Working with Type 8 Child and Boundaries

As a student and teacher of the Enneagram, and as an Enneagram type 8, I am regularly asked how to work effectively with 8s, and in particular, with 8 children. I am always touched when a non-8 parent makes the inquiry because the parent wishes to support their 8 child. I am equally touched when teachers and administrators hire me to work with children and teens the appear to be perplexing and difficult to manage. 

I love teaching the Enneagram because it helps people depersonalize what appears to be so personal and gives meaning to the different ways people perceive and defend their realities. Some of the most meaningful moments in teaching have come when I have experienced the raw honesty and vulnerability of the self-aware 8.  The experience is always the same whether it is in a boardroom, a classroom or a county jail.  In every case, I am always unprepared for the unguarded, truly vulnerable innocence behind the 8 stance of defiance. I always see an aspect of myself and I am always humbled. Over and over again, I walk away with new found respect for the our innate capacity to continue to grow and change in the human condition. When I experience this with a fellow 8, I am in awe. In psychological terms, I am certain the 8 child within me feels a renewed sense of hope.... and, that the opportunity to help another 8, especially as a child... is an opportunity that will help me to continue to grow and change as well.... I believe I feel this way even more due to the support and guidance I received from the right people at the right time, and more specifically, from two truly benevolent teachers that forever changed the course of my life.

The questions I am always asked are: "Why don't strategies that work with most children not work with an 8?," "As the parent, teacher or therapist of an 8 child,  to what degree should I allow the 8 leeway with regards to what he/she wants, and how do I set limits that will work?  Which limits teach the 8 child how to manage his/her dominating and/or intimidating energy and, which limits are destructive to the young 8 and provoke their defiance and noncompliance?"

These are great questions for me as an 8, the daughter of an 8, the granddaughter of an 8, the niece of an 8 and the mother of an 8. ;) As a result I can easily make a very biased but educated guess.

The thought that immediately comes to mind is that our Enneagram type is our defense strategy. We are hard-wired to see and respond to the world they way we do. By definition a defense would indicate a reaction to protect from something that feels threatening. This of course would be true for all of the 9 Enneagram types. I believe the key is to understand that our Enneagram Type defense strategy if left unmanaged will end up hurting others the very same way that we are trying "not" to be hurt "by" others.

8s often report that their actions and intentions are often misinterpreted, labeled negatively and the 8s explanations go unheard and misunderstood. The reason that I start here is that from the outside perspective the direct 8 style appears to be the initiating force. But, as with all of the defenses, from the inside it feels like it is a necessary reaction to survive an incoming threat that feels overwhelming. The difference may simply be that the 8 defense style retaliates to protect themselves from being unfairly dominated. The 8 seeks revenge to even the score...no more no less... exactly the same... Rather than walking away or simply defending a position, the 8 approach is turn the tables and seek the advantage to avoid being at the mercy of injustice.

I remember even as an infant the feelings of frustration I experienced that I could not impact my environment.  I felt exhilarated when I could crawl and even more when I could walk and then  liberated when I could run and climb out of my crib all by the age of 12 months!  I was never cautious and explored life with a lust for life.  I was constantly told I was like a force of nature...I remember being confused that my mother was initally proud of my agility  but soon became constantly angry and frustrated when I was always on the move, exploring and experiencing everything in my environment and beyond.  As an adult, I understood why "the beyond part" was such a source of frustration to her... I totally fearless and uninhibited. I learned how to move a chair and climb up on anything and reach cupboards and drawers so early that it made tracking me a full time job.  

Even with a nanny, I was many handfuls compared to my three brothers.  I simply had the call of the wild... So I was constantly punished for disobeying such as taking off my itchy clothes, climbing up my dresser to get the clothes I wanted, taking apart something that I found fascinating like my grandmother's mirror and lipstick, (wow was seemed like a great crayon at the time but boy were they mad that I colored on my blanket and walls...)...and even angrier that I could climb out of my crib and open my bedroom door. 

The problem was that my behavior was age appropriate but due to my agility, intelligence, curiosity and strong will I seemed older that I was. This is because 8s are often very age progressed in terms of independence.  But emotionally, they are still young and vulnerable and very sensitive. The truth was that I was just too young to understand why my mother and grandmother were so upset with me.  I was having innocently having fun exploring my world. So it was threatening to be punished  over and over again before I could even talk. I was so confused and angry that I learned not to cry and gave up seeing my mother and grandmother as a source of comfort.  I was just too young to understand the consequences they felt would guide me to more obedient and acceptable behaviors and too young to see how exhausting I would be to have as a child.  They had no idea that they had set the course for the ultimate power struggle because 8s even at ages 12-18 months will not back down if something seems confusing physically hurts or feels unfair. I remember making a conscious decision  to go it alone because they didn't make sense and never understood the joy I felt expanding my horizons...  They couldn't know then what we know now.... and could have sat with me and could said "of course you want to play with the lipstick, it looks just like a fancy cool crayon that opens and closes, I know you are sad that I have to take it away. I know it must be so hard to understand. It must seem so unfair. Let me show you how to hold it so it doesn't break or stain mommies cofa or your blanket..and  I feel so sad that you want something that I can't give you.  I am you mommy and it is my job to keep you safe and as the mommy I have to take the crayon away because if isnt really a crayon, it is a lipfstick and this is how a crayon and lipstick are differnt and why I cant let you play with it.I personally expected the world to be cold, indifferent to my needs, unfair and unjust. I expected NOT to be protected. Punishment "without representation" felt unjust and triggered my innate defense strategy of defiance and non-compliance. Further disciplines without fair representation further compounded this cycle creating a strong sense of distrust for adults that were perceived to be abusing power. And, in terms of consequences, this only served to reinforce my world view that there was no love in the world and that I was truly on my own. Therefore, the true life-altering experiences happened not when I was punished.... but rather when I was afforded the opportunity to be taught the power of love, wisdom and compassion.

An 8 child's story

In the 6th grade a friend and I found a classroom open during spring break. We saw it as an unexpected opportunity for an amazing adventure filled with possibilities. We moved things all around the room; we changed the names on the chalkboard and talked into the tape recorder. We created total havoc just anticipating how much fun it would be for the students to sort it all out when they returned to school from the holiday week. After all they wouldn't have to work! Right?

Anyhow, my friend was the straight A, school president (137) that became riddled with guilt and told her parents. I of course kept my bond of secrecy as she begged me to give my word that I would never tell anyone what she did. To an 8 their word is their bond.  So, I did not reveal her name, not knowing that she had told. A very fair-minded Vice Principal that had been our 5th grade teacher knew that we were both good kids that just didn't understand the harm our fun could cause. He was also struck by the fact that I took total blame for the transgression and never told on my friend. Later, I was to learn that this was her cry for much needed attention to not have to be the perfect person. At the time, of course, this was unknown to me. I was just having fun and did not experience guilt as I did not intend any harm...  My cry turned out to be of another kind, far more hidden and silent.

The Principal was very resolute in the belief that a strong hand and severe punishment was the way to teach a wayward, strong-willed child the lessons of life. His punishment was to have me spend all of lunch and recess in his office for the last 2 months of school, to publicly humiliate me as well as deprive me of all graduating festivities and events. This of course is the kind of experience that 8s believe created their 8ness. After all, I had spent 7 years getting through the rigors of limitation that school rules presented to an 8 and graduation was a major element towards freedom from my perception of elementry school oppression. I could not see the fairness or justice in losing all privileges due to one misguided mistake.

From the limited perspective of an 11 year old this experience reinforced the theory that life is not fair so why respect unjust authority? Why care and most of all in confirmed the notion that I must be tough because I was on my own. I would suggest this further proves to the 8 stance that the 8 is correct in their world view and that due to experiences such as these the 8 begins to stop sorting for data to the contrary. I would also suggest that there is a trap for all of the types. There are always situations and experiences to support whatever our Enneagram type defense strategy would have us believe to be true.

I was humiliated and imploding inside of course but I never shed a tear and came across as self-possessed and unaffected.  This was far from the truth. 8s protect themselves from painful emotions that feel debilitating. We deny our vulnerability so that we can prevail in the face of adversity. This is because the 8s are natural born leaders that innately know how to power through obstacles and have the ability to use mind over matter. The strength to stand alone for their truth, stand up for the underdog, disadvantaged and under-represented at great personal risk can be see as very young child.  And, the 8 is the Enneagram type that has the defense strategy designed to challenge oppression and fight against tyranny and injustice...the very qualities of a true leader. The problem is that the 8 child needs to learn to work with their tendency to be assertive and overpowering ...just as the more timid 6 or 9 child needs to learn how to speak up for themselves rather than being passive-aggressive. 

The vice-principal's punishment was far more painful than that of the principal. It was instructive rather than punitive. In contrast, the vice-principal's punishment was to assign me to meet after school each day with the teacher whose room I had vandalized. This was horrifying to me. It was easy to endure sitting in the Principal's office for all to see, as I believed it made me tougher. I was after all, unfairly treated and a survivor.  However, to have to face my unknown victim was unnerving. I had visions of slave labor to further define the unjust world of the adults. 

Ouch.....Not so.......This teacher was very nice and never made me 'do' anything. Everyday she just talked with me. Everyday, I had to feel more and more feelings and it was agonizing. When was she going to be mean and unjust? Why didn't she make me a slave so I could rile against her tyranny? Why didn't she treat me with disdain so that I could raise my jaw and glare at her with defiance? Why was she so understanding? I had no defenses for such unexpected acts of kindness. I felt bereft of resources to deal with this kind of power.

She did not lecture, she did not chastise, in fact, she told me nothing, she only inquired. She continued her onslaught of gentle benevolence by asking me questions about what mattered to me. She asked me what I had hoped for by rearranging the room. When I told her she laughed and then explained how some of the children laughed and had a wonderful time but that many of the children were frightened and others thought that their things might be gone never to be found and cried. This of course, had never occurred to me.  I had to let in that my actions had left little 3rd graders feeling afraid and unprotected...my very own core wounding. I was crushed! I wasn't a Santa Claus as I has imagined; I was the Grinch to these little vulnerable 8-year-olds. I found it unforgivable. My self-vengeance was far crueler and greater than anything the principal had denied me.

In addition, to further make me squirm in my own feelings she asked me what I wanted out of life. She asked what my dreams were and since I was naturally protective what I wanted to do as an adult to protect others. She asked me if I would want to have me for a friend and why? I had never thought of these things. They were life-altering questions. She said that she would have been happy to be my friend in school because I was so protective and willing to take the full blame to protect my friend. She also asked me what I wouldn't like about having me as a friend. All of a sudden I found a longer list, and the beginning of the journey towards becoming my own trusted friend.

It was here in the room of my disgrace that I found the divine embrace off a strong, flexible boundary that introduced a mirror to my innermost self and a window to my soul. I no longer felt like a gorilla in a small zoo cage unable to be, but rather a gorilla high in the jungle with a family troop to protect. It was there in that classroom of my misadventure that I learned the true meaning of teaching consequences with 'benevolent' tough love. I learned about life in a new way and how to have true power... the power of benevolence. I was not crushed, rejected, demeaned or humiliated as I had been so many times before when my intentions were misunderstood... Rather, I was like a crumpled piece of paper retrieved from the trash bin to be gently unfolded, read and accepted so that I might know that like the paper I had once been a part of a majestic tree - worthy of being cherished and kept rather than discarded.

Rarely does a year go by that I do not remember my misadventure in the 6th grade, the moment of my disgrace or most importantly, the benevolent mirrors that allowed me to see myself clearly for the first time. I will always remember the experience of the adults that supported me by affording me the opportunity to glimpse my potential adulthood, open my defended heart and discover the power of my impact. From then on, I chose to try and have a positive impact on others and show the same power of compassion and understanding that I received. I actively sought out examples in my world to draw upon to shape a new view of true power. As a result, I try to show kindness in the face of disempowerment, but I can assure you that I can still fail in spite of my efforts. The difference is that due to the benevolence that I was shown as a child I want to be benevolent with others. Because it came as such a surprise, without judgment and with such kindness, it created a lasting imprint on my character.

Empowering the 8 child

So back to the question I am always asked : "Why don't strategies that work with most children not work with an 8?," "As the parent, teacher or therapist of an 8 child,  to what degree should I allow the 8 leeway with regards to what he/she wants, and how do I set limits that will work?  Which limits teach the 8 child how to manage his/her dominating and/or intimidating energy and, which limits are destructive to the young 8 and provoke their defiance and noncompliance?"

In answer to the inquirer's initial question, I can say that promoting "consciousness" is far more important than handing our "consequences" .... and the best place to begin.

For the 8 to learn from traditional consequences, the 8 must first have a great deal of trust and respect.  If the 8 trusts you and respects you, they will want to please you. This counter-intuitive approach removes the power struggle.  Once engaged in a power struggle, the 8 will never back down and the message you wish to teach will be lost. The journey is to assist the 8 by listening to the 8s explanations of what happened and validating their experience --as they see it. When this in place you can slowly help the 8 learn to manage the pain that is underneath the flippant remarks and "big" behaviors. Involve them in the solution, ask them what they would do and why? They will be flippant at first but don't get hooked... they are just unconsciously testing you.  They are asking "Are you real?  "Are you strong enough to be there for me? "All of me?" So just smile when they are flippant and then nonchalantly keep going...ask the 8 what he or she thinks is important in this type of situation and they will innocently reveal their inexperienced viewpoints and you will have a more meaningful way to approach the problem.  Ask what he or she thinks would make a difference and what he or she thinks would be fair to all involved.  

When you disagree make deals.  I know that this is also counter intuitive but this is what feels fair to an 8. When the 8 is adamant about his or her truth about what is or isn't fair don't back down... instead make a deal. Say something like: "Ok, you win this time...next time it is my turn." Then whatever you do keep you word.  The 8 will then feel compelled to keep his or her word and will reluctantly comply when you remind him or her of the deal the two of you made.  And never back away from this.

Teach that a true leader has power because they keep their word. The key is to let the 8 have small victories so you have the important victories. Remember that prior to the stance of defiance that makes you want to use traditional methods will only serve to reinforce 8 feelings of disempowerment.  Remind yourself that the 8 is in a great deal of pain.  Anger acts as an immediate anesthetic protecting the 8's more tender emotions. When you have validated their experience now matter how far fetched it sounds they will feel heard and become more receptive and less defiant. Wow, it sounds like you really felt ____.  Mirror what they have said in a nonchalant manner so they don't feel manipulated or patronized. Repeat what they have said verbatim...don't use your words or overview...use the 8's words.

I can promise you that prior to any act of defiance the 8 felt caught off guard and wounded by a sense of rejection for just being an 8. It is their innocence they are protecting and why the reaction is so fierce.  The pain caused by the misinterpretation of the 8s motivation is at the heart of the matter, therefore,  discovering the pain the 8 feels and has rejected will explain the pain they inadvertently cause. The 8's innocence is at the core of this cycle. Every 8 might benefit from learning what they are really feeling in order to understand their need to defend their heart so strongly. What is unknown and usually unseen is how empathetic the 8 is. Empathy that is so great needed to be limited or denied to survive but eventually must be nurtured to be integrated. This is the most difficult thing you can ask an 8 to do. The 8 fears that if they feel their full capacity for empathy it will crush them.

Inquiring as to what happened is the beginning. Exploring what the 8 might have been feeling just prior to the action is a large part of the discovery process. This can take what feels like an eternity to non-8s. *s deny they were feeling anything because it is out of consciousness. If the 8 is too defended, and doesn't know or can't retrieve the event or feeling, a gentle inquiry as to how others not as tough as the 8 might feel in the same circumstances may prove helpful. Analogies using those the 8 loves and sees as vulnerable such as in younger siblings, cousins, friends or pets often breaks the direct stance of 'being against'. Love and protection will rise for those the 8s deem in their circle of care. This is where one may find the clues to the deeper, more painful and hidden issues behind the 8 bravado and rash acts.

One can be assured that prior to the negative behavior or outburst the 8 felt a deep sense of betrayal, humiliation and injustice where the 8 experienced themselves as unable to affect the outcome rendering them powerless and without mercy. The unbearably painful experience may have occurred a moment earlier or days earlier.  This is also true for adult 8s... the wound happened years earlier, but it did occur and the 8s internal victim was sent to the dungeon of their heart to be silenced.

Once the 8 is in the feeling state, it may be imperative to listen to every slight that the 8 may have felt he/she has endured, especially those by you. Like a chest retrieved from the attic after years of storage, opening it may create a flurry of wounds that fly out in need of immediate attention. The scabs feel ripped open and the scar tissue feels rigid and painfully twisted. The bigger question the 8 is asking is "Can you take it, can you take all of me and my hurt at one time?" The 8 belief is that no one could therefore no one can.

This is a wonderful opportunity to prove the 8 wrong. After the deeper emotions have surfaced and are fully spent is the window of opportunity to be inside the full and open embrace of the 8 heart. This is the rare moment between defensive posturings when one can benevolently teach the 8 how comforting it feels to be treated with loving boundaries that stretch and grow with the 8. This is when one can teach the 8 the power of setting their own boundaries to self-limit; that anger is a signal of pain and betrayal that can be healed yielding powerful insights. Most of all, this is the time when one can deeply touch an 8 by demonstrating the power that comes from treating others with benevolence.