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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

This is what love looks like.

A while ago I wrote about a little chap called 'Luke', who was pulling down the girls' pants, punching other children and generally being a holy terror. I told you about how I used gentle discipline techniques to break through his violent behaviour, till I got to the feelings underneath.

Here's a bit of a taste of what happened that day, months ago.

"...he struggles and shouts as I carry him over to the quiet area, where we can sit down. "Put me down! You're hurting my gizzards!" he yells, but I've been caught by that one before and watched him dance off laughing as I've let him go, fearful lest I be accused of rough handling.

Not this time. I know my hold isn't painful, I know I'm not being rough, though he's a well-grown, muscular boy and awkward to carry. I make it to the bench, sit down with him on my lap.


"I WANNA PLAY!" he shouts. "LET ME GO!"


His voice is loud in my ear, but he's not struggling. My hold around his waist is firm, but my hands are gentle.


"LET GO OF ME!"


"We need to sit here till you can stop talking with your hands," I say quietly. "It's okay to feel angry. But you need to say it with your mouth, not your hands. It's not okay to hit, and it's really, really not okay to pull the girls' pants down."


I stroke his arm silently till he stops yelling and relaxes a little, resigned to being kept here for the moment. I unfold his clenched fist and run it softly over the back of my hand.


"I need you to use gentle hands, like this," I say.


And I use my gentle hands to stroke his back as I hold him, trying to speak the message without any more words. He gets words thrown at him all day by the adults. He deflects words easily, staring boldly into your eyes while he goes right ahead doing the wrong thing.


But when I talk to him through my gentle hands, Luke starts to cry. Not angry tears, but great big heartbroken sobs. As he sits there shuddering on my lap, it's as though he shrinks back into his real size, his real age; he's not some monster, some oversized schoolyard bully towering over his peers. He's a vulnerable four-year-old child, confused and not understanding how to fit into his world."


(You can read the whole post here if you didn't already see it.)

I wanted to remind you of Luke today, because I know that sometimes we get so frustrated by trying to use peaceful discipline. Sometimes kids behave so badly that it seems easier to just let go of our own self-control and spank, or shout, or punish. Often it looks like that's working better, and more quickly- especially with repeat offenders.

But I have an update for you about Luke, and I think it's important.

Since the day I wrote that post, which was over three months ago, I haven't seen Luke. I've been too sick to work. Before that, I'd only seen Luke very infrequently- perhaps once or twice a month. I'm only the casual relief. I've had the most minimal chance to make any impact on his world, or on his way of understanding things.

I would have expected that that little incident would have faded from Luke's memory long ago. I would have expected that I had made no difference at all to him, in the long term.

But when I dropped in to that workplace today, to talk to the director about my illness, the very first person I saw when I opened the door was Luke. There he was, rolling about on the floor with some other boys, engaged in some ongoing and highly  energetic play scenario.

And then he spotted me. He jumped out of those cushions, flew across the room and threw his arms around my legs. He hugged me like his life depended on it.

Gentle reader, this is not a child who greets people by hugging them. This is a child who gets off the bus and punches you as he walks by.

(Hard.)

Of course, I just about cracked up on the spot. I've rarely been so surprised or so touched by a child's sudden display of affection. I pulled myself together though, smiled, ruffled his hair, had a quiet word with him and moved on to do what I'd come for.

Later, driving away, I started to think about what I'd just seen. This is a child from a terribly disrupted background. Dad's been in jail, mum's barely coping, violence is the most familiar mechanism he knows for dealing with big feelings. Yet when I walked through the door- a relative stranger, who'd had that one magic breakthrough with him so long ago- what came out of him was an unprecedented affectionate greeting.

And then I did break down, and I cried my eyes out. But they were happy tears, for once, in this time of great stress for me.

Perhaps he did remember that day when I met his violence with gentleness. Or perhaps, somewhere inside him, he just remembered a face and a feeling to match it. Perhaps he just saw me, and recognised that this is what love looks like. 

Please, you have to keep believing in gentle discipline. You have to have faith, and try your hardest to be consistent and unflappable. You just don't know when that moment will come when a child crosses the threshold, and suddenly learns that a limit gently enforced can be a true expression of love.


28 comments:

  1. Or he has disordered attachment and seeks love from anyone willing to show it

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    Replies
    1. That's a fairly cynical view, I think. And not a reason to turn your back on peaceful discipline.

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    2. Not just cynical - it's not supported by the evidence. While Luke's background and life experiences predispose him to behavioural disorders (and there is no doubt that his social behaviour is challenging, and "inappropriate"), his behaviour as described in the two blog posts do not fit the DSM-IV criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder. He fits some of the criteria, but not the crucial features.

      If Luke had Disinhibited Type RAD he would typically be expected to show "indiscriminate sociability...excessive familiarity with relative strangers". But the point is that Luke does not show indiscriminate sociability; he shows discriminating sociability. He is not showing excessive familiarity with relative strangers: on the contrary, with most people, whether strangers or well known to him, he has been showing aggressive behaviour, but not over-familiarity.

      And he certainly does not fit the DSM-IV criteria for Inhibited Type RAD which includes "a failure to initiate or respond...to most social interactions, as manifest by excessively inhibited responses". [quotes from DSM-IV-TR; source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_disorder]

      Nor do the described behaviours fit the broader diagnostic criteria as suggested by Boris and Zeanah for attachment disorders in children that do not meet the DSM-IV criteria for RAD. [same source]

      Now, I'm neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist; I am not qualified to make a diagnosis, nor am I going to attempt to - I've never even had the opportunity to observe Luke. I'm just a qualified Early Childhood Educator with a degree in Childen's Studies, a Minor in Psychology, and over 20 years experience of working with young children.

      But one does not need to be a psychologist or a psychiatrist to rule out RAD - any reasonably intelligent person can read the criteria, compare them to the reported behaviours and rule out RAD.

      Of course, Michele, if you are using the term "disordered attachment" in the context of "Attachment Therapy" then the following quote may be useful to you:

      "This form of therapy, including diagnosis and accompanying parenting techniques, is scientifically unvalidated and is not considered to be part of mainstream psychology or, despite its name, to be based on attachment theory, with which it is considered incompatible.[5][6] It is primarily based on Robert Zaslow's rage-reduction therapy from the 1960s and '70s and on psychoanalytic theories about suppressed rage, catharsis, regression, breaking down of resistance and defence mechanisms. Zaslow, Tinbergen, Martha Welch and other early proponents used it as a treatment for autism, based on the now discredited belief that autism was the result of failures in the attachment relationship with the mother.

      It has been described as a potentially abusive and pseudoscientific intervention that has resulted in tragic outcomes for children, including at least six documented child fatalities.[7] Since the 1990s there have been a number of prosecutions for deaths or serious maltreatment of children at the hands of "attachment therapists" or parents following their instructions" [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_therapy]

      Michele, Luke needs help - he does not need ignorant and cynical suggestions from someone whose only qualifications in the area appear to be that you describe yourself in your profile as "Mum of 2 from Queensland, Australia. Blogging (somewhat sporadically) about her life, her kids, words, books and other loves." I suggest you stick to that.

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  2. What a heartwarming story!!! These little people have so much to give - they just need a sensitive and receptive adult to spend time finding the door to open. Well done!

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  3. thankyou for sharing this story. and thankyou for showing love to someone who obviously needs it. as for the 'disordered attachment' comment above back...that's just really sad...

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    1. Ah well, I guess everyone's entitled to their opinion, but I think it's a good idea to always back a negative comment with a positive alternative suggestion, don't you? ;)

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  4. Whatever the reason for his greeting of you, the fact that you had and have faith in him and other children shines through.
    Luke's future will be a little brighter because you entered his life.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Greg. I think it was a lightbulb moment.

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  5. Pat on the back to you Aunt Annie! What an amazing power we have as Early Years Teachers. Let's be sure to use it for good, like you have done.

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    1. So true, Anon. We are in a position of great responsibility and great influence- sometimes greater than we realise. There's no place for cynicism in EC teaching.

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  6. Positive discipline to me is like art, it takes practice, experience, mistakes, frustrations, revelations and time to develop. I think you painted a masterpeice in this interaction with luke, I'm still dabbling in color theory, but each interaction I'm seeing progress. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. What a lovely analogy- and thank you! What you say is so true. It takes many years of practice to refine the art of saying the right thing at the right time. But the important thing is to START.

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  7. It just goes to show you that the "magic moment" had a profound impact on Luke. It is a shame that he is not able to get that same type of interaction from the adults who regularly appear in his life. Keep spreading the "positive guidance" message, Aunt Annie. If your message reaches just one teacher and helps them make a change, it will be well worth the effort! :)

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    1. Thanks, Ayn. Yes, I keep hoping the message will get out there!

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  8. Alec, you are spot on! :) Great post AA! :)

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  9. Thanks Annie. I'm struggling with my first graders in this area. Sometimes my voice gets a little loud and my patience gets a little thin. But I try to regroup and start again. This is a reminder that the struggles are the way to go.

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    1. Thanks, Scott. We're all allowed to feel tired sometimes. But it IS worth following the peaceful path.

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  10. Hi Annie, very good blog! I will follow it from now. Thank you very much.

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  11. As a student in the EC field, and having to spend some time on placement hours, I have often felt rather protective of some of the children and how the educators sometimes talk to them, I have observed the effect of loud, brash, negative, reactive comments on the children. It just doesn't work. So it was very encouraging to read your blog. Don't we all thrive on love and encouragement, and just need someone to show us the way? Good on you and thank you for sharing the journey.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks pearl, and good luck with your studies.

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