Dear Director: Behavior=Clues Edition

Dear Director,

We recently adopted 2 siblings, ages 7 and 9. They certainly had a rough upbringing, both emotionally and sexually abused. We are so thrilled to become their parents and to give them a wonderful life. Problem is we had to start working with a team of counselors as the 9-year-old is just terrible and unmanageable. She hates being told what to do and will have meltdowns if she doesn’t get her way that can last all day. Additionally, she seems to freak out at the strangest times with no apparent reason. Our therapist says to look behind her behaviors; that her behaviors are a form of communication. We just don’t believe that. She just seems manipulative, ungrateful, and controlling.

Signed, doubtful about all this mumbo-jumbo about behaviors as clues

Dear Doubtful.

How do any of us learn to do anything? Do we wake up one morning when we are three and say, today I am going to potty train? Do we decide as teens, after talking to our friends, today I will drive a car? We all learn from our experiences, both good and bad, although I might say that the negative experiences often teach us the most. In my role assessing potential foster and adoptive parents, I ask, “how did you become the parent you are now?” and I have found that parents learn from what their own parents did, and they either do close to the same, or very different, depending on whether they feel they were brought up in a loving, caring, safe home or now. We are all shaped by our environment and our learned experiences. Even when we are not paying close attention, we are learning things.

For instance, babies know when their parents are anxious. A calm parent can calm a crying child so much quicker than a scared or worried or high parent, because the baby can sense FROM BIRTH that the parent is attentive and emotionally available. So babies with parents who are not calm struggle to learn to calm themselves, as they don’t have an example to learn from. Children raised in chaotic, drug or alcohol involved homes grow up believing this is the way things are, and unless they have an experience with a “normal” or sober home, like a relatives or friends’ home, they don’t know what that is like.  So, learning from our environments.

Your children learned from their environment how to manage or not manage their fear, anxiety, and stress. IN spite of their time with you, they still revert back to those early ways of managing.  That is why foster and adoptive parents are encouraged to go back and redo the early experiences children should have had-being held in a lap, skin-to-skin contact, soothing voices, rocking. If your children did not experience this in a safe way, they need to, and you can do that, especially as you see that tantrum building and you don’t want to devote a day for it. But you have to believe that your experiences will overwrite their early experiences and give them a new way to get through their distress.

As for “freaking out at the strangest things,” I could tell you stories. A child who kept getting hospitalized when thunderstorms were coming when, in a file review we learned she and her siblings were tied to a tree outside during thunderstorms. A child whose abuser wore the same perfume as her therapist, which they had to figure out for therapy to help. A child who was locked with his brothers on the third floor of a home, and learned to urinate out the window, as they were not allowed downstairs to the bathroom. Lots of children who were afraid of bathrooms because they were locked in them while their parents abused drugs. We may now yet know what triggers the response but it is there, deep in your child’s memory, possibly before they had words to describe what happened. Accept it, track it, avoid those triggers, your life will get easier. Promise.

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