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What Motivates Your Child’s Behavior (PART 2)

by Mark Gregston

Every time I mention losses in a presentation, a parent without fail will always asked me the question: What if I can’t pinpoint my child’s losses? You know, we want to say, Hey, wait, wait, this is why my child is messed upThis is why my kid is doing the things they’re doing because this happened in their life at a certain stage and ever since then they just been a mess.  

I met with a young lady the other day and I quickly came to understand that somewhere along the line, she had had something happen to her in her life. She was a mess and she shut down and she’s shy and strays away from people. I was talking to her mother and I said, I get the idea that something happened in middle school or junior high, somewhere around the 14 to 15 age something happened.She goes… she was going to a Christian school and a group of boys put together a list of the ugliest girls in the school. She was number one on the list. It was passed around and even though the boys got in trouble and were suspended and disciplined, this little girl had never gotten over it. 

When someone says, I wish I could pinpoint it somewhere. Well, that’s something you can put your finger on and say, this is what has affected this young lady; but sometimes you can’t find those things. Sometimes it’s not as easy as a death of a parent or death of a friend or some other traumatic incident or some comments that have been made. 

I usually ask parents, I go, Hey, wait, let me ask you this… Did you have losses during your early years? And most of them say, well, yeah, I did. And I say, did your parents know about them? And most of them, say, no, they didn’t. And I then say, could you perhaps not know everything that has happened to your child? 

There may be some things, you know, Jan’s parents, my wife’s parents, never knew of her sexual abuse, even though it happened for seven years by her grandfather. The losses may not appear to be significant or remarkable in one way. Remember when your child used to come to you and tell you, “Hey, Sally said I was stupid” and you countered it to reassure your child that you’re not stupid. You probably said, don’t listen to Sally. Or you might’ve said, Hey, sweetheart, it’s not true. You’re one of the smartest people I know. Now jump ahead a few years to junior high, middle school. Does a middle school child still tell you those comments from other kids? Probably not. Do you know why? Because kids begin to believe some of those comments, and they won’t come to us. So, we have to go to them.  

We must enter their world, ask what’s going on in their lives and uncover the hurt and the pain they’re experiencing. Chances are your child has experienced something. There are events in a child’s life that cause them pain. So many stepparents don’t understand why they’re not accepted by the new stepchildren. Often, I find it’s because the stepparent represents the loss in a child’s life. A stepparent means the dream of parents getting back together is gone. It means the loss of bounding into the single parent’s bedroom and plopping down on the bed. Now there’s a stranger there. Sometimes it means a child loses a house, a school and friends.  

What should parents and stepparents do to deal with the loss? Dealing with the loss is more important than trying to change the behavior. You know, focus on the cause rather than the symptoms. There is a guy named Dave Damico who wrote a book called The Faces of Rage, and he says that often repressed or forgotten childhood losses tend to re-emerge at significant transition points of change in an adult’s life. This shows that unresolved loss is never resolved merely through the passage of time. This is why you have people in their forties, still hanging on to things that were said to them when they were in the third and fourth grade. 

My comment is don’t focus on the behavior, focus on the loss. Whether it’s a loss of self-esteem from hurtful comments, the loss of traditional family, the loss of innocence taken, or any other kind of loss that comes into a child’s life. This is much easier when losses are pretty visible, such as a death of a parent, the loss of a loved one, a breakup, a death of a friend, but it’s a little harder when the loss is hidden under the surface. Whether apparent or not, if your child is acting out, you need to look hard for any loss that they’re trying to deal with. For many people that loss can be an unmet expectation; they believe things should be different than they are. They think people don’t understand them, listen to them or pay attention to them. They think life should be fair and discover that it’s not. 

When children feel this way, they try to eliminate the loss or cover it up. They seek to develop strong, healthy relationships that try to help them get through these times. That relationship should be with a parent or another adult, not just a peer. Moms, dads and grandparents are all part of a journey that will change the destiny of their family and that journey can be changed for the better. 

Losses in children’s’ lives may also come as a result of the actions of others. When children experience this kind of loss, they pay the price for the foolish choices of someone else. It includes car accidents and mistake situations, where kids are victims of other people’s bad judgments. I got a call last night that a girl that used to live with us is in critical care because she was in the car with somebody that was intoxicated, and he had an accident and passed away. She is now paying the price of the foolishness of the person that she was hanging out with.  

Loss can also come from abuse or neglect by parents or caregivers. When parents do not provide what a child needs, or when parents break the law and are caught, kids pay a price for their parent’s selfish behavior. Loss may even come from society and its prejudice, which has nothing to do with the child. This is why is it important to know the various types of loss a child can experience. You need to identify it in the child’s life.  

Each type of loss creates its own set of questions and issues. When kids are victims of other’s bad choices, they ask questions, not about other people or about themselves, but about life and really about God himself. They start asking questions like why do bad things happen to good people? If there is such a loving God, then why did He allow this to happen? If life is good, then why do I feel so bad? Why do I feel like God doesn’t like me? Is this a part of God’s will for my life? Why has God ignored me? Is life just a crapshoot? 

Throughout life I’ve heard the phrase, If God is for us, then who can be against us. But what if you’re a young person who says no one is for me and God is against me. You know, kids need special help working through this kind of loss. They need spiritual discussions that can bring light into their darkness. 

Another type of loss that kids experience all the time is dashed hopes or unfulfilled dreams, postponed pursuits.  It is the kind of loss that has more to do with not reaching a goal or taking advantage of an opportunity. It’s not making the team, not getting on the cheerleading squad, not being good enough to qualify for something they desperately desired. This type of loss is focused inward and usually include shame, guilt and emptiness. When a young person believed in and hoped for something and then realizes that it’s not going to happen, reality is a bitter, bitter pill to swallow. When a child begins to realize how things really are, parents might see a shutdown or a sudden shift in their child’s interest. If this happens with your child, try not to add to your child’s burden and discourage him or her with comments like, I told you so, or you should have listened to me. Come alongside your child with statements like, I know this is hard. Don’t make it any less than it feels for your child and help your child to not make it any more than it really is. 

Lastly, some losses come to a child’s life that are just out of his own control such as a cross-country move or a natural disaster. Avoid saying these things like, you know, that’s just the way it is. Rather, I would encourage you to be sensitive to your child and work hard at listening and hearing your child’s heart. In these situations, your child will often feel like life is not fair and no one can do anything about it. This is the category of loss that maybe an adopted child might experience. The adoptee has no control over all the loss. A young person once told me this, that adoption is the only trauma where we’re expected to be thankful. She was not discounting what she gained. She was just acknowledging her loss and all of us would do well to recognize the difference between the two. Medical conditions, changes in personal appearance, and inherited afflictions can also create this kind of loss… 

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.