There are stories throughout history of people coming into the light of understanding. Call it transformation, if you will. These moments were life-altering for not only the person who experienced it, but those who were close to them as well. The Apostle Paul hated Christians and was actually responsible for killing many because he believed in an ideal, or a narrative playing out in his mind. And then he came face to face with the truth. He stepped into the light, and it transformed him.
About 5 years ago, I came into a clear understanding of what was really going on with some of my children. I had walked forever through the forest of misunderstanding at just what their past trauma had done to them. And then I reached the clearing. I finally understood that my child wasn’t a bad child, behaving badly, when he acted out, became aggressive, or was extremely anxious over, what seemed, nothing. And those frustrating moments where I knew I was being manipulated? Actually fueled by something bigger than my understanding. Here’s what I discovered:
- It’s the voice of trauma. There’s a narrative that plays in our children’s minds. It may say something like, “You won’t get enough food,” or “These people aren’t going to stick around. They’ll leave like everyone else,” or “You’re not really safe here,” or “You don’t belong. You have no identity.” Over and over and over. Even when they have been in your care or your family for years. That narrative plays in the recesses of a child’s mind continually, even if he can’t articulate it.
- It’s an unmet need being expressed. When I realized this several years ago…GAME CHANGER! This new realization changed how I reacted, how I approached my child in the first place and even how I handled the meltdowns and tantrums. The behavior may seem bad but it’s really an expression of something else.
- It’s not about you. I used to feel like a terrible parent. but now I know my child is reacting from an unmet need. Your child’s reaction isn’t about you. It’s…not…about…you. I know it’s hard to not take it personally, but when you put your child back at the center of the story, you will be better equipped to meet your child’s needs and in turn change the behavior.
If this resonates with you, here are a few strategies that we suggest:
- Connection before correction. I used to snap and scream, “What’s wrong with you?” Or, “What’s your problem?” Those questions were useless and just fueled my child’s meltdown even further. I’ve since learned to ask, “How can I help you?” Or, “I see that you’re upset. Can you tell me what you are thinking or feeling?” Replacing “What’s wrong with you,” with “How can I help you?” builds a bridge…a connection. Taking the words ‘wrong’ or ‘problem’ out and replacing them with ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’ communicates to your child that you are on his or her side. Connection before correction can drastically lower the temperature of the room.
- Redirect. In many situations, your child’s behavior is a hyper-focus on something that their brain is telling them they need, or want. For instance, you may have a child who is concerned about food. He may ask repeatedly when dinner is, or if he can have a snack. He may become really anxious and even belligerent. You can redirect by saying, “Hey buddy, it’s 4:15, and dinner is in 1 hour. So, if you look here on the clock, the big hand is on the 3, and the little hand is just past the 4. But it’s going to move all the way around and when the big hand gets to the 3 again and little hand is just past the 5, it’ll be dinner time. This does two things: 1) it redirects his focus away from the narrative in his mind, and 2) it is interactive. He can actually see how long it is until dinner.
- Calm and collected. You’ve got to maintain control of you. Stay calm and collected. Keep in mind what is playing out in your child’s mind. In a recent post, I talked about 3 big questions you can ask yourself to help you gain the right perspective on the situation. Read that post here.
- Gentle but firm. Remaining calm and collected doesn’t mean you become soft on the boundaries. You need to gently, at the right time, remind your child of the boundaries or the consequence for destroying things in the home.
Remember, your child’s brain was changed when he or she experienced trauma. are parenting a child who, because of their past trauma, has an altered brain. When you’re wondering, “What are they thinking?” they may not even know the answer. They are grappling…grasping….fighting for something they may not be able to articulate.
A child who seems manipulative, conniving, disrespectful, disobedient, stubborn, sneaky or untruthful is reacting from his or her trauma just like the child who is sobbing, sad and grieving.
One more thing I want to add on to the strategy list.
- Believe that your child has hope and a future…in-spite of what is happening right now. You simply cannot predict his or her future based on their present situation, or behavior. You just can’t. Everyone has hope…and everyone can change. Your kiddo is no exception to this.
Have hope, dear parent. You are not alone. Foster care is worth it. Adoption is worth it. Your child is worth it!
How have you handled these situations with your child? Share your story with us in the comment section below.