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Is this normal?

November 27, 2012

Many parents I work with are often unsure if their child’s behaviors, thoughts, or feelings are “normal” or if something is going on that we should be paying attention to in therapy. The pendulum can swing both ways. It’s easy to fall into the “This is about adoption/trauma/abuse” trap when it isn’t, just as easy as it is to fall into the “all kids do this- this is just a normal childhood phase” trap when it isn’t. Unfortunately it isn’t easy to determine when that may or may not be true.

All kids grumble when it’s time to do chores. Not all kids become so overwhelmed that they tantrum for an hour when they are asked to make their bed. All kids experiment with lying. In fact, this is an important cognitive developmental milestone. Not all kids lie about having eaten that brownie batter when they have brownie batter smeared all over their face and hands.

When I have a family in my office and we’re deconstructing if the behavior was something we need to tackle in therapy or chalk it up to “normal childhood behavior” on question I ask both the child and the parents is “Was this a normal size reaction to being asked to make your bed or was this an extra big one?” Typically, kids are willing to acknowledge that it was a big reaction (assuming they are regulated in my office and we have effectively removed the shame from the situation). If we all agree that this was a big reaction, we know that the child went outside their “window of tolerance” (the window within which your child is able to ‘keep it together’).

What things push kids outside their window of tolerance? First check all those important physiological issues that contribute to ALL of us being easily pushed outside our windows- being tired (physically, mentally, or emotionally) or being hungry. Did you run seven different errands today? Is it two hours past your child’s normal lunch time?

If your kiddo is well rested and well fed, then we can start to consider the possibility that the behavior is related to past trauma or loss. Ask your child what an average reaction to being asked to make their bed might be. Most parents and kids can agree that a reaction like “Do I have to NOW?” or “Why do I have to make my bed everrrrrydaaaaay?” are relatively normal, age-appropriate grumblings to being asked to complete a chore. A 60-minute tantrum that leaves your nine-year-old looking much like a two-year-old is not relatively normal or age-appropriate (if they are rested and fed). If this is the case, we still can’t be sure this is related to past trauma, but you can pretty positive that it ISN’T related to making her bed.

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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling.

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