Monday, October 22, 2012

Poorly Behaved: A Context Spectrum

“Z, please come downstairs,” I called from the kitchen.

Since I was cooking dinner and not really paying attention, it took a few minutes to realize my daughter hadn’t shown up. Sharing in kitchen chores is something Z really enjoys, an opportunity for us to have plain old fun together, so I tried again.

“Z,” I repeated, perhaps the tiniest smidge more emphatically, “Please come downstairs.”

She came to stand near me as I bustled about.

“Sorry Mama,” she informed me, “I didn’t hear you the first time.”


“Well, if you didn’t hear me, “ I sputtered, “How would you have known I called you the first time, then?”

Blank look.

“Oh, never mind!”

“Normal?” Perhaps. (Although not in the autism area of our Full Spectrum.) In the context of the rest of that day’s events, this exchange emerges as one of many instances of survival-motivated behaviors that add up to an overall tendency toward evasiveness and, therefore, at least in our case, dishonesty.

How does one raise a child inclined to subterfuge? On even the most minor points, Z tends toward confabulation. That is, her disorder (for confabulation implies an illness, often dementia) inclines her toward making up whatever answer is most suitable to her needs. 

We have made some real progress with tantrums since the early days (see, for example, but the more subtle matters of day-to-day integrity are an ongoing trial.

I was recently talking with my mother about why I haven’t really explored the online world of attachment disorders in the same way that I have those of autism and aspergers syndrome. I told her I thought it was because most autism sites seem to celebrate people’s differences while I feared attachment disorder sites would just make me scared or sad. I knew that they might make me feel less alone in our struggles, but I suspected hearing about other people being as hopeless and desperate as I have sometimes been would be depressing.

When I googled “attachment disorders,” the first site I ended up on was:

I had landed on a link to a letter on a parenting site, from a mother of a child with an attachment disorder to her new neighbors. Her daughter was quickly forming intense friendships with people in her new neighborhood and this Mama was concerned about the healthy development of those relationships.

I know how she felt having to write that letter. When you have a child with an attachment disorder, sometimes you feel like you need to write similar letters, over and over, even to some of the closest people around you.

A Context Spectrum comes to mind: yes, I understand that sometimes {insert behavior} is “normal” (and, hey, maybe you are trying to make us feel better – thanks!) but in a context of {behavior}, {behavior}, and {behavior}, it is NOT normal. And to ignore it will NOT help, in fact it will almost certainly make things worse.  So please, dear {recipient of letter}, understand that we need to handle this in a way that might seem overly strict to you, but, beloved {recipient of letter}, trust me that you do Not know best in this context.

This letter-writing Mama’s daughter is, like Z, incredibly charming and engaging, and her mother is worried – for good reason – that her daughter’s interactions with neighbors may spiral out of balance in any number of ways.

Her letter most definitely touched a nerve.

I didn’t go to any other attachment disorder sites that day.

I had a vague idea about attachment disorders but assumed since I brought Z home under the age of one she would be unaffected by this illness.

The fact that I was unable to put Z down for a year or so (according to those with intact memories of this period [not including me]) without causing an unremitting stream of bloodcurdling screams to emit from her tiny mouth might have indicated that something unusual was going on. I attributed her neediness to her exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, as well as to her temperament, about which our guides in China had warned us. I can still remember “Rose,” standing at the front of our bus with a microphone, announcing with a big grin, “Since they are from Jiangxi Province, your daughters are gonna be Spicy!”

The contrast between the plump, smiling, radiant six-month old baby in the referral picture I received and the scrawny, closed-faced child of nine months and three weeks that I met was stark. What happened in those three months? Was it something specific, like hunger or abuse? Or was it just that my incredibly perceptive girl had noticed that something was missing? 

I thought that once I brought her home and fattened her up a bit that jolly baby Z would re-emerge unscathed. It hasn’t been that simple. Loving my vibrant, wonderful yet troubled daughter has not been enough to heal her – yet; and we have searched at length for therapeutic modes of discipline that will actually work.

When I first brought home my “first and best-behaved child,” Pancha, who happened to be a dog (Figure I), I resolved to never say “bad dog!” “Bad dog” just sounded so mean. Love the sinner, hate the sin! I decided, instead, to call her “poorly behaved” if she did something “bad.”

       Figure I -- The beautiful Pancha,* a.k.a. Sri Sri Sri Panchananda-ji, Gabooboogee, The Punk

Pancha joined my household when I was in the early years of graduate school and was living on a fellowship that only barely paid the bills. Every once in awhile – as in, every year or so -- I would buy something new to wear; slightly more often I’d indulge in second-hand clothes from the 96th Street Salvation Army.

When Pancha was still a puppy, I purchased a precious, precious new pair of shoes. She promptly chewed them to pieces. I was devastated and determined to prevent such an event ever recurring. I put her on her back to show her who was boss and scolded her with a mighty wrath. She trembled, cowering and groveling in guilt and remorse. Except – as she cowered and groveled in guilt and remorse, she reached out with one paw and – dink, dink – played with a toy.

My daughter reminds me a lot of Pancha: brilliant, beautiful, vivacious, punk, very lovable, very hungry – and with a bifurcated mind. One part focused on pleasing Mama, the other (larger) on getting what she wants…Conscience? “Is still acquiring this skill,” as they say on Vermont report cards. My beautiful dog and my beautiful daughter: both quite good at aping respect; underneath that surface layer, both convinced that they should take control. It was cute in a small dog, in a small person it is sometimes disturbing.

Z doesn’t even do the fake remorse, groveling or cowering. If Z is found out in a lie or poorly behaved activity she is, not to put too fine a point on it, pissed. She has to be reminded, often firmly obliged, to say she is sorry.  The jury is still out on whether forced apology works on any non-superficial level or is an acceptable parenting tool, beyond the most simple and public of social situations (i.e., “Please apologize to that other child for cutting in line”). 

A wise aunt once told me, “Be careful that you don’t scold your child in a way that makes her begin to have a picture of herself as ‘the bad one.” I’ve tried to combine that with the notion of “poorly behaved” to manage Z’s disordered actions as actions per se -- and not character flaws. As I mentioned, we’ve made major progress with tantrums. We are down from multiples every day to an average of one or two real humdingers a week!

But Z’s general approach to life seems still to be one of pragmatic get-what-I-want-with-a-minimum-of-obstacles-ism. Despite my never using this word with her, when I ask Z why she did a given “bad” thing she will answer me with a shrug, “Because I am bad.”

                              Figure II -- Self Portrait by Z, casually left on the drawing table

During a Harry Potter camp last summer, the kids brought home stuffed owls and kept them in their windows. A mysterious “someone” would send notes every night (for a very long time, every night, until, indeed, the owls got very “tired” and “retired” to chairs and beds!). Over and over again Z received notes that affirmed her essential, innate goodness, in words she could understand: “Let your good heart shine,” “ You are so kind inside – don’t be afraid to let your kindness out!” and so on.

        Figure III – Drawing under the drawing in Figure II: slightly comforting in the drawing 
                           context spectrum, assuming she is the one with the wings...

Around this fall equinox I had a talk with G and Z about what the equinox represents -- the equal day and night hours, the meaning of equanimity, finding balance…

I shared that I felt like my teaching work had taken over all my writing and yoga practice time (please see and that I felt out of balance for that reason. I asked them if there was anything in their lives that needed to be in better balance.

G replied that he felt that his life was in a good balance.

Then Z announced, “I‘m too bad. I’m going to stop being bad, just like I stopped biting my nails.”  (Her quitting a serious nail-biting habit is an example I always use for her to remind her of her strong will power.)

“Oh, Z, you are not bad,” I reassured her, “Sometimes you may do a thing that seems bad but that’s just because you are hurting inside.”

This is, after all, how I explain unkindness, cruelty, lashing out and general chumpitude to myself and to my son, on his spot on the Full Spectrum. I prefer this explanation to one of selfishness, and in Z’s case I believe it holds true.  It is my failure as her Mama that all my linguistic somersaults have not prevented my daughter from thinking she is “bad.”

Nor have my modes of discipline made much progress: Did Z stop being poorly behaved? Not quite yet.

Is not the fact that we both get to keep trying not one of the neatest things about life?

The sometimes poorly behaved but never bad,
Full Spectrum Mama

* Some haters may quibble with the word “beautiful” being used to describe my stunningly lovely dog. I have nothing to say to them.


  1. OM, this is SO timely. Little E, now a couple months past 4, has started lying like crazy. It's out of control, and I'm baffled as to what to do about it.

    Last spring, there was a little bit of "stretching the truth" and Papa D used to say he was lying, which really pushed my buttons. Have I written about that here before? I felt that lying was a "bad" thing and too harsh a word for a preschooler, whose grasp of reality probably isn't that strong.

    But now it's over the top. He's smarter now, better with language - and possibly more aware of the discrepancy between what he's saying and the reality.

    In fact, one of the things he asks us a lot is "In real life?" when he doesn't know if we're telling the truth.

    Sometimes, if we call him on an untruth, he'll saying "Just teasing." That's a clue! Because I think Papa D says that a lot. He likes sarcastic, teasing talk - which is not always strictly true. So (step 1) ask Dad to rein in the sarcasm.

    What I'm trying is two-fold:

    First - to just ask him to "please tell the truth." I used this technique to encourage nice asking. I have simply said 10, 428 times "Can you ask nicely?" over the last year, and honestly he does a pretty good job on this now. Sometimes his needs come out more as demands, but he knows is he wants something to ask nicely, and I observe him asking nicely without thinking about it (the goal). The problem with this approach: with asking nicely, he wanted something, he had a motivation to comply with my request. With telling the truth, I'm not seeing as clear a motivator for him. Maybe if I "ignore" him when he doesn't tell the truth?

    Second - I don't really want to quash this altogether. A lot of "lies" are actually coming from stories he sees or reads. So I've been trying to encourage him to acknowledge when something is a "story" or his "imagination" - then once he does that, we play along. I've said he can say "Let's pretend..." then tell any story he wants. This seems like a more positive approach to me, and I hope it will help.

    But there's something about the lying that is like a kick in the gut. It makes me want to go all old-school, wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap about it.

    I guess I should (step 2) read up on some of the child development information on why he would be doing this at this stage, what it's really about, what the underlying need is.

    Also, I know that there's a chapter in Nurtureshock about lying, so (step 3) I can go over to the library and pick that book up. I can also (step 4) read what the moms at AskMoxie wrote about lying - - that's always a good survey of a wide spectrum of parents.

    Sorry I've just vented and don't have anything helpful to say about your situation - what could I say?

    Oh, I guess I can speak to the false apology. (I think I've written this to you here before.) I'm a HUGE believer in this. As a child, I wasn't really asked to do this, until I was about 10, then I was completely horrified by it. However, as an adult, I've really come to believe that it's a very important thing to repair the relationship, even if the remorse isn't there yet. It's a small thing, it makes a big difference, so I've been teaching E about it since he was a (big, aggressive) baby. It's one of the first signs he learned.

    That's all for now!

    1. Thank you, darling, for the generous comment.
      There's so much to take in and I will get to that in a second, but I have a question: do you ever wonder if E's lying in any way relates to his having been adopted, as it does with Z? I sometimes think there could be a sort of fundamental questioning that comes with that process (as different as it is with every family) from some of the HIGHLY intelligent, HIGHLY sensitive ones who've been through it.
      "Please, tell the truth," is a phrase that seems to work well with Z after she has had a moment to think about the situation. Because I want her to trust me and feel that I know what is going on (haha) I only use this when it is very clear that "the truth" involves her actions, as in when there are a bunch of her hairs stuck on an oily, now empty bottle of massage oil.
      I love that you are respectful of E's imagination and storytelling and that sounds like a great way to handle it.
      Papa D's sarcasm is something that a smart kid like E will "get" pretty early on -- it's using that in non-overly-teasing ways that I think is trickier.
      Finally, nice to get some feedback on those "fake" apologies. "Doing a repair" is something our therapist shared with us and -- like those hugs you once mentioned -- is something that doesn't have to be perfect to show intention.

    2. At this point, E seems to be demonstrating totally standard kid behavior, not outside the norm. I may be completely deluded, but whatever adoption issues he has seem to be so deeply seated as to be beyond linguistic expression.

    3. I was just curious because, you know, I tend to see things through this particular lens and need always to remember that every family is formed in different ways (not a single other child in the entire group I travelled to China with has an attachment disorder - and they all came home much older than Z!) and has different challenges...Nonetheless, one of the main reasons I started writing this here blog was to hear how other parents are coping with similar stuff. Lying, I imagine, is a big one for many parents! Love

  2. The one part of your post that I didn't respond to, but nags at me is her self-perception as bad. It breaks my heart, I hate for any child to suffer that belief. I think children are just cognitively incapable of understanding shades of grey, it's so universal for children to leap to the notion that they are bad. I wish I knew how to prevent it, I do everything I can to shower my little one with so much love, I talk to him every night about how loveable he is - and all the reasons why. I wish that would inoculate him against this dark side of "magical thinking." I told you how I made a big deal when he first learned about "bad choices" to tell him specifically that "we love him even when he makes bad choices" and that helped.

    Anyway, I picked up Nurtureshock and you will not believe this. Listen:

    "Children are much more disapproving of lies and liars than adults are; children are more likely to think the liar is a bad person and the lie is morally wrong."

    Can you imagine what this would do to the self-concept of an intelligent child who lies?

      Take a super smart kid like Z, who in many ways is SO into propriety (I'm still processing the awe-filled comments I got from teachers and other parents when she was "Line Leader" at school recently) and add in this sort of -- how can i put this...involuntary, almost, behavior...It's a recipe for a potentially very damaging situation. I'm going to try this line about love and "bad choices" - though I may change it to "poorly behaved" as that word, bad, seems SO ingrained in her little heart.
      THanks, dear - and love

    2. I did find the chapter in Nurtureshock to be helpful, at least for sparking thinking about this issue. So you might want to check your library for that. I still feel I need to investigate further to find my solutions.

    3. I will check that out for sure -- thanks!!

  3. Here is a comment from a beloved friend and surrogate Dad who could not post his comment and so emailed me:
    "I believe that if you use the word "bad" about something a child does she or he usually cannot distinguish between the self and the deed. In fact, many an adult cannot make this distinction. Thus they measure themselves in (conspicuous) achievements rather than in joy given or received. What to do with the misbehaving child? As a Dean and Principal I reminded of “good” behavior and saying, “That’s the real you.”"
    THanks, D! Love

  4. Several readers have wondered if they or family members might have attachment disorders despite not having been adopted. I do think people who don't present the "standard" profile can have attachment disorders due to earlier issues in parenting/nurturing for sure! There are some websites that address this.
    Someone sent me this one:
    Another thought I have shared privately is that even if an attachment disorder is not exactly what you or they have, if the treatment helps, it helps!

    But! Please remember, I am a parent, not an expert.

  5. Ahem, there are those who see similarities between my daughter and ME, as a close family member just wrote: "Sometimes the more powerless a child feels, the more desperately he or she tries to find ways to exert it. I think that was the case for you in your own childhood."
    A case of the pot and the kettle? Well, I DID argue it's all the same FULL Spectrum...


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