Why Children Are Not Like Tornadoes

Why Children Are Not Like Tornadoes

We measure hurricane intensity in categories, tornadoes on the F-scale, and earthquakes on the Richter scale. It makes sense to measure weather events by their capacity for destructive behavior, but when we see our child acting out as a category 5, it’s easy to ask the wrong questions.

About a year ago, I began working with a family of a young woman whose behavior escalated to the point where she would rampage through the house breaking dishes and other fragile items. It got so out of control that she chased her father with a hammer. Feeling desperate, the parents approached a highly reputable psychiatrist. His suggestion was to implement 24/7 monitoring of their child – the psychological equivalent of a prison guard. There weren’t many nannies willing to watch a hammer-wielding child, so the family realized they needed a seriously different approach. They called us and I tried to explain it to them like this.

Remember our disaster examples above. With hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes we try to anticipate the potential future disaster and then tend to manage the consequences. Can we do that with our family members? How can we earthquake-proof our family? Can we build a levee around our children?

What if instead of a natural disaster, we are trying to manage the behavior of a new puppy? If that young puppy destroys a stuffed chair, the natural urge is to shame and yell and punish the puppy. It’s hard to see the puppy behaving as he is – young and rambunctious, exercising teeth and paws. All that pent-up puppy energy is expressed in ways you don’t like.

Imagine you come home and play with the puppy after work. You play tug of war with a rope toy. Or better, a circle of kids come over during the day and play with the puppy non-stop, tossing the ball as the puppy runs across the yard. Whether it’s goring a stuffed chair, gnawing the rope toy, or chasing the ball, the puppy is being himself – all that energy has to go somewhere, because he is a puppy.

Parents often ask, “What can you do to help my kid?” and I recommend they ponder these “real questions”: What can YOU do as director of the team to help your kid? What kind of circle of support can you create around your child? Instead of a circle of playmates with a ball, you will be creating a circle of parents, family members, behavior analysts, therapists, caregivers, and educators.

The family of the young woman embraced this collaborative approach and were able to stabilize her behavior across settings. Instead of reacting to five-alarm fires and F5 tornadoes, the family was able to make their interactions more positive. Children seek positive reinforcement from their environment. They seek safety, connection, and love. This brings the temperature down and allows them to settle into a comfort zone.

When families feel stressed and overwhelmed, it’s hard to know where to put water on the fire. Constructive strategies from books and professionals seem daunting and challenging to do every day. Here’s the good news: IT GETS EASIER.

Over time, as you add structure to your family environment and learn to follow it consistently, suddenly what used to be hard work becomes more normal. Remember trying to tie your own shoes in kindergarten.  “How am I going to do this?” you fretted. “Something about bunny ears going down the hole and crossing the tree – or crossing then the hole!” You learned to tie shoes – and that learning continues as a parent. IT GETS EASIER!


About the Author: Dr. Maria Gilmour, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst at the doctoral level and a Licensed Behavior Analyst working in Oregon and Washington. Dr. Gilmour has 21 years of experience working in the field of autism, behavior disorders, traumatic brain injury, and ABA. She became the Chief Clinical Officer of Gemiini Systems in 2015 and is the owner and Chief Executive Officer of Wynne Solutions Behavior Services.