Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Child Trauma: "Hurt Child" Versus "Bad Child"

When kids are under stress, they're more likely to act out. "When a child is presenting difficult behavior, the first thing to ask is 'What happened to the child?' rather than 'What is wrong with the child?'" said Lieberman.   
-- Rachel Barclay quoting Alicia Lieberman (director of the Child Trauma Research Program at San Francisco General Hospital) in News Analysis: Are We Misdiagnosing Childhood Traumas as ADHD?, May 6, 2014
Every once in a while I come across a quote that goes right to the core of what I consider to be good trauma-informed parenting philosophy. This quote is one of them.

If there is one piece of advice that I would offer to parents and others who are interacting with children who are exhibiting challenging behaviors as a result of a trauma history, it is this: view the child as a hurt child in need of healing rather than a bad child in need of correction.

It's easy to focus on the troubling (and at times frightening) behaviors when that's what you are seeing every day. I know -- I've been there.

But the behaviors are not the child. They are defense mechanisms that were developed to help the child survive at times when his or her whole world was not as it should be. It's not the child who is bad, wrong, flawed, or crazy. Rather, it is the world that the child has inhabited that has been horribly askew. The ability to adapt to threatening environments with survivalist strategies is an inherent part of our human nature.

Freeze. Flight. Fight.

How does a child know that the danger is over if he or she has never known safety?

Children need to feel safe before they can begin to let go of defensive tactics acquired during times of high stress.

Think of a time that you yourself have been in an environment where you were experiencing criticism, punitive tactics, or other strategies intended primarily to influence your behavior. Did you feel safe? Did you feel connected? Did you feel like letting down your guard?

So much depends on the questions we ask. What would happen if parents, teachers, therapists, and others who interact with behaviorally challenging children started asking, "What can be done to help this child feel safe?" instead of "What can be done to change this child's behavior?" on a regular basis? Or, to return to the opening quote, how would the substitution of "What happened to the child?" for "What is wrong with the child?" influence our response to challenging behavior?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /


  1. This is perfect. Although, sometimes I feel like I'm beating my head against a wall to get the school to see that my child is motivated to do well, but he lacks skills. They need to create a very safe place for him, be on the same team as his parents (not against them), and teach him the skills he needs to do better. Love this post!

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  3. Psychotherapists are trained to do so, and talking to one will most certainly help you make sense of yourself, your emotions and your relationships, which will lead to moving on in regards to your problems.