“Lucky vs. unlucky” behaviours
As a child and young adult with undiagnosed ADHD, I always experienced my emotions very intensely. I did not learn, and was not taught, adaptive coping skills or social skills, so I was punished for my “misbehaviour”.
In childhood, I frequently acted out with both verbal and physical aggression because I didn’t know how to manage my emotions, nor how to respond appropriately when those emotions overwhelmed me.
When this happened, I would first be punished by my peers through teasing, bullying, and exclusion. Then I was punished by adults, with detentions, suspensions, or worse.
All of this just made me feel horrible about myself. I quickly came to believe that inherent character flaws and my own personal failings were causing the constant boomerang of actions and consequences.
Dr. Greene wrote:
“All kids have times when they struggle to handle expectations. How they express that they’re struggling has an outsized impact on how adults respond.”— Dr. Ross Greene
As a young adult I rarely engaged in acts of outward physical aggression, but I still experienced very intense and overwhelming emotions. Since nobody had bothered to teach me any coping skills as a child, I still had no idea how to manage them.
I was still punished, this time through deteriorating relationships with friends or significant others, as they would distance themselves from me because of my behaviour.
Regardless of how emotional dysregulation, stress, or feeling overwhelmed manifest, all concerning behaviour is communicating the same thing: this is a person in need of support.
Some children communicate that they’re having difficulty meeting certain expectations through whining, pouting, sulking, crying, or withdrawing.
Some adults communicate they’re struggling through crying, withdrawing, avoidance, and shutting down.
They’re the “lucky” ones, for these behaviours are likely to be responded to with empathy, nurturance, and support. Lucky because, in large part, that’s just how their nervous system responds — we don’t choose our nervous systems.
Others — the “unlucky” children — communicate that they’re having difficulty meeting expectations in ways that are more troubling, like screaming, swearing, hitting, kicking, biting, and spitting.
Some adults communicate they’re struggling through aggression, yelling, self-destructive behaviours, and lashing out at others.
Regrettably, these behaviours are much less likely to elicit empathy, nurturance, or support from others.
I was definitely that child, and I grew to become that adult in my early twenties.
It Really Doesn’t Matter
The externalizing behaviours are not the truly important factor, yet those are what we tend to focus on because those are what we can see. Much more important is the internal experience of the individual.
“Behaviour is just the signal. If caregivers are focused only on modifying behaviour, then all they’re modifying is the signal… they’re not solving any of the problems that are causing the signal.”— Dr. Ross Greene
Whether lucky or unlucky, a concerning behaviour is communicating the same thing: this person is in need of support. People “act out” because they are frustrated, upset, scared, anxious, sad — for one reason for another, unable to meet an expectation that is being placed upon them.
Whether our fears and anxieties show up as hitting, swearing, and destruction, or they come out as shutting down, crying, and hiding, the underlying causes are the same and our needs are essentially the same.
Regardless of how our feelings are expressed, we all need and deserve empathy, compassion, support, caring, and understanding. That is how we learn to manage our feelings and experiences, and that is how we develop skills for dealing with our emotions in a more adaptive and healthy way.
They’re All Lagging Skills
Whether someone has a disability, trauma, or for any reason has not learned self-regulation skills at the same rate as their peers, this should never be cause for further punishment. What children need — and really anyone who struggles with emotional reactivity needs — is to be taught what to do instead.
Consider how adults typically respond to children’s outbursts such as yelling, hitting, swearing, or throwing things. Usually with threats of punishment if they don’t stop that behaviour immediately.
If the underlying cause of the behaviour is fear or anxiety, for example, let’s consider the exact same feelings coming out in a different way.
If the same child were crying quietly, withdrawn, looking worried and sad, would you threaten them to stop that behaviour immediately, or else, or would you gently ask them what’s wrong and offer support and comfort?
Skills Not Shame
“If he’s not responding adaptively, he must be lacking the skills to respond adaptively.” — Dr. Ross Greene
If a child is struggling with reading, writing, or arithmetic, do we send them to the principal’s office to “think about what they’ve done”, or suspend them from school so they can learn from their mistakes? Do we berate a child with a learning disability because they “really should know better”?
I certainly hope not.
We need to address lagging social and emotional skills in much the same way as we address lagging academic skills: with remediation, instruction, guidance, and by providing additional support.
Lecturing, punishing, shaming, and blaming a child for lacking skills is really just a form of emotional abuse. We should be just as appalled by someone shaming a child for lacking social and emotional skills as we would be by someone shaming a child with dyslexia for struggling to read.
We should be.
But we’re not there yet, not by a long shot, unfortunately.
Lacking Skill, not Knowledge
We often justify the use of punishment by saying the child must learn the behaviour is unacceptable, we may even believe we’re teaching the child a valuable lesson about personal accountability and responsibility.
Spoiler alert: we’re not.
If a child doesn’t yet understand that hitting another person is unacceptable, then they’re not developmentally or cognitively ready to learn from punishment.
If a child is old enough, and developmentally capable of connecting the resulting consequences with their actions, then they are likely already aware the behaviour was unacceptable.
As an adult, do you ever do things you know are wrong when overcome with strong emotion? Have you ever yelled at your partner or child, stuck your middle finger up at another driver, or behaved aggressively during a particularly intense sporting competition?
I certainly have. All of the above, many times (to be fair, I do play hockey, but still).
Was it necessary to sit down and discuss your actions with someone afterward? Did you need a refresher on common courtesy, etiquette, and polite communication?
Did you need to review the rule book to be reminded of the regulations of the sport in which you participate? How about spending a couple minutes in the penalty box to “think about what you did”? (HA).
No? Me neither.
Punishment Does Not Work
This is why punishment does not work, because what we call misbehaviour or “acting out” is actually stress behaviour, people simply express feeling stressed and overwhelmed in many different ways. This is, in part, due to our different learning histories and experiences, but also due to our different nervous systems.
Many of us, both children and adults, have trauma histories, or grew up in environments where we learned “unlucky” ways of responding to stress or perceived threats. Many of us have physiological differences that impact our ability to control our emotions and behaviours (Delahooke, 2019).
It is those of us who communicate our needs in less socially acceptable ways who need the most support, and need help developing stress tolerance and coping skills, and punishments don’t teach those.
In fact, most often punishment teaches people shame and invalidation. Many consequences doled out are role-modelling acts of retribution, aggression, and intolerance when we should be role-modelling acts of compassion, caring, and understanding.
Finally Some Luck
I am fortunate I was able to succeed through College and University, so that through academics and personal growth, I finally developed some effective coping strategies and distress tolerance skills in my mid-twenties. Now in my late thirties, I am still working on these, but it gets better with each year.
I have a brilliant, spirited, and intense little boy who had his ADHD diagnosed early. I’m certainly not a perfect parent, but I now have a large toolkit from which to role-model and teach my son emotional regulation skills.
I work extremely hard to ensure my son is not blamed or shamed for being neurodiverse, and that the adults in his life focus on skill development and problem-solving, rather than punishment and retribution.
He struggles with some of the “unlucky” behaviours at times, but we’ve got his back. We know what an awesome kid he is, and we’re going to make sure he knows it too.
So I guess I did learn one important thing from all the punishments I received growing up: how to never treat a child.
© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB
Dr. Ross Greene recently posted a video on the Lives in the Balance Facebook page explaining the use of the term “Concerning” Behaviours, and in it Dr. Greene also referenced “lucky” vs. “unlucky” behaviours.
Delahooke, M. (2019). Beyond Behaviors: using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioral challenges. PESI Publishing.
Greene, Ross, W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.
Kauten, R., & Barry, C.T. (2020). Externalizing Behavior. In: Zeigler-Hill V., Shackelford T.K. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3_894.
Shanker, S., & Barker, T. (2016). Self-reg: how to help your child (and you) break the stress cycle and successfully engage with life. Penguin Press.