The Battle

Posted by admin on July 2, 2013

It is in our nature to want our children to learn from their mistakes. As a "typical" child growing up in a "typical" family, I learned early on that if I did something wrong, there was a punishment that made me not want to do that particular behavior again.  It may have taken one time and it may have taken many times, but eventually I realized certain behaviors were unacceptable.  I either learned to stop those behaviors or hide them from my parents better.   

As a parent, I hope to instill good values in my children.  I hope to have them understand that if they make a poor choice, there are consequences.  Sometimes those consequences are natural, sometimes I choose what they will be.  I hope that they will change their behavior to get a better outcome in the future.  

In the case of children who have suffered early trauma, those connections may get missed.  The reason that the consequences and even punishments worked for me as a child, is because I was bonded with and trusted my parents.  I understood immediately that even if the punishment was strict, my father only wanted me to be a better person.  He never lashed out unexpectedly, or harshly.  He was firm and strict, but he was fair and loving.  My connection to my parent's that I made early on allowed me to see that even through my own anger.  My parents were not cruel they simply wanted to make certain that I understood I had chosen wrong and that I would remember there was a consequence for the next time that choice rears it's head.   I didn't have the fear that my parents would hurt me.  I had not experienced early trauma and I was safe in the fact that I would not be hurt, neglected or abused for my choices.  My adopted son cannot say that.  The trauma that he endured in his early years has shaped the way he reacts to me daily.  In cases of punishment and consequences given it is magnified. They trigger him and it affects his reactions. 

In blogs and online support groups, there is talk daily of our children's behaviors and how we can offer  consequences that will make an impact on these behaviors.  It is so helpful to understand that you are not alone in parenting a hurt child and dealing with behaviors and outbursts that you wouldn't normally be exposed to in a "typical" family, sometimes on a daily basis.  One of the first things that I always see mentioned is taking items away from the child until they can prove they are able to have access to certain things and they can earn them back.  

Even with my "typical" children I struggle with this concept.  Now, I know there can be reasons that something should be removed from a child.  My "typical" son routinely loses time on Minecraft when I can tell he has been overloaded with "screen time".  But it is not to punish, it is a time to take a break and regroup.  It is a time to spend time with real people not your game character and build relationships. We approach it as a much needed dose of reallity instead of a punishment for your nasty attitude.  I often say, "Apparently dealing only with a game has warped your sense of nice-ness and you need a break!  Time to deal with real people. "

On blogs and online support groups there is a tendancy for people to reccommend taking things out of a child's room when they rage.  It may be a situation where they have gotten angry and broken something or simply thrown a big ol' fit.  Nearly every time I have seen a mom talk about a whopper of a fit or a rage that broke things or injured someone, I see another mom suggesting that items be removed from a child's room with the exception of their mattress, a few sets of clothing and 1 or two toys.  Then it is suggested that  as the child begins to obey the rules of the home and behave appropriately they earn things back one at a time.  

I undestand the thought process behind this.  The parents are assuming that the child is dealing with a sensory overload and they need a calmer, more streamlined environment.  They are also assuming that the child doesn't not respect their belongings when they get angry and break them and they sholuld prove they do in order to get them back.  They think they are teaching them a lesson in caring for what they have.  They think that if they continue to return the items when they are shown to respect them, they are instilling a lesson in them.  The problem is our children are traumatized!  Some of them know poverty, they know what it is not to have their basic needs met and here we are taking things away.  Most of these children are impulse driven.  Even though they know what they are doing is wrong, that may not be able to stop the rage.  Their ability to process is lacking and impulse has taken over.  They know what is acceptable, they are having a hard time controlling themselves to act on that knowledge.  Children who come from early trauma are less likely to have their emotional age match their physical age.  So, even though they are raging with the anger and hormones of a 12 year old, they are emotionally a 2 or a 3 year old and need to be handled in the way you would a toddler.   

For instance, a toddler who spits on us would get short, immediate consequences.  If I were draw out the punishment or take everything out of my older child's room (who has experinced trauma) I would be furthering their abandonment issues.  This child is using toddler behavior to express their frustration I would use toddler consequences.  I may say, "Wow, spit belongs in  your mouth or in the toilet, if you feel the need to spit, you can go right in their and spit all you want."  I would also give them cleaner and a rag and have them clean up their spit.  I would have them apologize and give them words to do it.  "Mom, I am sorry I was so angry that I couldn't use my words.  I am sorry I spit on you, that was gross." 

If we remove all the items from the child's room then we have the added bonus of giving them more ammunition.  In so many cases it is a challenge, "she already took everything and I'm grounded so it doesn't matter if I behave because I have nothing left to lose." I tend to give over as much control as possible...give options that I can live with and let him make the will never win a power/control battle with kids who are having trouble attaching because they HAVE to control their relationship with you (withhold love from you) because it is the only way they know to survive.  It is the only control they have left.  NOw, there may be reason to remove some things from the child's room to simplify their environment, and I have done that in the past too.  We talk about it being "too much for their brain to handle" so we will pack peices away and we can exchange stuff out later when they need some new items to keep them busy.    I have learned that drapes are much better than mini-blinds that just invite my child to clip the cords that hold them together.  I have learned that if the curtain roads are screwed into the frame they have a better chance of staying up for a rage instead of removing them completely.  There is almost always a solution that will help them keep things available to them. 

It is much more important to model respectable behavior.  It is more important to further those bonds by building relationships then removing items.  I cannot teach them to be "in control" when my consequences look an awful lot like their raging.  I cannot teach them not to yell, by losing my cool and hollering at them.  Even with my typical children we talk a lot about "character" and what is being perceived by others.  If one of my children yells at me and calls me stupid, I will ask them if that is something that someone who has good character would do.  I may ask, "Would you say that to your teacher or your principal?"  I would likely add " I am happy that you know that I love you so much that calling me that name will not change that.  You don't really think I am stupid, you are just angry and it is easy to call me a name because I am making you do something you don't like.  I understand that, but it hurts.  Think about what it would feel like if I said that to you."  I refrain from asking questions, I simply state what the issue is and leave it at that. I try my best not to get bent out of shape about it and build on it for future communication.  I try not to engage in a power struggle.

As parents, we have such a short time with our children before they are on their own, especially if we started late into their life through adoption. It is ok to go ahead and let them be the toddler/baby they never got to be. Keep the consequences immediate, short, and sweet. The goal is for our kids to CHOOSE to obey us, joyfully because he wants to please us, not because they HAVE to in order to get stuff back.  Our goal should be building relationships and furthering their healing. We should be building up not taking away.  We need to invest and not withdraw. It is easier to live life and make memories when we are not so concerned with punishing each and ever misstep and battling for control.  

-Sheri (Who blogs at Ain't That Sherific

Comments Welcome

Posted by Maureen on
I embrace your statement and have tried hard to apply the tools to achieve the joyful memory part, and put aside the punishment aspect. It hasn't been easy and I haven't always been effective. 'Typical' parenting has worked with two of our adopted children; our at-birth private placement child and our former niece who was 3-years old when her mom died. But our efforts with our other former niece, who was 13-months old when her mom was murdered in her presence, is another story. When we get her back, I hope to be more effective at making those critical memories and less focused on the missteps and control. I want her to heal as best possible to ensure she can have a reasonably successful adult life.
Posted by Sarah Ringelberg on
Great post!!
Posted by Kristine on
I needed to read this today! Thank you!
Posted by Dawn on
Perfectly worded. Thank-you!
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