“And there is another one too…. he bangs his head on the desk.”
This was one of the things said to me at the end of the Introduction to Trauma training I delivered for schools in Cannock and Rugely last week.

So let me ask you – if this was a child you knew – what would you do?

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I asked this staff member what happens when he does that? She replied quickly and with powerful energy, “we tell him to stop it!
That is when my heart broke a bit more for that child.

I don’t know his name, or how old he is even, it doesn’t matter really – banging your head on a table is not normal behaviour for a child of any age. I do know that he is not doing it for fun.

His behaviour instantly told me he is hurting, and moving his body like that is the only way he can currently express that.

As his behaviour communicates his pain, he is met with punishing tone of voice and being told to stop it – ie ‘expressing your pain is not OK or allowed’.
Why do the staff respond like that? I didn’t ask the lady – but often when things like this happen, when a child behaves in a way that is ‘not normal’ at school or home, adult responses can be rooted in one of these unconscious statements:-

  1.  The child’s behaviour is wrong and not what we want to see for our children and so I must make it stop.
  2.  This behaviour is weird, I find it quite threatening because I don’t understand it…I must make it stop.
  3.  He must be hurting himself…I must make him stop.

When adults need to ‘make it stop’ it is often because they are operating out of fear (because they don’t understand what is happening). They insist, they control, they dominate. The behaviour stops. The adult feels better. The adult has ‘won’. They were fighting…the adult vs the strange behaviour….and the thing that was threatening them has now gone. Good.

The child…? Is left with their pain. The reason for why they needed to bang their head on the table has not gone away. They have learnt though. The lesson in that moment is clear- this is not a place to be expressive or vulnerable or show your true feelings. They are not understood. They are certainly not helped.

So what did I say?

  1.  Please do not say that to him.
  2.  Please take away the work he is doing (the staff member then said to me, yes – it is always when he has particular work to do).
  3.  Please understand that that work is frustrating him and to him is like a threat he cannot escape from.
  4.  When the ‘work’ is physically away from him, book shut and put out of sight, then you can help him calm down, by showing him something else you have in front of you (depending on his age this could be a finger puppet, a photo of your dog, a picture you need to colour in…). 
  5. And make sure through it all – you stay calm in your body and your voice.

Obviously that is just step 1 – but it is a crucial change in approach that will help him.
In the future this child will be more able to access his work when he is clearer that the adults around him are there to help, and that they understand him. He will no longer be on his own with his ‘threat and no escape.’

I am grateful that person spoke to me last week. I’m glad we had that very brief conversation, because for that child from that day on, things might be a bit better…at least in terms of the way she understood him, and could respond in those moments.
And it has given me a chance to share the situation, just in case it resonates with anyone else who is considering how they respond to a child when there is behaviour they don’t understand.

One thing I know, if we don’t understand why children do what they do and we react to make their behaviour just stop, it is more likely to be feeding our own need, not helping that child at all, and sometimes doing them harm.

If you want more insight into what is going on for children at times like this, and things you can do to help them, GROUNDED would be a great next step on your reading journey.