An Avoidable Crisis: The Unlucky Ones (Part 2)

Today’s guest author is Jennifer Abbanat.

Jennifer is a wife and mom to three kids ages 18, 16, and 13. Jennifer is an advocate and voice for her neurodivergent children. She and her family live in Northern California.

Dr. Ross Greene refers to kids with “lucky behaviors” and those with” unlucky behaviors.” Kids with lucky behaviors are often more capable of “using words” to describe their feelings. These kids often pout, cry, whine, withdraw, and these lucky behaviors usually get them empathy from the caregiver. This is why they are thought of as “lucky behaviors.” These behaviors do not get a child put in time out, spanked, hit, yelled at, recess taken away, punished, isolated, and worse, restrained by an adult. They have lucky ways of communicating that move the adult to empathize and bring a sense of connection and compassion to the child. This child gets soft eyes and hugs when they behave this way. The adult wants to comfort them to ease their distress.

So what about the kids who are seen as having “unlucky behaviors”? How can behaviors be seen as lucky or unlucky?

I explained how the caregiver views a child with lucky behaviors and how the caregiver typically responds to that child. They are seen through a compassionate lens. Kids with unlucky behaviors are usually not seen through a compassionate lens by their caregivers. These can be parents, teachers, babysitters, relatives, and support staff; essentially, anyone who works with the child is considered a caregiver when they are responsible for the child’s well-being.

The kids with unlucky behaviors do not have the skill or ability to communicate in a more “adaptive or appropriate” way for others to understand what they need. So what do unlucky behaviors look like? These kids communicate a need by yelling, screaming, hitting, kicking, spitting, throwing, running, or destroying things. These unlucky behaviors most often are not met with a compassionate lens. These kids are often placed in time out, punished, hit, yelled at, held in at recess, or lose privileges or their favorite object. These kids may experience isolation or, worse, be physically restrained. In fact, 19 states across the country still have laws permitting school staff to use corporal punishment in schools. Also, many laws are vague regarding the use of restraint in schools allowing its use on students when “danger” is present.

What is danger? Who decides what is considered “dangerous” that then warrants restraint?

It depends on where you live geographically and the state and local laws. And even then, it is subjective to the adult who is in the child’s presence and how the adult perceives what they see as a threat.

The adults determine the definition of danger, often in a moment of high arousal. When a child who has “unlucky behaviors” becomes overwhelmed and is stressed beyond their skill level to cope, is maybe experiencing pain, their nervous system takes over. Leaving them in a state of threat, also known as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. The child no longer has access to their learning/thinking brain, and their nervous system is sending messages of threat and danger, which makes the body move in response to get to safety. This response is not something the child has any control over. The response is involuntary and without conscious thought. It is the nervous system acting the way it is meant to and on behalf of the body’s safety.

When a threat is detected, whether real or perceived, the brain state of the individual downgrades and signals the need for safety and survival. This movement for safety that the nervous system is creating (without the individual’s awareness) can look like running, hitting, throwing, kicking, yelling, spitting, and anything else that can potentially preserve the individual and allow them to get back to safety.

When a threat is perceived, it is a matter of life or death to the individual’s nervous system. It doesn’t matter if others don’t understand it.

It doesn’t matter if others see the situation as a simple request, question, or “innocent” directive. What matters is how does that individual’s nervous system, based on all the person’s lived experiences up to this point, whether they are 2, 12, or 52, respond to this external demand, question, instruction?

Many of our kids who struggle have a nervous system that is more sensitized and, therefore, are more easily triggered into the fight, flight, or freeze response. Dr. Stephen Porges discusses this as the nervous system is compromised and replaces “our patterns of connection with patterns of protection.” This physiological brain state is self-preservation for that individual, even in an example of a student being asked by a teacher to answer a question in class or stop fidgeting or wait their turn.

This video was developed to give a basic introduction and overview of how trauma and chronic stress affect our nervous system and how those effects impact our health and well-being. Much of the content is based on the groundbreaking work of Stephen Porges and his Polyvagal Theory and inspired and informed by the work of thought leaders Deb Dana, Vincent Felitti, Robert Anda, Gabor Mate, Dan Siegel and Peter Levine.

These all seem like very simple demands that many children do every day in classrooms around the world without giving them much thought. But many kids may experience this benign situation very differently due to previous experiences, trauma, or their brain neuroanatomy. Sometimes this is referred to as brain wiring differences. Some people are just born with more reactive brains and nervous systems and respond to the world around them differently. We see this often in kids who get labels such as autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, a variety of learning disabilities, and anxiety, to name a few.

When one experiences the world differently, the body will also respond differently. This often leaves individuals in a more hyper-vigilant brain state.

Always in protection mode. They are keeping guard of the body. Sometimes this region (called the amygdala) of the brain is referred to as the “watchdog” of the brain. It is always on guard, waiting to signal the nervous system to take over and get away from the danger even if the “danger” is not really life-threatening. Even if the “danger” is a dog barking in the distance, a motorcycle, or even being told to do a task such as “pick up your jacket.” This requires cognitive awareness to determine if it is indeed a real threat or not.

The amygdala is the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. The amygdala is a key component of our threat detection system.

This watchdog doesn’t have time to think. It acts! Our bodies quickly react to this sense of threat. That is why we often say that our kids who have challenging behaviors are not intentional. They aren’t thinking. They can’t “think.” They are reacting. Their nervous system has taken over to respond to the “threats,” and what society sees as “behaviors” are the result – behaviors that are communicating “threats” to the body. The body moves into survival mode just by being asked to do something, such as do a math problem or being told no, they cannot use the restroom, or stop fidgeting, stop tapping the desk, stop humming, stop flapping your hands, stop stop stop is the trigger that signals threat in the brain.

If a child could solve the problem, perform the task, follow the directions, comply with any demand, or meet expectations, they would. This is why Dr. Ross Greene’s message of “kids do well if they can and if they can’t, why not” is vital to understanding kids with challenging behaviors.

The “An Avoidable Crisis” Series

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