Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When children hurt themselves

In the Summer 2008 issue of BLOOM we ran an article by educator and social worker Felicia Jervis about compassionate approaches to children with autism and other developmental disabilities who self-injure.

This summer we printed a response from Dr. Louise LaRose, a behaviour analyst, who presented a behavioural approach to reducing self-harming behaviour.

We know child self-injury is a painful challenge for many parents, and want to share two more letters we received. Following are excerpts.

Join the discussion by posting a comment below.

Thanks! Louise

Social devaluation at root of self-injury
My experience over 38 years supports what Felicia has to say in the work I have done with both children and adults with disabilities, not to mention with psychiatrists and clinicians in general as well.

"There is a lot of good research to show that children will continue to self-injure when something positive follows the behaviour," writes Dr. LaRose.

There may be research showing this, but I would need to look at it and see what the context was...know what understanding existed about the “reasons” for the behaviour. Children with disabilities often experience profound rejection early in life for example, become deeply wounded by how others see and thus treat them, often in negative role stereotypes.

The “reasons” are therefore not always obvious or knowable unless one sees the larger issue of societal devaluation (Social Role Valorization). If this greater understanding is not part of the picture, then sure, giving someone a candy bar just to stop them from hitting themselves would probably not be wise. But I do not think that this is what Felicia is suggesting.

Have you read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn? Rewards are just the opposite side of the coin from punishment, but fundamentally the same coin. Unconditional Parenting is another book by him, highly recommended.

Dave Yeiter
Director of Quality Enhancement and Training
Gentle Teaching Coordinator
Monadnock Developmental Services, Keene, New Hampshire

‘Greater problems arise when we choose not to validate an individual’s needs’

I work as an educational assistant for a public school board and I am always asked to assist with the “crème de la crème” of behaviour students. Why? Well, I would venture to stroke my ego and say I get results. The question is what kind of results are they? Are they results that will benefit the child or destroy the child even further?

I personally have found that many children with questionable characters are the ones who have carried into school the “luggage” that follows them around in their home lives. They are, in fact, starving for attention of any sort, whether negative or positive and respond rapidly to both. Why are aggressive children so starving for attention? Well, I would venture to say because of their lack of it. My observation also and I am sure all would agree here is that these children are extremely sensitive (if one is able enough to remove the sheep’s clothing). I say this to all teachers at the school I am employed, and so “what is wrong with a hug, a chocolate treat to soothe the taste buds, a warm drink to calm the palate?” Perhaps they are so desperate for it, thus soaking it up like a sponge.

I guarantee that when we as adults are feeling “out of control” (and we all do) that a warm cup of tea, a sweet, a hug from a caring individual does not teach us that feeling out of control is the way to be, but that it is OK to feel this way. Greater problems arise when we as human beings choose not to validate an individual’s needs, wants and desires, instead we become afraid, of what – the results of showing affection to another in their deepest time of need? Why? Because we think that every time they cut or bite themselves when we hug them or offer them food we are telling them to continue this self-injurious behaviour and you will always get a hug or receive comfort through food? Highly unlikely! I say, SO WHAT?

Observe them, catch them prior to self injury, hug them then, snack with them then, teach them at this time the reciprocity that can come from caring for someone – if they need this at this particular time in their life, guess what – it is probably for a damn good reason! It will not harm them but teach them the value of virtues which should be spread from human being to human being!

So I say – next time you as an adult are feeling low, lonely, sad, angry, and you feel like anxiously biting your nails or perhaps think of entering into an adult type of “self injurious behaviour” (commonly known as smoking or alcohol or other?) I hope your friends hug you or offer you a warm cup of tea with a fresh baked chocolate chip cookie warm out of the oven instead of saying “no” to you directly and re-teaching you how to direct your anger!

Caroline Carrington
Educational Assistant