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Is your kid really doing the best they can? REALLY? {Yes…really}

February 22, 2016

What if we believed that our children were really always doing the very best they can…in that exact moment, with the information they had (and with the amount of regulation they had) that was the very best they could do.  Maybe they could do better in the next moment, or five moments later.  But at that moment, it was the best.

Wdoing best they canhat if we believed that?

Would that change how we approach our children’s difficult behaviors? Would we rethink punishments and consequences?  Would we then consider that we need to help them do better instead of making them feel worse?  Would we shift into compassion instead of sitting in judgment?

What if we believe that?

Would we have to consider that it actually might be true about most people?  Maybe even all people?  Maybe…even….ourselves?  Would we then shift into compassion…toward ourselves….instead of sitting in judgment???

I was in graduate school when I first considered this notion.  I was in a staff meeting at the residential treatment facility where I was blessed to have my second year practicum.  Cathy was a psychologist and she was running this meeting.   Like many staff meetings I’ve participated in over the years, the conversation was turning toward complaining rather than problem solving.  It’s difficult to facilitate treatment with children who are all separated from their families and easy to get caught up in focusing on the frustrating barriers.  Cathy said “Remember- everyone is always doing the best they can.”  I don’t remember this being a particularly earth shattering moment for everyone else.  The room didn’t fall silent while we all gaped at Cathy’s genius.  The lights didn’t flicker.  Perhaps this was not news to all my colleagues, but it became a profound and influential moment in my career.  In my life.

A few weeks ago I was prepping for a presentation I was giving to foster and adoptive families about how to talk to their children about the difficult truths in their lives…truths about their history, truths about their biological families.  You know as well as I do that often these are not pretty conversations.  My Power Point slides were prepped and mostly ready to go.  I tipped my hat to Cathy the Psychologist and had a slide where I asked my audience to consider “Are people always doing the best they can in that moment with what they have?” Talking to our kids about the really hard…sometimes really awful….things that happened in their birthfamily becomes just a tiny bit easier if we can embrace that idea.

Anyway.  The night before the presentation I’m reading Brene’ Brown’s newest book Rising Strong and just happened (coincidence?  I think not…) to be diving into chapter 6 “Sewer rats and Scofflaws.”  (PS I had never heard the term Scofflaw before…).  After having a difficult experience with someone, Brene’ flounced into her therapist’s office, full of self-righteous indignation.  (Clue #1- always be curious about self-righteous indignation…it’s covering something up).  Her lovely therapist suggested to her the same thing Cathy said to me all those years ago…that perhaps people really are always doing the best they can in that moment with what they have.  Brene’ rejected the idea and spend the next month collecting data…like any good qualitative researcher would.  Finally, she asks her husband.  Brene’ writes that after much contemplation, her husband Steve replied “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”  (Direct quote- chapter 6, Rising Strong.  I don’t know what page, but it’s at Kindle location 1772).

Ding ding ding.

Life is better when I assume people are doing their best.

Anyway, it felt like a serendipitous moment.  I was just doing some light reading about shame while snuggled in bed, and here I stumbled on excellent material for my presentation.

But- does this apply to our children?

I’d say it especially applies to our children, but I don’t mean to insinuate that this idea applies to certain people more than others.  It’s just a truth.  We are all equally deserving of embracing this truth.

But- does this apply to our children?  Our children who steal?  Who lie about stealing?  Who manipulate? Who control?

Yes. Yes. Yes. And….yes.  Every single thing your child does is because it’s the best they can do.  In that moment.  This does not mean that this ‘best’ isn’t actually pretty bad.  But it’s still their best.  This doesn’t mean that their best can’t get better…in many cases it really needs to get better for your child to have a shot at a healthy life that doesn’t involve a probation officer.

How can we help them do better?  We jump out of the trauma tornado.  We help them find their voice.  We understand the importance of regulation and give them opportunities to regulate their bodies.  We find opportunities to strengthen attachment.  We give lots and lots of attunement to facilitate attachment.  Now we can understand their behavior…which is not the same as excusing it.

And then…moms and dads….we get brave enough to give ourselves the very same grace and compassion.  That we, too, are always doing the best we can.  In any given moment.  With the information we have available at the time.





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Join us in Austin on April 29 & 30 for our 3rd annual retreat for struggling parents raising challenging children- EMPOWER, EMBRACE, EMERGE.

Near Albuquerque??  I’d love to meet you at the New Mexico Adoptive Parents Conference on March 12!  I’ll be presenting a workshop “Check your Engine! Cultivating Self-Regulation with Dysregulated Children” as well as the closing keynote “Embracing Ourselves, Emerging through Compassion”

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. jenislove permalink
    February 22, 2016 9:14 am

    We’re having severe regression in our adoptive son and it was after our trip overseas where he was around and saw my nephews baby. Could this have any correlation? Thanks Jen

    • February 22, 2016 1:03 pm

      I think it certainly could! A trip overseas is stressful (good and bad stress) for any number of reasons! It could have simply lowered his window of tolerance or a trigger could have activated a trauma memory network. It’s hard to know! Regardless, the suggestions are the same to find ways to help his nervous system calm down and regulate! I’m sorry he (and you!!) are having such a hard time right now!!

  2. February 22, 2016 11:11 am

    This is a superb post. Thank you. I am a trauma therapist and work with a number of kids (and adults) who have experienced complex childhood trauma. I have some parents who have adopted a child who will benefit from my sharing this with them. Again, thank you.

    • February 22, 2016 1:02 pm

      Hi Glenda! Thanks so much for your kind words. I hope that the article is helpful to the parents you are thinking about!

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