Friday, January 20, 2017

Rewarding Bad Behavior

Written by  Rev. Kelly Crenshaw

Our son Michael has had a rough life. He weighed a little over three pounds when he was born. We were never told why, but it’s not a big leap to assume that he was premature. His parents either didn’t know how to take care of their children, or were too high to care. Social workers found him wandering the streets with a little brother when they were pre-schoolers. Michael was only three years old at the time. His brother was 10 months younger. They ended up in foster care.

I’m told they were like feral children, at first. They had little language, growling and grunting to get their points made. They didn’t learn as quickly as other children their age, and, at first, it was assumed that this was due to the language deficits. However, as the boys grew up, it was discovered that Michael has significant limitations when it comes to intellect.

They were shuffled from foster home to foster home. Eventually, they were separated. Michael needed so much more care and attention. He can be violent and has thrown large pieces of furniture at people that he felt were being unfair to him. He bites himself, tearing the flesh from his arms and shoulders. He bangs his head when frustrated, doing significant damage. He rarely attacks other people, but has been known to injure others as they try to control his rages.

When he was in a residential treatment center (RTC), we recognized that he used his rages to get attention. This is a common thing with both children and adults. Basically, they think, “If you won’t pay attention to all the good things I’m doing, then I will do bad things to get you to notice me.” And, they do. Michael would run-away or throw violent temper tantrums and the staff would respond appropriately. They would restrain him.

Michael viewed it as a hug. He was a pretty dirty kid. He didn’t like to wipe his nose or bathe regularly. As he got older, he would eat his deodorant to avoid using it where it was supposed to be used. People didn’t really like to touch him. But, when he misbehaved, they did. And, although he didn’t realize it, he enjoyed those hugs. Each time his behavior would start to improve, he would be sent to live with a regular foster family. And, every time, his behavior would start to get worse. Foster parents were afraid of him. They didn’t want to hug him. So, he would get sent to another facility.

We first met him when he was about eight years old. He was sent to live with us for a short period of time while his social worker accumulated the pile of paperwork he needed to be admitted to the residential psychiatric facility where he was to live. It seemed like it was delay after delay. I ended up calling in favors from doctors and dentists to get his evaluations completed in a timely manner. Finally, one day, his bed was ready and he left our home to live in a place where the psychiatric and psychological treatment was available 24 hours a day.

He did well there, at first. They rewarded his bad behavior with the hugs he so badly wanted. Many of the others there were as difficult as he was, so he didn’t feel out of place. When he got, mad and ran away, the chased him. When he accused care givers of abuse, they moved him to a different unit. They encouraged his belief that he could grow up to be an FBI agent and even made him a special FBI badge. When he tore up his clothes or destroyed his furniture, it was replaced without issue. He said he hated it there, but anyone could see that he enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the staff did not enjoy having him there. He was difficult. He was expensive to maintain. He accused everyone of abuse, just to get his way.

We maintained contact with him while he was there. I served as his parent surrogate with the public-school system. He visited our home for weekends and holidays. We were the only family he had.

So, when the RTC said Michael was more than they were willing to handle, he came back to us. Nobody else wanted to deal with his problems. And, although the problems are better, they didn’t go away. He still rages and runs away. After he injures himself, he accuses others of abusing him. He isn’t smart enough to realize that people can see through his stories, so he keeps on telling them. And, he doesn’t realize that each time he tells his lies, people are hurt by them.

He’s 21 now. He has an IQ of about 65. He still sees himself as a little kid, although he thinks he’s mature. His psychological diagnoses are many and he takes a number of psychotropic drugs in order to maintain a moderate sense of calm. But, do you know what the biggest problem is? His biggest problem is that he never really overcame that desire to be rewarded for bad behavior. It’s better, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still there.

Make sure you are noticing your kids for the right reasons. Praise them for their accomplishments. Give hugs – just because. And, even if your child is going through a crazy stage of misbehavior, be careful to balance your response or it will become all about the bad with nothing about the good. And, everyone is good at least once in a while.

Rev. Kelly Crenshaw is the mom of 16 adopted kids, two biological kids, guardian of one baby girl and foster mom of dozens. Some are lesbian, some gay, some straight, and some bisexual. Kelly founded a K-12 day school where kids could have a safe, bully-free environment for learning. She is co-owner of a counselling agency that works with children and their families. Send your parenting questions to her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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