Do you know any young children who are difficult, uncooperative, or aggressive? If a kid younger than 5 or 6 is frequently acting this way, usually it means that there’s something with which he or she is struggling but doesn’t understand or know how to articulate. Small children NEED to be loved and accepted. From a biological standpoint, for a creature as small and helpless as a young child, acceptance by caregivers and “the pack” is necessary in order to survive. For this reason, they are generally very eager to please. They desperately want to do what’s expected of them and be well liked.
They’re also sensitive to any possible indication that they’re not loved and accepted, and for them, feeling unloved and rejected is felt as a threat to their survival. Even things as simple as their caregivers not delighting in them or meeting their specific Love Language needs are felt on a visceral level as being unloved. This reaction is felt even more painfully when they are disciplined, scolded, or responded to with annoyance or anger, so they try very hard to avoid experiencing these things. Of course, children also need discipline, but there are things that make attempts at discipline more successful or less successful.
No matter how contrary or even violent their behavior, they’re trying their very best to fit in, get along, please their caregivers, and succeed socially. They’re trying like their life depends on it. If they’re doing things that upset people around them, it’s not because they enjoy being difficult. It’s not because they don’t care. They’re not willfully deciding to aggravate or hurt others. It’s happening because there are one or more unmet needs are overwhelming their long term survival needs.
Of course, it’s always important to consider whether a child who’s acting out is hungry, tired, sick, etc. There are also some long term conditions that can cause kids to act out over and over again.
One of the most common things that can cause or contribute to this is Sensory Processing Disorder. People with SPD experience sensory input differently than how most other people do, so an environment, object, or activity that’s comfortable or tolerable to everyone else in the room might be overwhelming or otherwise intolerable for them. When this happens to small children, they may not be able to communicate that there are too many chaotic sounds in the room, that they’re hot, that their shoes are uncomfortable, that the lights are too bright, that holding still that long is very stressful, that there are too many people too close to them, or that the tag on their shirt is aggravating them. They just go into panic mode. They can’t think or communicate effectively, and that includes listening to others no matter how clear and simple their requests may be.
When too much unpleasant or overwhelming sensory input causes them to go into fight or flight mode, they react and often lash out in illogical ways. These are not the type of emotional reactions that you can read on their face or in their voice like when they’re afraid because of a scary movie. Their expression may look angry or may have a “deer in the headlights look” instead of looking scared or pained. They may run away from their caregivers, physically attack something or someone, yell, or otherwise have a meltdown.
It is not possible to reason with or successfully discipline them while they’re in this state, and attempts to do so will only make the situation worse both short term and long term. Short term, attempts to get them to change their behavior without addressing the cause just adds to their feeling of being overwhelmed and their inability to use executive function in their brains instead of just reacting with fight or flight.
Long term, they don’t understand why they just can’t seem to behave. They want to, and they really do try their best. They think there’s something wrong with them, but they don’t know what or how to change it. They quickly begin to lose hope, believe they are unlovable, and develop psychological defense mechanisms. This manifests over the course of hours and weeks as no longer even trying to please their peers or caregivers or even claiming that they want to be bad or don’t care about hurting others. Those claims are very, very rarely true. They say these things because they cannot face the pain of rejection. Because these are their formative years, this impacts their sense of who they are and how the world works for the rest of their lives or until they heal those core wounds.
Different people with SPD have different tolerances and needs for different things, so figuring out what’s going on is largely a matter of observation and experimentation. The right technique or product (such as minimalist shoes or hearing protection) can dramatically change the child’s life and the lives, or at least comfort, of those around them. There are many great resources out there! Here are a few that I’ve found recently:
The most important thing is to look for the unmet needs instead of focusing on the behavior as a discipline problem. Yes, children absolutely need boundaries, rules, expectations, and discipline. These are excellent areas on which to focus after meeting their needs. For a kid with SPD, managing their environment so that they’re not in panic mode is a need!
Thank you. Blessings! ❤