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When the Building Blocks of Emotional Healthiness Are Missing

For a couple of months now, I’ve been working with my foster daughter on catching up in math class. She’s “significantly” behind her peers (and continues to fall further behind each month), but I didn’t realize just how deep the problem ran.

At first, I thought, “Okay, she’s not doing her homework. We can change that.”

And then I realized that she wasn’t doing her homework because she didn’t know how. I thought, “Okay so she doesn’t know how to convert decimals to percentages. No big deal. I’m a math teacher! I’ll just work with her on it until she understands.”

But she still wasn’t getting it.

So we backed up and started working on simpler concepts of splitting numbers into parts. But she couldn’t divide anything because she doesn’t understand how to do long division. So we backed up again to work on long division.

But then we found out she couldn’t do long division because she didn’t know her multiplication facts. At all. So we backed up again.

Long story short, we eventually discovered that she’s missing fundamental math skills, such as adding double-digit numbers, subtracting with regrouping, and organizing her thoughts on paper.

This problem started with missing skills from about first grade. She started falling through the cracks, academically, FOUR YEARS AGO and never caught up.

I realized pretty quickly how completely pointless it was for us to even attempt decimals when she didn’t know how to add. We had to go all the way back to the place where she started to get confused and rebuild that foundation.

Do you know what is exactly the same as being behind in math? Being behind in emotional healthiness and coping skills.

Adults often wonder how they can get their children/students to stop a certain behavior, but they often forget just how far the problem goes. Teachers are usually great about recognizing the skills that a student is missing, but I think sometimes it’s forgotten that those missing skills stem from an entire group of skills that might be lacking.

My foster daughter often makes up injuries/illnesses because she wants attention. I could be annoyed by the behavior, or I could even eradicate it through behavior modification (ignoring her, giving her new motivations, etc).

But what would be most helpful is if I recognized why she’s doing it, what skill she’s missing, and what her foundation of emotional skills is built out of.

1st – There’s the problem.
2nd – Behind the the problem, there are unhealthy goals.
3rd – Behind those goals, there’s a foundational problem in how to reach those goals.

When our daughter first came into our home, her emotional skills were built on a foundation of survival, which was built at a young age. Here’s what some of her 1-2-3’s look like (to me).

1st – She seeks attention by lying or overdramatizing.
2nd – She has an unhealthy goal of meeting her own emotional needs.
3rd – The foundational problem is that she doesn’t trust her caretakers to meet those needs for her.

1st – She hoards every single thing she gets, even if it’s trash.
2nd – She has an unhealthy goal of wanting to feel attached to something.
3rd – The foundational problem is that she never got to learn that attachments and value should be placed on people rather than things.

1st – She sneaks snacks into her room and hides them in various places.
2nd – She has an unhealthy goal of making sure she is never hungry.
3rd – The foundational problem is that she doesn’t trust her caretakers to keep her fed.

1st – She sometimes cheats on homework and/or tests.
2nd – She has an unhealthy goal of being seen as better than she is.
3rd – The foundational problem is that she doesn’t trust people to still value her after they learn about the parts of her that aren’t great.

Behaviors like stealing, lying, cheating, or hoarding all come from places much deeper than surface level. Sure, it’s easy for us to acknowledge the WHY of their behavior, but so often we forget the HOW, which is how it came to be in the first place.

Only then can we understand how to undo the damage. We must understand which building blocks are either missing or build dysfunctionally so that we can rebuild them in healthy ways.

We can’t start halfway up the tower. We have to go all the way back down to the bottom.

When the Building Blocks of Emotional Healthiness Are Missing

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2019). When the Building Blocks of Emotional Healthiness Are Missing. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Apr 2019
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