It’s only human to think the worst of bad behaviour, but that often means we miss what’s really going on. As a therapist who’s been helping kids for decades, I’ve seen my share of troubling tics and habits that people call ‘bad’. Luckily I have a secret ally in figuring out a habit’s true purpose: a small doll called Ollie.
Annabelle, Princess of Thieves
Expelled from one school after another, transferred from foster home to foster home, Annabelle was becoming her own worst enemy. She stole from her foster families, played the class clown and spent most of her time in detention. But was this young girl really just a bored thief? Or was she more like Robin Hood, acting out for a higher purpose?
When Annabelle first arrived in my office, she had absolutely no interest in talking to me. And why should she? She probably thought I was just another in a long line of therapists who would tell her to “stop it”. But she was wrong.
“I appreciate you don’t really want to be here,” I began. “So why don’t you amuse yourself for the hour while I get on with some work?”
Before Annabelle could respond, I’d turned my back on her and picked up Ollie, a small, fuzzy-haired doll.
“Well, Ollie, I don’t believe that you actually like getting into so much trouble, so I guess your little bodyguard superpower has a good reason for it. Can I talk to him please?”
Ollie nodded, so I gently pulled his superpower out through his tummy and cupped it in my hand. From the corner of my eye, I could see Annabelle was watching us.
“Hello there, little bodyguard. This is interesting, because the little girl sat behind me is with a foster family too so you have a lot in common. Now tell me, either you hate school and hate your foster family… No, that can’t be right because you’re the bodyguard – you protect Ollie. So let me see… How is this behaviour helping you protect Ollie?”
Still not acknowledging Annabelle, I rubbed my chin and came up with some suggestions:
“Do you steal to make your foster family hate you? No… that can’t be right because you then do everything you can to get their attention.
“Do you misbehave to make friends at school? No… that just leads to being expelled and not seeing them again. Hmmmm… I think you might finally have me beaten. I just can’t figure out why you’re doing these things.”
A crestfallen look came over me as I sank into my chair, clearly very sad. But after a few minutes of silence, the answer reared its head.
Timidly, Annabelle spoke up: “Maybe it’s not because he wants attention”.
“Really?” I asked in disbelief without turning around. “No… I don’t understand that… surely it’s about getting attention.”
“Maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to be hungry,” Annabelle continued.
“But his foster family are lovely. They take care of him so that can’t be it.”
“Maybe he’s scared that they won’t feed him or his little sister and…” Annabelle burst into tears, but she’d already told me everything I needed to know.
All behaviour serves a purpose
According to her care record, Annabelle and her sister had been victims of abusive family life. Their parents would lock them in their room without anything to eat for days at a time. To get food, they’d learned to clown around like circus animals to amuse their parents and their friends. Only then would they be thrown scraps as a reward.
When it came to acting out in the classroom, Annabelle had been turning to a previously life-saving behaviour. Classmates would dare her to shout or be foolish in return for the promise of sweets. And when it came to stealing from foster parents, this was her way of stashing food and money for a rainy day.
To solve the problem, I worked with her lovely foster mum to get Annabelle through the abuse she’d suffered. We got a box for her bedroom and filled it with emergency food, and started to rebuild her trust.
There are no ‘bad’ kids. When they act in a questionable manner it’s usually to make themselves feel safe and secure. And I’m pleased to report that Annabelle has settled down and feels much more at home. Better still, she may even have found the family she stays with forever.