Tammy Schamuhn, R. Psych

As a child psychologist my job is to give parents and educators my eyes to see their child or the children they work with differently.

I talk a lot about attachment– a child who feels disconnected often acts out in order to communicate a need that is not being met, and this typically starts with feelings of being isolated, invisible, or overwhelmed.  Alfred Adler, a medical doctor and renowned psychotherapist, has vastly contributed to our understanding of human nature, and his theory on childhood behaviour is often a “game changer” in term of how we can work with children:

Adler believes that in order to develop resiliency and truly thrive, they must master each of the “Crucial Cs”

“I need to believe I have a place I belong.”
Children need to connect with others. Those who are connected  feel secure, are more cooperative, and safely explore their worlds– they believe they belong. Children who feel disconnected feel isolated and insecure. Some of these children will seek attention (negative/self-destructive ways or clinging behaviour) in order to feel that they are visible to the people around them.

Example: A child who feels unsafe and disconnected will cling to their parent instead of playing on the playground, or throw regular tantrums when they make a transition

Constructive Alternatives: Replace negative attention with positive attention– notice the times they are doing well.  Plan activities together. Don’t ignore the child; separate the child from the misbehavior and see through it– it is a cry for help. 

“I need to believe I can do it.”
Children need to feel that they are competent in terms of doing things for themselves. When children feel capable they also feel competent; subsequnetly, they develop self-control and this  ultimately cultivates self-discipline. Children who are self-reliant will assume responsibility for themselves and for their behavior. They also believe they can do whatever they set their minds to doing. Children who do not feel capable may try to control others or let others know that they cannot be controlled– they can become dependent on others or seek to overpower others. They may also “act out” because of feelings of shame. Bare in mind we can’t force kids to become competent– this is the fruit of a healthy working attachment. Children need connection and psychological safety to develop capability– this is what Dr.Gordon Neufeld calls “emergent energy.

Example: A child with a learning disability feels “dumb” so every time they are asked to read or do a math question they throw their pencil across the room and rip up their paper.

Constructive Alternatives:  Give opportunities for your child to display power constructively (i.e., taking care of pet, helping with a sibling, through play– children need LOTS of free play). Praise effort* more than something the child is naturally good at. If a child wants to do something for themselves allow them the space and time to do it. It’s ok for your child to fail miserably and to celebrating these failures– strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle [Napoleon Hill].

“I need to believe I can make a difference.”
Children need to feel they are significant – that they count. Those who feel that they count believe that they make a difference in the world, that they have value, and that they can contribute in some way to others and their community. They need to believe that they matter. A child who doesn’t feel like they count can feel insignificant. This belief is painful and they may react to this hurt by trying to hurt others, develop poor self-esteem, or try to overcompensate by acting superior.

ExampleA child feels inadequate, and compensates and becomes a bit of a “know-it-all” 

Constructive Alternatives: Maintain and encourage appreciation in all their relationships– teach gratitutde. Offer chances to help. Get kids involved in “helping” and “giving back”

“I need to believe I can handle what comes.”
Children the willingness to face the challenges in life, to put oneself out there, and take a risks even when they do not know if they can succeed. Children with courage feel hopeful. They are willing to take risks and believe they can handle challenging situations; they are resilient. Children who lack courage feel inferior and inadequate and they frequently avoid challenges.

ExampleA child avoids trying a new sport or activity despite encouragement; they are quick to try to escape from setbacks.

Constructive Alternatives:  Notice their strengths, point out the positives to approaching the “scary things” (not in the middle of panic– when they’re calm), comfort when afraid, and help them approach the overwhelming things by doing it alongside them.

Note about courage: Now for a child to be courageous means they must be able to see what scares them and also feel their excitement about meeting a goal or succeeding AT THE SAME TIME. Children without a very low-functioning prefrontal cortex (typically children under the age of 5) do not have the ability to do this– they are black-or-white thinkers. Some children are late to mature and their prefrontal cortex isn’t really “online” until 7-9 years of age (and keep in mind the PFC continues to develop until 25 years of age). If your child is still a black-or-white thinker (i.e., “You’re the best mommy in the world” or “you’re the worst mommy in the world” but can’t hold onto their love for you in moments of anger, is showing you their prefrontal cortex is not online quite yet).

So, where is your child’s weak point?  When they act out, is it to prove that they count or trying to connect?  If you can find these areas of need, then you can be intentional to build them up and help them to see themselves having all 4 of the Crucial Cs. 

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