*Editor’s note- This is a guest post from our good friend Jennie Owens. She and her husband Lynn, support foster and adoptive families through their nonprofit organization, www.foreverhomes.org. Jennie also speaks to parenting groups and leads retreats for foster and adoptive families. She provides training and one-on-one coaching services to parents through their clinic, Canyon Lakes Family Counseling, in Kennewick, WA. You can also visit her blog here.
“Will you play a game with me?” our son asked.
My blood began to boil. This was the tenth time in 30 minutes he had asked. I was getting tired of redirecting, and I knew from past experience it wouldn’t be the last time he’d ask. It felt like this young boy was trying to control our every moment. Not long afterward he asked again. “Will you play a game with me?”
Before I could give the lecture I was planning, my husband piped up. “If you’re asking me if I love you, the answer is yes,” he said. Neither of us had tried that approach before. I looked curiously over at our son and watched to see how he would react. “Ok,” he replied and went off to play for a little while. He didn’t ask again that day, and what felt like a little mind game had been stopped.
My husband stumbled upon a truth that has helped us parent our kids in a more helpful, healing manner. Wounded kids don’t always know how to communicate their needs, so they often communicate them in unhealthy, unhelpful ways.
Here are a few tips for recognizing and dealing with miscommunication with our children:
1. “Miscued Messages.”
After that night, we recognized our son was sending what I like to call a “miscued message.” He outwardly communicated that he wanted us to play with him, but in reality he just needed constant reassurance of our love. We changed our approach from getting frustrated over the demand for attention to recognizing his need by saying, “If you’re asking if I love you, the answer is yes.” That’s really the question he was asking.
Every time I came back home from being away for any length of time, this same child worked hard to pay me back for my absence. For years, it frustrated and angered me. Finally, I realized he was trying to say, “I missed you.” After that, when he acted out I’d say, “I missed you too, buddy,” and the acting out would lessen considerably.
What comes out as a message of “I hate you” from a child can really just be their way of saying, “I’m feeling really insecure about your love for me right now and I really need to know you love me no matter what.” Misbehavior may be a way of saying, “My feelings are hurt” or “I’m feeling scared.” Many times what our kids were really asking us was, “Do you love me? How about now? What about if I do this? Will this stop you from loving me?” Although still frustrating, it helped when I understood this.
Many wounded children didn’t get their needs met when they were younger, so they learned early on the lie that people don’t want to meet their needs. As a result, they will let others know that they want or need something in a much more subtle, sometimes frustrating ways.
In the beginning, my daughter would stand and stare at me any time I was doing something like cooking a meal. It drove me nuts.
“Do you need something?” I would ask.
She would shake her head “no.”
I’d ask. She’d answer. No, she didn’t need a drink. No, she wasn’t hungry.
Exasperated, I’d give up and try to fix dinner while ignoring the 10-year-old standing seven feet away from me, staring holes into my head.
One day, I once again went through the litany of possible needs. I was growing tired of this “guess the need” game.
Finally, I asked her, “Do you need a hug?”
She meekly nodded “yes.” I gave her a big bear hug, and she went off to play. She never played the staring game again because I would ask if she needed a hug as soon as she started. It was usually what she needed.
A more humerous hinting story with her happened on our way to a camping trip. We’d pulled off the highway and started down a smaller road. I looked out the window as we passed several convenience stores, a Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonalds, and a few gas stations. Seconds later, I heard a quiet voice from the back of the van.
“Wow. Look at all those bathrooms. I bet those are some nice bathrooms,” our daughter said, wistfully. My husband and I looked at each other and chuckled under our breath.
“Do you need to go to the bathroom, my dear?” I asked.
After a sheepish, “Yes,” from the back seat, we let out a hearty laugh and stopped at the nearest gas station. “See, that wasn’t so hard,” I told her, “You just have to ask. We are happy to meet your needs.” She had to be reminded of that a lot.
Because they were emotionally younger than their biological age, my children frequently whined like young children to try to get something.
In order to teach them more healthy ways to ask for me to meet their needs, I’d ignore the whining and only respond when they talked in a normal voice.
Sometimes I’d say, “I’d be happy to answer your question when you’re speaking in a normal voice,” or “I’m sorry, I can’t understand what you’re saying. I don’t hear whining.”
At times, I’d simply say, “I’m so sorry, honey. I don’t speak Whine-ese,” with a playful smile. They eventually learned that to get what they wanted, whining wouldn’t work.
Remembering that wounded children don’t always send messages that line up with what they truly feel or communicate their needs in unusual ways, can at least help us to maintain a bit more of our sanity. It may not make the behaviors less frustrating, but we can learn to respond to their real needs in ways that help them heal.
Check out more tips to helping wounded children through our three-minute video training clips called “Potty Break” at www.foreverhomes.org.
Are you parenting a wounded child? How have you learned to communicate with them? Share your story with us in the comment section below.