The following is a guest post by Cindy Cramer, foster mother for 24 years, adoptive mother of six and our Family Support Coordinator. It is the second in a series of posts designed to help foster and adoptive families understand the roots of their children’s behavior. Read the first post, “The Depth of Their Fear,” here.
When I first started fostering, the common belief was that children who have neglect histories heal faster and are less difficult to work with than children who have abuse histories. Over the years, I learned that this was simply not true. Many of the children I fostered came from homes where they were neglected: substance abuse, domestic violence, or simply that their own parents did not get their needs met as children. In one of her videos, “Children from Hard Places,” Karyn Purvis notes that a child who has been physically abused will believe that someone doesn’t like him but a child who has been neglected believes he is invisible and doesn’t matter to anyone. Can you imagine spending your life feeling that you only exist when you have someone’s attention?
Some of these children do things that absolutely drive us batty: They ask the same questions over and over, not appearing to listen to the answer. They tattle all the time, getting your attention and that of the child involved. They talk incessantly. They have no filter, repeating everything numerous times. They interrupt and try to dominate all conversations. You might call it “filling the air” with sound. I explained to one of my children that when I was overwhelmed with sound, it was like “white noise” or background noise, meaning I was likely to “tune it out.” When we discussed ways to get my attention so that I was aware that he wanted to be heard, we agreed that he would say my name and wait for me to acknowledge him. Since his need was to be heard, our agreement helped him learn a more desirable method to accomplish it.
Sometimes children with neglect histories are unable to give you any space physically. It’s as if they think if you’re out of their sight, they will no longer exist. They can’t play in the other room for even just a few minutes. You can’t go to the bathroom without little fingers wiggling under the door or faces pressed against the door calling your name. I called those my “Velcro kids.” Many days I thought of changing my name from “Mom” to anything else for just a few hours. These are the kids that get labeled as “attention seeking.” You may think, as many people do, that’s something you need to break them of. However, I learned that these children aren’t seeking attention as much as they’re seeking connection. It’s best to work on giving that “attention” (connection) as often as possible and before it’s demanded.
Richard Delaney’s book Troubled Transplants had a huge impact on my parenting life, primarily through the concept of looking for the need behind the behavior and thinking “outside the box” for solutions. If a child needs to be next to you all the time, you can have him save your place on the couch while you go to the bathroom. You can talk to him through the door. Thank him for helping you feel that your place will still be there when you return. If you have a child who needs to verbally engage with you, ask her questions and listen to her entire response. Sometimes I have said, “You can tell me five things. Take your time and think about it so you can decide what is most important.” (You have to be careful with this, however, because children with ADHD feel that they have to say it all now or they may forget what they wanted to say. In those cases, you can give them one thing to say now and give them another time in three – five minutes.) No one solution fits every situation; we have to look at each child with their needs as an individual and each situation as unique.
One of my foster children was a three-year-old girl who had been left alone at home. This little one could not demonstrate any social or relational skills and had obviously been alone often. The first days with her were so difficult. She didn’t know how to play. She didn’t join the other children in activities. But she had one talent I had not anticipated: she was very good at aggravating the other children. My two boys, who were five and six at the time, usually played well together. I’d taught them that if someone was bothering them, they could just walk away – which they tried to do here, but the little girl just followed them. As you can imagine, that did not go well – there was lots of tattling, whining, and crying. So I tried some new strategies based on needs. What were the needs? Obviously, we all (myself, included) needed some peace and quiet. My boys needed to go about their day without being annoyed and overwhelmed. They needed to feel safe in their home. My little girl needed to connect with someone frequently and learn how to form relationships. She also really needed to learn how to play. And I needed less volume overall. I do not tolerate constant whining, tattling and crying very well. (Does anyone?!)
So, using Richard Delaney’s approach, this was my “out of the box” plan. First, it had to be non-verbal for my sake. Second, the boys needed to convey the message that they needed space (silently). And, third, I needed to be aware of their need without being told.
During the little girl’s naptime (if she knew, she would sabotage it), the boys and I developed a “super-secret” intervention (little boys love super-secret plans). When the boys wanted to play without interference, they would place a small red kid’s chair near them. It was my job to notice and bring my little girl into another room with me. She and I worked on connecting activities while I continued with my daily routine. We sang songs while I did dishes or cooked. We talked about the weather or what the rest of the day would be like. We practiced nursery rhymes and made up stories and games. She was learning how to form relationships and that helped to reduce her fears.
Of course, she needed to engage with children as well as adults, so that is where the boys came in. They agreed to play with the little girl for twenty minutes every day. They started with simple activities like cars, blocks or Play-doh, but gradually learned to play simple board games like Hi-Ho-Cherry-O and Chutes and Ladders. I joined them until the relationships were established, but eventually, they didn’t need me to be ever-present…and soon (really about a month or two) they could play for extended periods without whining, tattling and crying. Of course, this wasn’t magic by any means, and I wasn’t a genius who suddenly had all the answers. Each day was still a challenge, but it got better. We had many more happy days. She began to heal. This was the beginning of my new way to parent. I learned to respond instead of react to situations. I realized that time was on my side. I did not lose effectiveness by taking time to think through the situation and my response. What was the underlying need behind the behavior? How could that need be met in a more appropriate manner? How do I connect before I correct?
Another scenario you will surely recognize: your child waits until you are in the middle of something important and breaks the rules. Doing so gets you engaged in correction for an extended period of time. You have no choice, right? – After all, he needs to learn. Wrong. You do have choices. Does breaking the rule result in a life or death situation? Or is it simply another infraction? In my early years, I thought of discipline as punishment. I attended a seminar with a local psychologist who stated, “Discipline should be your first action.” My visceral reaction to that statement was that this was not the answer for our kids who have experienced neglect. I thought of some parents I knew who leveled punishment for every little thing. I was pondering his statement, and feeling as though our kids need acceptance and guidance, when he continued (and I’m glad he did!). The speaker clarified that when we think of discipline as punishment, we who are compassionate by nature are hesitant to follow through and we give too many chances. This delays the real “cause and effect” process we are trying to present. Discipline should be immediate when possible; however, discipline can be in methodical stages.
For instance, a child is throwing mud on the neighbor’s garage while you are inside completing your monthly budgeting. Your immediate next step for discipline is to remove the child from the situation and the mud-balls they’re throwing. He can sit near your desk while you finish your budget and pay your bills. He is not continuing the behavior but he is now waiting for you. The close proximity can give a sense of connection. After you have completed your task, you help him work through how he can change his behavior, correct his mistake and move on. Be pleasant, if possible; the behavior was bad but you need to see the child as separate from the behavior. Begin the discussion with, “What happened?” not “What did you do?” or “Why would you do that?” Most children cannot answer “why” questions, and this is especially true for children with trauma histories – “why” questions lead to feelings of blame and shame.
For myself, as I was trying this different approach of thinking outside of the box, I decided that I needed an evaluation plan. Not to overthink it or to take all the feelings of success out of those whine-free moments we all savored – but to help me figure out what was working and what needed to be changed. Each night as I was preparing for bed, I would think through what had gone well that day and what had not. I determined what changes I would make the next time the same situation came up. (And yes, it would happen again if I did not find a way to meet that underlying need.) This evaluation process took me about 15 minutes each night, but allowed me to sleep better and face the next day’s challenges with a sense of control because I had a plan. I didn’t have the burden of being perfect every time or in a split second, and I continued to make mistakes, but now discipline began to feel more like an adventure with problems to resolve.