‘Challenging behaviour’ – those words really need to be banned, don’t they? Or perhaps it is just that it needs to be better understood. Everybody’s behaviour is a communication, somebody trying to reach somebody else and tell you about what’s going on inside them. Sometimes, the behaviour might feel like the only way to try and let you know what’s going on. Our responsibility is to respond, “What am I not understanding that this person’s behaviour is challenging me to understand?”
From my own experience both as an attachment-based psychotherapist and as partner to someone living with dementia, “challenging behaviours” often come from a place of fear for all involved. The person who is expressing the behaviour is frightened they can’t get through to other people and the person or people who are trying to help understand are also afraid. There’s a need for some kind of regulation of your own feelings as the support person – to take space and time to breathe and to try and interpret what is being conveyed. It’s not a personal attack, it’s not that the person is trying to be difficult. It’s not something we won’t ever be able to understand. We just need to try and take the time to make sense of it.
It reminds me of some of the features of separation anxiety – when someone feels fearful as they are not with the person who offers them a sense of safety and helps them feel understood. So, they might retreat into themselves or push you away. This doesn’t mean they want you to go! They are desperately seeking comfort and connection, even if the message they are giving might feel like the opposite to you. They want you nearby, maybe not too close, but they are trying to express, “Please stay and try to understand me.”
An example of my own is when my partner John was up a lot in the middle of the night at home and I felt completely exhausted. The usual things which often helped such as calming music just weren’t working. John started shouting at me and I shouted back, “For God’s sake, we’ve just got to get some sleep. How are we going to do this? This is just terrible!” He paused for a minute and then said; “Shall we ring my mother?” (who had of course died many years before). This made me stop in my tracks and realise this was a message to me and the real question was “What would my mother do in this situation?” It calmed me down and I realised we actually both needed a mum at that point to rescue us. We both felt overwhelmed and vulnerable. Once I had collected myself, I responded to him saying, “That’s a really good idea, but as it’s the middle of the night maybe we can ring her in the morning.” We then went into the front room and watched a favourite Oscar Peterson DVD snuggled up on the sofa and snoozing together. I had got caught in the trap of thinking we had to be in bed to sleep, when actually we could find another way to rest and be close. I could so easily have made matters worse, but John’s desire to call his mother reminded me of what mattered most to us both.