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Excusing Versus Understanding- where is the line?

September 9, 2013

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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. zmac permalink
    September 9, 2013 10:22 am

    When you talk about “shame,” in the clinical sense, I don’t think most parents understand what you mean. I have heard so many parents argue that they want their child to feel shame when what they really want is for their child to feel empathy and guilt for their actions that harm others — not real shame. I would love to see a post that really defines the difference and why it’s important for children to feel guilt but not shame.

    • September 9, 2013 3:26 pm

      This is a great point- you are right! There is a huge difference between guilt and shame. I can definitely write something about that! Thanks for the thoughts!

  2. September 9, 2013 10:23 am

    Thank you, Robyn, for this article. It totally makes sense. I think my husband and I run into walls with understanding the “why” because we know very (and I mean, very) little of our son’s history, and he’s not able to recall much. So where do we go from there?

    • September 9, 2013 3:28 pm

      Hi Colleen- great question. Sometimes we do have to do a lot of guessing. We can do this based on what we know about ‘most’ kids in that situation (adopted from China, Russia, foster care, etc.) but really the most effective way to do that is to examine what is happening in the here and now and then make some connections back. For example, when I have a kiddo who is really shut down and doesn’t feel emotions, I can start imagine that no one ever heard or paid attention to their ‘voice’ when they were small. This is a great question I really could write multiple articles about…I’ll add it to my list! Thanks!

      • September 12, 2013 12:29 pm

        Thanks, Robyn, for your reply. There’s so much to learn to help our son heal…it’s helpful to have blogs like yours to give us tools along the way!

  3. Regan Agness permalink
    September 9, 2013 12:15 pm

    Love this Robyn. Thank you. Bruce and I are attending the Hope conference this weekend in Houston and I am going to drive down for a couple of days next week for the Attach seminar in SAn Antonio. I think the best thing we can do right now is to work on ourselves and our understanding of trauma. Let me know if you will be at either of these so I can say hi. Regan

    • September 9, 2013 3:29 pm

      I will see you in Houston but am not able to make it to SA for ATTACh unfortunately! I will look forward to saying hello!!

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