious is the third ‘F’ (but not the final ‘F’, there are six altogether); the ‘freeze’ response.
‘Freeze’ is naturally less problematic than fight or flight, but we need to be acutely aware of it, regardless.

Because, while sometimes a child’s ‘freeze’ is obvious; they may be closed or shut down, withdrawn, maybe even thought of as ‘attention seeking’ because they won’t move or talk or engage; other times a child in freeze-mode just presents like ‘normal’.

An unfortunate outcome of defaulting to ‘freeze’ as the way to stay alive is that it works by making its host as invisible as possible.

Effective is you’re a zebra who’s seen the lion before the lion’s seen you 🦁

Not so effective if you’re a struggling child whose survival brain is doing all it can to remain unnoticed; to draw as little attention to itself as possible.

You may be thinking ‘But children are humans, not zebras’, and you’d be right, of course.
But the F/F/F wiring belongs to a very ancient part of the brain which is shared by all mammals. In essence, we all function like zebras 🦓 subconsciously, scanning the environment for danger.

What makes the human brain unique is not so much that it’s different to a zebra’s, but that there’s just another, more highly-evolved layer on the top, the neo-cortex.

So, when we see placid, compliant co-operation instead of ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, it’s easy to assume that those young people are operating from this ‘thinking’ brain. And most will be.
But not always.

Because, even if your environment is safe and welcoming, the F/F/F; not being in a sense-making brain area; can’t work that out.
After all, staying alive is more important than being right.

Hence why brains – children’s especially, because they’re not fully developed – often respond to a situation with an inappropriate F/F/F response.
‘Fight’ may look like anger or hostility, ‘flight’ an overwhelming need to escape.

But what about ‘freeze’?

Freeze behaviours may be easier to handle than fight or flight, but these children are no less in need than their emotionally hijacked counterparts, probably more so in fact.

Regardless of which F/F/F response you get, the driving force behind each is always fear.

And if that fear is chronic, it releases enduring cortisol; a highly acidic stressor hormone that can be acutely harmful; psychologically, neurologically and physically.

No brain is going to develop well when it’s essentially sitting in an acid bath; it will be smaller, lighter, and won’t hold its structure. And it certainly won’t learn effectively, especially the skills of ‘better behaviour’.

But this acidic state will eventually attack the immune system, meaning physical health will be compromised too.

A small proportion of these unseen, ‘fallen through the cracks’ children are the ones we learn about from tragic news stories.

But most; often the quiet, shy, introverted or sensitive, even studious, focused or disciplined children; are just struggling right in front of us, ‘looking fine’, so the ‘don’t see me’ response in their brain doesn’t tell us that they’re not.

Until of course, they reach a state of acute need or distress. And then they get seen.

Knowing how to satisfy, pacify and please their adults is a skillset worth cultivating in children. But not at the expense of their mental health.

So when we hear the mantra All behaviour is as a form of communication” let’s see that; ALL behaviours. Not just the mad, the bad and the ugly ones!

This is the kind of material I cover in my training sessions, so if you want to know more, just ask for the info you need, or visit this page.

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