I recently received this letter from a teacher in Scandinavia. Before you read my response, think about how you would respond to her challenge.

I am this year working in a class with children who are 11-12 years old. The boy I want to help now has the diagnose ADHD. We experience a boy who struggles to find out how to master his school days. I wonder if I have taught him anything so far this school year. He has been to our school for about 2 years, and they say it has helped him to come to us.
In my heart I feel that this is a boy with a very low self-esteem. He talks loud and makes a lot out of himself almost whenever he is in the classroom. He can talk calmly about his own problems and behavior when we have meetings with his parents or when he is one/one with a teacher. But in the classroom he reacts at once if anyone has a comment or he doesn’t find the work satisfying. I think this is the easiest way for him to satisfy his need for power and to be seen. He argues a lot and in my lessons this happens almost at once after I have started. We are lucky to have more grown-ups in the classroom who can help and take him outside so he doesn’t disturb the class. But this makes him feel like a failure again, I am sure. He think he really wants to stay although he sometimes leaves on his own because he knows that he finds the situation difficult.
My main problem now is that my way of dealing with him seems to annoy him tremendously. He tells me he hates me, that he doesn’t like me, that I am evil. He tells his mother and the other teacher that he doesn’t like me because I am too kind, not strict enough. But when I have become strict, as I have been driven to my wits end, he laughs. (in an insecure way).
I have been searching myself to see if I could be more strict, or maybe more clear (I know he needs that), but it made me use all the deadly habits on him and myself and was of no use. I now feel that trying to stick to choice theory, as much as I can, makes me feel like I am doing the right thing, although it doesn’t seem to give the results I had hoped. The problem is – how to reach him.
Just before Christmas he showed me interest and I thought maybe, maybe something good was on its way. I was asked to look after a precious “toy” he had. He is also very intelligent and often says “I’m sorry,” and we start anew. But it doesn’t last for more than 10-30 minutes and after Christmas I am again his “enemy”. I believe that when I do not get angry with him he feels insecure. When I give him responsibility he seems to feel lost, and has to turn it back over to me to feel ok. That’s what he is used to, and that seems to help him to control himself. Does he want me to feel insecure to get his own helplessness away? I so much wish he could know that he is a wonderful boy. Does a low self-esteem keep someone from being able to receive kindness? Should I just continue in the way I have been trying or should he have another teacher, because his diagnose needs it, I am sure? Sometimes I wonder if I give him more chaos than I should by not responding the way he “demands.”
Flummoxed in Scandinavia

Dear Flummoxed,

In some ways I think Erik (I will refer to him as Erik) is an outlier, a case that is more difficult and, hopefully, rare. In other ways, though, his behaviors are all too familiar to a lot of us. The way you have described the situation in detail will allow me and other readers to make attempts, along with you, at analyzing the situation.

First, let’s all be reminded that choice theory helps us to understand behavior, it doesn’t guarantee success. I think that tapping into choice theory principles puts me and others in the best position to succeed, but free will is always present. Sometimes people will do what they want to do, even when a gun is being pointed at them to stop them from doing it; and sometimes people will do what they want to do, even when choice theory is “being pointed at them.”

A continent away it appears to me that Erik has been brought up within a distant, yet controlling environment. He is desperate for consistent acceptance, yet unable to relate to freedom and insecure (I think you used the right word here) at the thought of responsibility. The system that he has learned, which appears to be a toxic stimulus-response environment, doesn’t apply at school and it is troubling for him, to say the least. The ground is moving under his feet and it is hard to maintain balance. Erik probably does have a fairly strong need for power, but I think he also may have a stronger than average need for love and belonging. Throughout his young life he has probably received mixed messages when it comes to control and love. When these two needs are mixed in a toxic way it can become a terrible thing to have to work through later in life. His behavior, going back and forth between showing affection toward you one minute and then pushing you away the next minute, reveals what he has probably been experiencing at home.

When I first read the description of Erik’s behavior I became very concerned about what his options were and what he faced in life. I think I may have felt like Joseph when he realized what he needed to tell the king’s baker after the baker’s dream (Genesis 40). But after reading your description several more times, I feel less like that for some reason. Erik has some real issues, but the sooner he begins to really see what his options are, the better.

Your efforts on his behalf will take strength, the kind of strength that in love moves ahead without needing to be liked in return. That is where he thinks his power lies. When things become uncomfortable for him, he retreats into various forms of threats and punishments. “I will hate you” he emphasizes, or “you can’t have me,” he threatens. Yet it is clear that deep inside he doesn’t want to hate you. It will take strength to show up positively, dispassionately, and compassionately in the face of his moods.

You asked if a low self-esteem could keep someone from being able to receive kindness. I think the answer to this is Yes, most definitely. When we do not value ourselves it is hard to believe that anyone else values us either. It truly is a secure person that can graciously accept the favor and love of another person. This is one of Erik’s burdens that you, and the Spirit, want to remove from him. Erik is in a situation that needs an intervention. When I say that, I mean that someone, another person, may need to show him acceptance, modeling it to him in word and deed, for him to begin to become convinced of his worth. I am reminded, too, of the disciples having a problem healing a boy and coming to Jesus afterward, inquiring of Him why they couldn’t heal him, and Jesus replying that “this kind can only be dealt with through prayer.” (Mark 9:29) Erik’s issues are very real and we need to seek the Spirit’s help on his behalf. We need to pray that he and/or his parents will become open to seeing things differently. It may be that you will be given an opportunity to talk with Erik or talk with his parents in a way you thought would never be possible.

You described how you felt better using choice theory, but that it wasn’t having the results you wanted. It actually is having results as Erik is acting out in a way that he hopes will restore the set-up he is used to. The steps you are taking, however uncomfortable they may be, are necessary before a breakthrough can occur.

I, and others, will be praying for this situation.