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Ten Ways Your Child's Behavior Is Like a TV Detective Show

Improve your investigations with tips from your favorite sleuths


Chances are, if you have a child with challenging behavior, you've felt like a detective, searching for clues and seeking hidden motivations. In fact, the process of figuring out your child's behavior isn't all that different from what TV detectives do week in and week out. Investigate these ten ways your experience is similar to theirs, and pick up some tips for being a more skillful seeker of truth.

1. The first suspect is rarely the right one.

Sneaky-Looking Child in Front of Crime Scene Tape
PraxisPhotography/Getty Images
Your favorite TV detectives usually figure out whodunnit right away -- someone with an obvious motive, a criminal record, a bad attitude. Yet that individual, blameworthy as he seems, is almost never the actual culprit (and if he is, it's for reasons that you never saw coming). Fingering the appropriate bad guy in the first fifteen minutes would make for a pretty boring show, and when is your child ever boring? Like a TV detective, you may have some quick and easy explanations for your child's misbehavior, ones signed off on by behavioral experts and the moms at the park and your mother-in-law, but your child often has something completely different up his sleeve. Operating according to the easiest explanation will only make matters worse, like booking the wrong guy and finding out from his smarmy lawyer that he has an ironclad alibi.

2. Authority figures don't have a clue.

Our maverick TV detectives are often working in opposition to the firmly held but wrongheaded convictions of their superiors, who are determined to railroad the wrong suspect or harumph at hunches. You may feel like a police officer staring down an Internal Affairs panel when you're pleading your interpretation of your child's behavior to a teacher or principal or IEP team. Keep fighting the good fight -- your child with special needs benefits from a creative combination of education and intuition. The more you learn about your child's disability and, more importantly, about your own unique and quirky kid, the better you'll be able to suss out the true motive behind problem behavior and apply appropriate discipline (or, often, apply leniency that the by-the-book types will never understand).

3. Instincts rule.

The instincts that get our detectives in so much hot water with the higher-ups also help them notice the odd detail or the conflicting piece of evidence, the suspicious reaction in the non-suspect or the righteousness of the accused. As a parent, you've got that same trained eye for your kiddo, that intuitive understanding. Let it lead you, even if you don't have a camera focusing on the key piece of evidence in a knowing close-up. Your child needs you to read all the clues -- and to follow her own instincts, which may be telling her that something's uncomfortable, something's too difficult, something's too easy, someone's being mean. Your child has no choice but to follow instincts, and knowing that can help you be more compassionate and clever in addressing confusing behavior.

4. Watch out for red herrings.

Of course, not all clues are worth following. Some of them mislead our detectives, often because someone's planted them to incriminate another. When you're investigating your child's behavior, red herrings may come in the form of another adult's spin on the situation, another child's self-protecting accusations, your own child's eagerness to end a stressful situation by accepting blame, even your own preconceived notions of whodunnit. If it feels to you like something's fishy, chances are it is. Keep an open mind even in the face of seemingly insurmountable evidence, and allow for the possibility that things may not be what they seem. Your instincts are still worth following, all evidence to the contrary.

5. There's always a twist.

You can count on it -- if the mystery seems wrapped up before the show hits the forty-five-minute mark, there's something unexpected and unforeseen yet to come, something that will throw everything deduced earlier into an all-new light. With your child, the twist may be that the explanation you've developed through your instincts and your intuition isn't what's really going on after all. Or that the strategies that have always worked in the past don't get it done this time around. Or that there's one extra piece of the puzzle that makes the picture so much clearer, and turns your guesswork into certainty. Always keep an eye out for the twist, even if you seem to have resolved the situation satisfactorily. That extra bit of information can resolve things more thoroughly at the moment, and help you prevent this particular crime from being committed again.

6. Watch out for guest stars.

Recognize the name of someone on the guest list for a particular episode? Chances are they're not there just to play the witness who's interviewed once and forgotten. If that big name isn't the main suspect from the start (in which case, he'll be vindicated), you can usually count on him being the villain after the final twist. When you're investigating your child's behavior, look out for those Very Special Guest Stars, like holiday programs at school, family gatherings, transitions into new situations, people visiting or people missing. Even if it's something fun and much anticipated, even if your child is excited about it or long looked forward to it, even if it's something you've fought for, it has the capacity to disrupt your child's routine in a way that causes behavioral bumps. It doesn't mean you have to keep to the same exact cast week in and week out; just be aware that special events require special planning and special understanding.

7. No one is above suspicion.

A great way to shake things up on a TV detective show is to make a trusted character into the bad guy. Maybe it's just a recurring character, maybe it's someone who's been featured in a story arc, maybe it's a regular who's ready to quit. We're accustomed to assuming that a good guy gone bad is being framed, but sometimes good intentions really do go wrong. So if it looks like the thing that's causing your child's behavior is a favorite teacher, a beloved paraprofessional, a longtime babysitter, even (gulp) you, be willing to compassionately check out whether something that was once entirely the right thing for your child may now be not such a great fit. Kids grow and change, to be sure, and adults sometimes change too, or react to events going on in their lives in a way that is both perfectly understandable and disruptive to your child. Ignoring the possibility doesn't help you get to the bottom of the real problem.

8. You'll need to set a trap.

TV detectives know well that the evidence isn't always enough to back up instincts and intuition. Sometimes you need to trap the guilty party into incriminating himself. Parents have tried the same thing with school misbehavior by sneaking a tape recorder into a child's backpack to capture what's going on at school, or springing a surprise visit. Nanny cams have been implemented to discover what others may be doing that's coming out as bad behavior in your special child. Many of us have wished for lunch-room cams or bus cams to do the same. Another way to think of a trap, though, is the kind of observation that comes completely above-board with a functional behavior assessment, observing your child and noting everything that happens before, during, and after problem behaviors. With a couple of weeks of observation, you can often "trap" the things that provoke your child -- the long wait in the gym after the bus drop-off, maybe, or the noise coming through a classroom window. Book 'em!

9. The bad guys want to confess.

In the end, detectives often don't have to push very hard for a confession when they finally puzzle the solution out. Often, just laying out the evidence and way they figured things out will open the floodgates to a full admission of guilt. Your child may not know why he does what he does, but if you're pretty sure you know the truth, you can provide a service by explaining it to him, with compassion and understanding. Learning how to bring some structure and order to his wild impulses and inscrutable motivations is a useful skill to your child, and may make him feel safe, even as he accepts the consequences. A big worry for parents of kids with executive-function issues is that our kids will go along with any explanation, admit any guilt, just to stop people from asking questions they don't know the answer too. The more work you can do with your child to put the proper motives in mind, the less stressed he'll feel, and better behavior may follow.

10. Not all endings are happy.

Not every suspect is a slimeball the detectives are happy to put away. Sometimes it's an individual responding to tragic events by creating more tragedy. There's no joy in finding those folks guilty. And sometimes, even though there are explanations for your child's behavior that take some of the fault from him, the effects of the behavior are sad and must be addressed. Your child may push a classmate or break a toy or steal a treasured item because of disruptions and disabilities not under her control, but she still has to apologize and make amends and face consequences. Your full understanding of the situation can help you argue for consequences that are appropriate and not so punitive as to remove all possibility of improvement. It will also help you shape your child's environment so as to keep such things from happening again, and arm her with tools for making better choices in the future. Guilty parties in detective shows are usually forgotten by the next episode, but your child is a regular with a long-term contract. Work to create happier scripts for seasons to come.
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