Excusing Versus Understanding- where is the line?
When does understanding what is driving a negative behavior morph into excusing the behavior? How do we help our kids understand their brains without giving them a free pass to act any way they please? These are questions that come up over and over again in therapy- both from parents and from children.
Remember those Trauma Momma Super Powers? First, we have to understand the impact of trauma on a developing brain and then we have to understand how your child’s specific trauma impacted their specific brain. Understanding the origins of your child’s symptoms and maladaptive behaviors is extremely important. But when does it become excusing that behavior?
Let’s think about this through a slightly different lens. When you child has a medical issue, do you want to treat the symptom or find the origins of the problem and treat that? Or maybe less dramatic than that…what about if your car won’t run? Do you replace the battery or replace the alternator? The same behavior is demonstrated by both problems right? The car doesn’t run. But if we don’t find out WHY the car doesn’t start, we aren’t going to find the right solution. I’d hate to replace an alternator when all I needed was a new battery.
Why should we look at our children any differently? What if your child struggles with stealing? Is this a child who has no concept of “mine vs. yours” because they grew up in orphanage where no one had any possessions? Or is this a child whose limbic brain sends them back to the developmental stage of being an infant when they are stressed- turning all wants into needs? Or is this a child who spent years without parents to watch out and provide for them, and stealing was literally the only way they survived? Or maybe this is a depressed child who steals for the rush of endorphins that comes along with the ‘thrill’ of stealing.
All of those “whys” help us approach the child with more empathy and less shame. That by itself is worth understanding what is driving the behavior. Shame is never an effective teaching tool. Ever.
All of those “whys” also help us know how to help this child. A child who is chronically operating out of their limbic/survival brain needs their overall window of tolerance widened. A child who has no idea about ‘mine vs. yours’ needs lots and lots of teaching. A child who steals because they needed to for survival in the past needs help with the mixed up thought of “I will die without it.” The depressed child may need an antidepressant, or a more appropriate way to get a surge of endorphins.
None of this understanding equals excusing. At no time in my therapy sessions with children do I insinuate “Oh, it’s not a big deal. Don’t worry about it.” Of course not. My goal is to bring healing and connection to children and families. To soothe a child’s nervous system so that they leave behind those maladaptive behaviors. To send children out into the “real world” with all the skills they need to be successful, because they will certainly get arrested if they are caught stealing. Understanding what’s underneath the behavior is not an excuse. But it does give me more data for therapy. More data to increase the likelihood that together, we’ll solve this problem. It helps keep connection in families instead of distancing. But most important, it increases the likelihood that we will treat the CAUSE and not just the SYMPTOM, which offers more hope for children and their families.
So when does it become excusing? Only when we stop trying the treat the why. If we understand the why and then throw up our hands and say, “Well, it’s because of early trauma and there is nothing we can do about it,” then yeah, we are just excusing. If we look at the behavior, figure out the cause, and then target our treatment at that cause, we are not excusing. We are healing children.
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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.