He Could Do It If He Wanted…Why Kids Struggle, Sometimes

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One thing that really irritates me is that so many people say things like, “He’s just not trying hard enough! I know he can do this if he wants to!  He did just fine yesterday, why is he choosing to act like this today?”, when referring to kids with “undesired behaviors”. When talking to some parents, teachers, administrators, etc, I find that many of them are under the impression that if a kid doesn’t struggle one day, then the same situation should never be a problem.  I cannot understand this way of thinking.  Do they never have bad days? Do they always get upset over the exact same thing?  Aren’t there days or situations that they handle well but in the same situation another day, not so well?  I know I do not always react the exact same way to the same situation.

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If I have not slept well, if I am hungry, or if I have already had to deal with something stressful, I may snap at someone (usually my kids or husband) for something as simple as interrupting me while I’m reading or trying to go to the bathroom by myself.  If I am well rested, not hungry, and in a good mood I am much more tolerant of others.  Even if someone cuts me off in traffic or is blatantly rude to me, I have the ability to be gracious and kind and perhaps remind myself that maybe they are having a bad day.  Why do so many people forget that kids are humans and have stuff to deal with as well?

Many kids with mental health issues are expected to “behave” even better than their “typical” peers. If a “typical” kid has a bad day it is often overlooked because usually, they do not cause issues, but if a kid with a reputation for “problems” does or says something wrong, they are put under a microscope, analyzed and often punished.  If a kid with a mental health diagnosis or IEP (Individual Education Plan), has an issue with a kid without these, the child with the IEP is often punished more often or more harshly than the other child.  According to the U.S. Dept of Education, there is a significant gap in punishment for children with IEP’s than without. Click Here to see an interactive map.

When I try to explain why kids struggle with things one day but not another, I use a few analogies.  Think of everyone you know as a pressure cooker. Some people have a regulator valve to let off some steam gradually as it builds, so there is never a big build up with an explosion.  Other people do not have a regulator valve, all the steam the have inside builds up until it cannot hold anymore and then BAM!! EXPLOSION!!  One day the explosion may come from someone bumping into the child, another day it may be a pencil breaking during a test. It’s not the stimulus that matters, but the fact that things have been building up all day long.  Some kids wake up almost ready to blow, others take longer to build up.  Some kids and caregivers have found ways to help let off some steam throughout the day.  Since some days there is not as much steam so these things seem to work better one day than another.  There may even be a longer period of time that the activities or tools don’t seem to work.  This is a great time to talk to the child to see if they have any suggestions or are able to explain what is going on.

Another way to think about it is this.  Think about a professional basketball player and free throw shots.  It’s safe to say that each free throw shot is from the same distance from the basket, the basket is the same height from the floor and the backboard is the same size.  So if you follow the way of thinking that some adults have for kids, if the player can make a free throw once he/she should be able to do it every time.  If you have ever watched basketball you will know that there is not a player to have made 100% of free throw shots during their career. Even the best players have around 90%. Why do they miss?  Could it be stress? Could it be that the ball just slipped a bit?  Maybe even things beyond their control, such as the temperature of the arena affecting the air pressure in the ball.  Basically, there are factors involved that affect performance.  Just like any other human, kids have good days and bad.  Sometimes they have bad weeks or years.  We need to be more gracious and compassionate.  Talk to the child! Help them figure out what adds to their steam level.  Often the adults involved are not great at guessing the issues.  Sometimes there are things that we cannot change or control, but sometimes by changing the things we can, we have eliminated a few things that add to the problem so then the child is able to tolerate the things that we cannot change.

Please, remember when working with or caring for kids that struggle, they do not want to cause problems.  They really do feel very bad about causing trouble for others.  They often do not feel safe enough to be vulnerable and apologize.  They often feel that any sign of guilt or accepting of blame is weak and make others think less of them.  Please be kind, be gracious.  They are dealing with much more than most of us, even on our worst days.


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