Updated: Jan 18
I was challenged by two people to get elephants into the E blog and, spurious though the link 'elephant in the room' may be, I think I’ve done it!
The elephant in question is CHAOS and the reason it’s not being written about as a ‘C’ blog is that chaos doesn’t get the thought it deserves most of the time.
It’s usually the case that I don’t deal with good or badly behaved children (despite what I’m told by their adults!) I deal with children who either are, or aren’t, chaotic.
So, what is a chaotic child?
Chaos is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary’s website as:
A state of total confusion with no order.
Imagine that was the inside of your head?! Total confusion with no order…
As adults, most of us can identify a time when we’ve felt out of own control – most of us have experienced that ‘morning after the night before’ feeling when we wake up and our first thought is, “Why is there a traffic cone by my bed?! Oh crumbs… What did I do last night?!” We then go through an internal process of trying to remember, finding snippets, feeling mortified, working out who we can safely call to fill in the blanks…
For most of us, that’s not a great feeling, is it?!
Most of us can also identify a time when we’ve felt stressed. The manifestation of stress in adults looks pretty much exactly the same as the manifestation of chaos in a child – we don’t associate children and stress, we tend to think of stress as a grownup thing related to overdrafts, deadlines, pensions and mortgages.
The NHS website describes the symptoms of stress in adults as including:
Headaches or dizziness
Muscle tension or pain
Chest pain / increased heartbeat
Struggling to make decisions
Being irritable & snappy
Sleeping too little or too much
Avoiding certain places or people
We can easily identify most of those ‘symptoms’ too in chaotic children – especially those highlighted…
How do children become chaotic and how do we recognise their chaos?
Chaotic children are always the product of their environment - chaotic children come from chaotic environments – their adults are often chaotic too. Sometimes this is for good and obvious reason – mental health struggles, substance use, inconsistent or ineffectual parenting are the most common reasons but sometimes, it’s about hidden or generational trauma.
Chaotic children are often the ones who don’t quite fit criteria for a service from another agency – everyone’s agreed that something’s not quite right, but whatever it isn’t broken enough to warrant intervention from Social Services, say, or it doesn’t quite fit the referral criteria for a different service.
Their behaviour or presentation is often described as ‘persistent low-level disruption’ because whilst they’re not REALLY naughty, their chaos brings with it, well, chaos! And chaos is infectious… it impacts on everyone around the child and usually looks like:
constant reminding of basic tasks and expectations;
repetitive interventions for the same things;
can’t sit still;
lack of ‘organisation’ – forgets book bag, PE kit etc…
All of which mostly culminates in the child being further labelled as ‘uncooperative’ or ‘unwilling to engage’ when actually, they’d LOVE to feel settled; they just don’t feel safe enough to.
Chaotic children spend their lives in ‘fight or flight’ mode. They are constantly safeguarding themselves – they’re so worried about the next unpredictable thing that might happen that they can’t remember or focus on the thing they’re supposed to be doing at that moment. Their world is unpredictable and unpredictable means unsafe. Often, they reflect this beautifully through their behaviour and as we already know, all behaviour is communication.
We’ll talk about Maslow properly in a later ‘M’ blog, but he believed that in order to become successful adults, we have to have a set of basic needs met consistently in infancy. These basic needs are things like water, air, shelter, love, food and warmth – things that are easily met if the parent is able and available to respond appropriately and consistently to the child.
If the parent is not able to respond to those needs consistently for the child, the likely outcome is a chaotic child. Obviously, it’s more complex than that really – there are other things like stimulation and boundaries that need to be taken into account, but if the basic needs aren’t taken care of, the rest can’t follow easily – you can’t build a skyscraper on sand, sand isn’t a strong enough foundation so eventually the skyscraper will sink…
It’s the meeting of these basic needs that helps a child to feel safe in their environment. They learn that without fail, if they’re hungry, they’ll be fed; if they’re cold, they’ll be given a blanket; if they’re thirsty, they’ll be given a drink… and it’s this consistency that allows them to identify their safe adults, begin to predict outcomes and start to take risks and build resilience. The child who is chaotic, is chaotic precisely because they learned the opposite of this – their needs won’t be met without fail so their survival mode kicks in.
When we talk about risk in this context, we’re talking age-appropriate risk – the three-year-old who wants to touch the hot thing; the five-year-old who’s exploring their place in friendship groups in school for the first time – usual, expected progressions; rites of passage almost. The chaotic child might appear to mirror the behaviour of their peers but often, they have no idea about the ‘risk’ they’re taking on. Children who are chaotic never feel safe enough to take measured risks and although their behaviour often LOOKS like it, they’re not risk-taking, they’re at risk.
Let’s go back to the hot thing and the three-year-old… We ALL know how this plays out, don’t we?! We say don’t touch the hot thing, the three-year-old grins at us and moves a bit closer to the hot thing. We say again, don’t touch the hot thing, you’ll get hurt; the three-year-old touches the hot thing anyway, hurts themselves and then looks at us as though it was our fault! Now, a safe and secure three-year-old will remember that experience, remember that their adult had tried to keep them safe and, although they may want to touch the hot thing again, they probably won’t.
That’s not to say they won’t want to test this new boundary by touching ALL THE OTHER HOT THINGS! But fundamentally, they learn.
The chaotic child appears not to learn. They’ll go back time after time and keep touching the thing because even though they remember that it hurts, they also remember that it gets attention, and the chaotic child has learned that any attention is good attention – they can’t tell the difference.
This cycle also makes them learn that ‘attention’ comes in the form of admonishment or panic or anger… They’ll appear to up the ante if they don’t achieve their desired outcome which, we should remember, is going to be the polar opposite of the adult’s desired outcome. The child wants attention; the child understands ‘attention’ as usually negative; the child will keep going until they get whatever it is they identify as ‘attention’. By then, they’re out of control and have little left to lose. By contrast, the adult usually wants the child to stop doing something and will try everything in their power NOT to lose their temper and shout.
How can we help?
Parenting is an inherited skill. We mostly parent our children either exactly as our parents did us because we believe they did a pretty good job, or we parent our children in the exact opposite way as our parents did because we believe they didn’t do a good job. As always, the best ground is the middle ground. We should be mindful too that despite our best efforts, we all return to a place of safety when we’re stressed – for parents, that’s inevitably the moment we hear ourselves turning into our own mothers or fathers and saying out loud things we SWORE we’d never say to our own kids!
It’s really important for parents to be aware of the quality of parenting they received as it can’t not have an impact on the quality of parenting they deliver. Thinking about the strength and nature of the relationships between one’s own parents and grandparents can give us huge insight into where there might be ‘deficits’ in our own parenting, and why… If our parents didn’t do something particularly well – maybe they weren’t very tactile or easy to talk to – it follows that we might have to work harder on that thing for our own children – our MODEL for it was flawed.
There are so many good reasons for this – changing times being at the top of the list! The whole, “It never did me any harm” parenting approach is proving now to be potentially incredibly harmful because we’re now dealing with a generation of adults for whom it absolutely DID do harm.
Understanding where those gaps are – especially those that are to do with generational differences – can be key to helping make sure your child isn’t chaotic.
None of this is about blaming or being angry with our own parents, it’s about acknowledging that things change and as we learn different, we do better.
For some families it really isn’t that simple at all. Mental Health struggles, substance use, Domestic Abuse, child abuse; the list goes on – all affect someone’s ability to parent too.
If a child doesn’t receive support to un-learn their fight / flight instincts, they simply won’t un-learn their fight / flight instincts…. They WILL go on to be labelled. A lot. They’ll be labelled as challenging, disruptive, disobedient, aggressive, difficult, unmanageable, defiant, angry, or violent at best; at worst, they’ll be medicalised – ADHD, ADD, ODD, ASD, IED… pick your favourite acronym!
The good news is that if there’s just garden-variety chaos to deal with – no ‘complex’ factors like significant mental health or substance use, it’s often a quick and easy job to make the child feel safe and ease their chaotic mindset. Remember at the beginning we talked about the morning after the night before…? Most of us put a boundary around our drinking the next time we went out, didn’t we? We contained the potential for chaos by adding a boundary…
Children LIKE boundaries and predictability – they like to know when enough’s enough and they like to be able to predict the responses to their actions. If their world is ‘in control’ because it has clear expectations and boundaries, they can’t easily feel ‘out of control’, can they…? That’s not to say that they’ll never push those boundaries – believe me, they will! But it’s age-appropriate risk-taking then, isn’t it? They’re certainly not ‘at risk’ because they, and you, can predict the outcome. If the child chooses to do it anyway, well, that’s kids for you! (Try to remember they usually only play up for those they trust… those who are safe; so it’s a compliment – honest!)
The idea of a chaotic child is rarely considered – it’s the elephant in the room, remember? Ask yourself – whether you’re a parent or professional – is this child’s world settled? Settling their world is MUCH more helpful than labelling them for life…
Chaotic adults CAN NEVER regulate (settle) chaotic children. A chaotic adult parenting a chaotic child in a chaotic environment is never going to end with calm.
You can’t build skyscrapers on sand – look at the basics and be sure that they’re in place and reliable. If they’re not, start there – put in a bedtime, a mealtime, a routine for before and after school, say “no” occasionally…
Remember that chaotic children don’t know they’re chaotic – for them this is ‘normal’ so there may be a lot of un-learning to do
Be aware of what you’re bringing to the party as the adult – if you haven’t healed it, they’ll inherit it so, if you want different or better for your kids, start by looking at yourself. Think about how to address / resolve your own generational differences / trauma so they can have a childhood they don’t have to recover from.
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