Everything happens for a reason.
That’s the phrase commonly used to explain away undesirable events—things that happen or don’t happen that conflict with our image of how life is “supposed to be.” We use that phrase to pacify ourselves, to remind us that current situations are not permanent, and that persistence will ultimately benefit us.
So, what would happen if we took that mentality and applied it to a person’s behavior? Specifically, a child’s behavior? What about our own reactions would be different if we viewed the behavior of children through the lens of necessity or perseverance?
Children who have been displaced or who have experienced other types of trauma often display behaviors that appear to be random. A frequent concern of caregivers is that children will do things “for no reason”; they believe that the responses of these children to the various situations are overly exaggerated. And, honestly, it can be hard to imagine how asking someone to do a simple task can be justification for an aggressive outburst.
But while those types of behaviors are confusing and frustrating, what they lack in the moment is context. Children who have lived primarily in chaotic and perhaps even abusive environments have learned to suspect the motives of others and to rely almost entirely on themselves. They have learned at a young age that others are not to be trusted. Some have even learned that they risk harm to themselves with every interaction. It is, therefore, impossible to know how those same children will respond to situations in a seemingly safe, structured environment.
It can be difficult define the underlying cause of disruptive or defiant behaviors particularly because there is seldom a single comprehensive answer. Behaviors can be triggered by smells, images, sounds, words, movements, virtually anything—and these triggers all have the ability to return that child to the same emotional state that they were in before being moved. And in those moments, that child’s only goal is survival.
In those moments, children are angry and scared. They don’t know what’s coming next. They don’t know that they can trust their caregivers. They don’t know that they will be given food. They don’t know that they won’t be hurt. They only know that they are in danger. The fact that they are in a safe environment or that the person in front of them has never done anything to them makes no difference; they’re responses and behaviors in that situation are based on the events that happened previously and they are desperate to gain some sense of control over themselves and what they believe is coming next.
It’s not easy dealing with these behaviors. Caregivers are often frustrated by the defiance and the outbursts. But when viewed through the lens of context, it becomes easier to offer grace and compassion. Because what these children need in order to address these underlying issues is to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are safe. They need to know that they have control over themselves and that they can make decisions that will impact their future and they can do it on purpose.