I was ridiculously lucky last week and attended the Inclusive Schools Conference in Syracuse, New York. I'm still exhausted from the three intense days of discussing the broader beliefs of inclusion and the details of how to make it work, from a structural standpoint as well as how to work with kids with challenging behaviors.
A statement from one speaker keeps repeating itself in my head. Ross Greene said "There are two types of kids. Lucky and unlucky. The lucky ones communicate that they are upset by speaking, whining, or crying. The unlucky ones communicate that they are having trouble meeting an expectation by hitting, running, spitting, or displaying other injurious behaviors. These kids are unlucky because they don't illicit empathy, but the message they want to communicate is the same as those who are crying or whining. 'I'm stuck. There are expectations I am having difficulty meeting.'"
I was telling my husband about this statement and my six year old overheard. "What am I?" she asked, and I almost laughingly pointed out she was lucky. She cries when she was upset. She nodded, because she feels things deeply and she recognizes that she cries (a lot). "And little sister?" she asked.
I paused. On the scale of lucky vs unlucky kids, I think of my own kids as lucky. But in this context, little sister is a bit of a handful. She rarely cries real tears, and when she does you know she's truly hit a limit. Although we've worked very hard at finding more appropriate behaviors to display her displeasure, her first instinct is to bite, hit, throw, or destroy.
Last night little sister lost her mind. In a full Sunday night showdown, she laughed insanely as she refused to clean up the fort she'd made with her sister. She threw, hit, and laughed at us as we yelled at her. In the midst of what I now see as a manic tantrum of being overtired and overwhelmed, instead of a just diabolical behavior, I caught her trying to rip up her sister's art work. Comforting her older sister (who was sobbing), I thought back to the lucky vs unlucky kids. My youngest was communicating to us, and was certainly eliciting no empathy. The angrier we got the wilder she became. Finally I dumped her into the bathtub (it was bath time anyway) and let her calm down. I stayed nearby, but stopped my lecture and my yelling and let her decompress.
Thinking of her wild behavior as an unlucky way to express her frustrations made me much more empathetic. I calmed down faster, found a solution faster (putting her in the bath instead of yelling and making it worse.)
The behaviorist in me has a nagging voice saying "you rewarded her tantrum with a bath." Yet she calmed down, we reconnected, and once she was calm we could talk and repair. She still had to make amends with her sister and follow some logical consequences of her explosion of wild behavior. Seeing her through the unlucky communicator lens helped me stay calm and focused. Instead of just seeing her behavior as attention seeking, I could see what she was frustrated about, and I could give her the time she needed to calm herself and regroup.
It's strange to think of whining and crying behaviors as lucky, but they are when you think of the alternatives. Viewing my daughter's horrible behavior as an unlucky way to communicate immediately helped me change the lens I was using to view her behavior.