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What Motivates your Child’s Behavior (Part 3)

by Mark Gregston

People ask me all the time, when does loss really happen? Let me tell you… It happens when a child realizes it. I never knew that I had skinny legs until somebody called me chicken legs. I never knew my nose was big until a comment was made during my seventh-grade year. I hardly knew that I spent years not being able to read a Blackboard until I put on a pair of glasses when I was about 14. I also never thought I had any losses from my dad until I had my own son and began to wonder why my dad never spent any time with me. My wife, Jan, never realized that her normal really was not normal until somebody told her that it wasn’t. It comes up at different times.  

There was a kid named Brendan who is a dear kid, but he lost his dad in the World Trade Center disaster on September 11th. He was so young at the time. He still thought in concrete terms like most kids do early on. He realized his dad was gone and adjustments had to be made, and concrete needs, which were understandable, had to be met around his home. He was now the man of the household. Chores had to be done, the dog needed a new caretaker and mom would take over some of dad’s jobs. When Brendan turned 14, his thinking shifted from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. He slowly realized that dad would never see him play basketball, would not be there when he got his driver’s license and wouldn’t attend his high school graduation or drop him off at college. His dad would never be at his wedding. All of a sudden, his awareness blossomed, as did inappropriate ways of handling the pain he began feeling. His behavior eventually landed him at Heartlight.  

So where was the loss? It happened on 9/11. It continued to play out as Brendan grew up without a dad. It happened all over again. When adolescence caused Brendan to look at the tragedy with new understanding of a maturing abstract intellect, his behaviors tried to fill the new voids he felt in his life. It really wouldn’t change until mentors helped Brendan recognize, face, and deal with the losses that he was experiencing. Losses can happen so much later. It’s when they become real. People respond differently to losses. A loss free childhood is not an indicator of good parenting, nor is a loss riddled childhood necessarily a sign of anybody being a terrible parent. The bumper sticker that says stuff happens could just as easily be changed to loss happens. It’s inevitable. At some point human beings will experience loss in their life. Wise parents understand their own losses and how those losses affected or still affect them. They’re able to more easily recognize loss in their children and move toward them in difficult times.  

Most kids try to tell you that losses aren’t that big of a deal. I’ve had kids tell me… I think it was best for my dad to die and it’s not really that big of a deal. They minimize it, hoping to minimize the pain they feel from it. I have to break the news of a family member’s death to kids sometimes and you should see them respond. They say things like… well, I really didn’t know her that well anyway, or it’s no big deal. Don’t believe it. I encourage you to give your children the freedom to respond to the hurt of any loss. They need to let off some emotional steam. That doesn’t mean you allow a mess of emotions to control your children and destroy your home. You just give children permission to become undone once in a while. As they express their pain, try to move toward them relationally, rather than moving away from them.  

Who knows when children will see their losses, it may not be for years. A young girl may realize her loss when she sees all the other girls and their dads and realize she doesn’t have one to hang out with her. Or a boy who tried out for basketball team may feel the loss of being cut as he sits in the stands and watches the team practice for a game. If you did not experience close relationships with one or both of your parents, you may feel a sense of loss. If you have a great relationship with your son or daughter, or if your parents are better grandparents than they were parents, the good times you have with your child may cause you to grieve what could have been with your own folks.  

I feel the loss of four kids who were dear to me whenever I hear the names Caroline, Todd, Cindy or Darren. My wife remembers her loss whenever she smells old spice or aftershave. Memories of losses can pop up anytime and, in any place. They can be triggered by anything. Some of the behavior we see from young people can be their way of avoiding or filling the void created by losses. It’s amazing to me how losses motivate behavior. At the core of most inappropriate behavior, what I see are kids that are trying to fill something that something else isn’t filling. 

It’s very difficult for a young person who is still thinking concretely to allow something as abstract of a concept as God to fill the void. Are you following me? What I mean by this is that a child thinks concretely until they’re 12 or 13 years of age. They want something concrete to fill the emptiness in their heart and their mind, because they’re still in concrete thinking. When they move to abstract, okay, but sometimes they have a very difficult time thinking that that hole, that feels like it’s a concrete hole, can be filled with something that is abstract. 

When you understand that a lot of children’s drive is to fill voids, then you know what you need to be doing and helping them with, as opposed to just controlling their behavior all the time. Understanding loss does not give you all the answers to inappropriate and potentially dangerous behavior, but it does provide an opportunity to try a different approach towards your child. As we’ve said, behavior is not really the issue, it’s just an indicator of the struggle that lies beneath the surface. And as you gently probe your child’s losses, you may stir the pain in your own loss. Your response to loss may create some behavior patterns in you that cause some negative reactions from your spouse or kids, but it’s never too late to look at the log in your own eye. 

Introspection and reflection are acts of wisdom. In fact, in order to deal with the child’s losses, I believe that parents need to understand the impact of loss in their own lives. You can’t see it in others if you can’t see it in yourself. I suggest you find someone to talk to, or you consider sitting down with someone, or look for a women’s or men’s group to meet with or a small group. Talk with that friend over coffee somewhere, sit down and talk to your child the same way. Keep looking until you can find someone you can talk to about the things in your past that might need some attention. Loss is big in all of our lives. If you spend your time searching and trying to understand the damage in your life, you might discover why certain people respond negatively toward you in certain situations. 

I was always told I was wrong when growing up. So, I developed a mentality that I was going to be perfect. I memorized the Scripture verse Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. I was going to be perfect. All through high school and junior high I tried to be perfect. I lied about things all the time, and then I wondered why people didn’t want to be around me at times. I was applauded for all the neat things that I did, but people didn’t want to be around me because it’s hard being around somebody who’s perfect. What I found was that my dad was controlling my life and I didn’t really realize it. I began to realize, wait a minute, wait a minute… I’m not made this way. This wasn’t the point of my life, to be controlled by my dad…  

When you begin to understand your loss, you may begin to understand what your child is going through. Perhaps the damage in your life is getting in the way of your relationship with your child. For me, I wanted a perfect child. I wanted a perfect house and perfect home. The way my dad was controlling me, years and years and years later became a problem with my own family. That drive to be perfect myself was turning into a demand that my family be perfect, which really wasn’t needed. It really wasn’t even possible.  

Maybe you have transferred the damage in your life to your child. If so, let me encourage you to take steps to healing. I did not know it until somebody showed me the truth. I avoided facing the damage done to me in my life. Without other people’s help, I never would have seen it or known it existed, let alone faced it and been healed from it. I just know that people respond to losses in different ways, but the place to connect is always the same. You start where people hurt. For instance, the teens who live with us at Heartlight probably can’t tell you about their losses, but they sure can tell you where they hurt. We start by helping these kids through their pain, in a setting where we can control their behavior, and that environment then gives us a chance to reflect on the damage done to them. As a result, they realize how loss plays a big part in their life.  

I can tell you this, that most kids who experienced loss feel like damaged goods, and they may spend the rest of their lives trying to feel whole again, but their self-value is diminished. They use selfishness to try to compensate for the loss. They don’t know what a healthy life looks like, and this makes them angry and confused. They begin to behave in ways that bring false and temporary value. These kids begin the process of a slow death because they’re driven by self-centered motives to preserve what they have and regain what they’ve lost. Avoidance becomes a high priority, and a facade of confidence cloaks their pain and hurt.  

These are tough days for teens, but they are also the best days to offer a message, a relationship, some wisdom, and perhaps a taste of something beyond themselves, something that might touch their hearts so that they catch a glimpse of a greater One who loves them more than they could ever imagine. Losses can keep us from what God intends for us or prevent us from fulfilling our real purpose. They can hinder our movement toward becoming the people God desires us to be. Dealing with loss can consume us and take so much of our time that we never become what we were intended to be, or loss can move us toward Him, toward our healing, toward light, toward our true value and purpose. This happens best when someone guides us out of the darkness. This is what you can do for your child. Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”.  

I’m convinced of this… That God has a plan and direction for each of our lives. Losses can cause a detour. They can move us away from His intent, His preparation and His purpose, it’s no wonder so many people are so frustrated in life and teens are so mad. My wife was not created for her grandfather’s abuse or enjoyment. Young men are not supposed to grow up wondering whether they have more fat than brains. We were not made for any of this. That’s why it’s so important to understand losses that your child might be experiencing and to use that understanding to change your child’s mindset and behavior, otherwise your child will carry this baggage of loss well into his adult years. 

Pain and hardship can plague for a lifetime, or you can seek healing for your losses and the losses in your children’s lives. You can understand the real reasons for their behavior and forge a bond of love and empathy as you work through both of your losses together. That kind of effort can break the chains of loss and create a healthy environment in which both of you can enjoy fulfilling your passions and purpose and serving the God who loves you. 

We’ve all got them. We all have hurts. We all have difficulties. We all have hardships, and it affects us all differently. It’s really about being sensitive to those things and looking into the intent of a child’s heart that they’re trying to express through behavior. Looking beyond that and saying, I want to dig deeper and find out what’s motivating the behavior of my child so that I can better understand how to offer them guidance and direction in the time that they need me the most. Psalms 1:39 says “I’ll give thanks. Thanks to You for, I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your words. And my soul knows it well.” 

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.