These needs are usually minimized or ignored in educational or human services settings. As a result, individuals may become:
- Relationship resistant
- Chronic rule-breakers
- Helpless and insecure
- Depressed and isolated
Supporting a person with difficult behaviors requires us to get to know the person as a complicated human being influenced by a complex personal history. While it is tempting to look for a quick fix, which usually means attacking the person and his or her behavior, suppressing behavior without understanding something about the life he or she is living is disrespectful and counterproductive. Difficult behaviors are a reflection of unmet needs. They are “meaning-full.” Our challenge is to find out what the person needs so that we can be more supportive.
Our best efforts to support someone who engages in difficult behaviors will fall to pieces if the people who are asked to provide the support are not supported. Whether you are a friend, a parent, or a paid caregiver, there is a relationship between your needs and the needs of the person you are supporting. In my experience, a person’s supporters often need:
- Support from friends, family members and colleagues
- A sense of safety and well-being
- Interesting and difficult routines
- A sense of value and self-worth
- Relevant skills and knowledge
These needs are usually ignored by educational and human services organizations. People inside and outside of these organizations often feel that their needs are being ignored by an insensitive and uncaring bureaucracy. As a result, they often resort to their own difficult behaviors. An individual may become:
- Resistant to new ideas and support
- Cynical and rebellious
- Overly controlling and punishing
- Depressed and isolated
While it is tempting to blame caregivers for failing to “deal” with a person’s difficult behaviors, I believe that the vast majority of people working in human services are interested in helping not hurting. But helping is difficult when your own needs are being ignored. It is a central contention of my practice that many human services workers are under-supported; some must contend each and every day with fear-provoking management practices that discourage quality, productivity, and creativity. When people do not feel supported — when they feel afraid — they have a difficult time being supportive. Thus, it is critical that any effort to support an individual include support for the person’s supporters. To paraphrase early childhood educator Jean Clarke, “A person’s needs are best met by people whose needs are met.”
In a nutshell
It is simplistic to treat a person’s behavior without understanding something about the life that he or she lives. It is equally simplistic to develop interventions that do not take into consideration the needs of a person’s caregivers. The challenge is and always will be to build support for the person and the people who care. When I work with people and their teams, I help them to focus on the development of support plans that include seven quality of life indicators:
- Health and well-being
- Fun and joy (things to look forward to)
- Power and choice
- A Sense of Value
- Skills and Knowledge
- Support for the person’s supporters
If you’re too tired to read one more word (and the people busiest providing support usually are), I encourage you to get some sleep. I leave you with these four simple ideas:
- Difficult behaviors result from unmet needs.
- Finding out what a person needs is the first step in helping the person, and the person’s supporters, to change.
- Attempts to “fix” the person may be misdirected. It is often the “system” that needs fixing.
- Taking care of yourself is one of the most important things you can do If you can’t take care of yourself, it will be very difficult to care about someone else.