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Jerry started crying on the way to school in the tricycle this morning. I hugged him. I sat outside his classroom for a while and saw him through the window smiling and happy with his classmates. I looked again a few moments later and two little girls had their arm around him comforting him, his head was down. About five minutes later he walked out of the classroom alongside his friends happily waving to me as he passed.
I followed to watch his flag ceremony in the common gym area and was surprised to find Jerry walking back to the classroom while all his classmates and teachers were lined up ready for the morning activity. I smiled and suggested he go back to the others, head down he ambled up toward the lines of kids.
During their morning exercise and dancing he ranged from smiling, exuberant motions to completely motionless head lowered, eyes down. I moved to a space where he could see me during the dance, I smiled at him and he smiled back. He danced a little more consistently.
Since the death of his father three weeks ago, Jerry’s behaviour, moods and attitude have become more and more erratic. Jerry finds it difficult to express his emotions about his family and I guess this is the affect of years of trauma. Aside from the loss of a parent, the passing of his father has no doubt brought back memories of the death of his beloved mother four years ago. He is crying for her again every night.
It reinforced to me that Jerry has suffered significant trauma (ticking YES to EVERYTHING on the checklist) and serves as a great reminder for me to check my responses. Here’s the list of potentially traumatic events included in the factsheet:
✅Abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional)
✅Effects of poverty (such as homelessness or not having enough to eat)
✅Being separated from loved ones
✅Witnessing harm to a loved one or pet (e.g., domestic or community violence)
✅Unpredictable parental behaviour due to addiction or mental illness
Now add to this the sudden death of both parents four years apart.
It might be helpful to remember that your child’s troublesome behaviour may be a learned response to stress—it may even be what kept your child alive in a very unsafe situation.
Jerry’s behaviour ranges from delightful to complete refusal to obey even small requests. He will be at times destructive contrasted against carefully folding clothes or neatly cleaning his shoes. He’ll be hugging me and being loving then suddenly make an unkind comment or say something nasty without a hint of emotion. He’ll spend an entire morning telling me he loves me (maybe every 30 seconds) then suddently withdraw and become completely non-responsive. Add to that inappropriate touching and sexual behaviour which he either refuses or cannot adjust. I find him touching me without restraint in ways that are humiliating, obviously learned somewhere in his little life. I talk to him about what he is doing and why but his only response is that he is “very bad me” and won’t do it again.
Even after all this what I find the most frustrating are his attempts to control everything I do. This can range from simply giving me orders, waking me up, wanting to ‘help’ but actually it’s more interfering or deliberately doing everything slowly, running away or hiding to make me late or to dictate exactly when we leave and when we go. Rationally (later) I can see that these controlling attempts are a response to an overwhelming fear of abandonment and wanting to feel like he has some control over his own life. And yes, as the Factsheet suggests, at times I have completely misinterpreted his behaviour and becoming so frustrated with him. Sometimes I get so resentful feeling like he has completely stolen my life and holding it to ransom and of course react in ways that don’t help and probably make it worse.
But that’s what this website is here for. Not necessarily to offer constructive advice on how to respond or react, but in the writing (and the reading) it keeps me focused on the fact that Jerry is not a bad kid, he is just a kid who has had bad things happen and what he needs the most is not punishment but consistency and lots of love from an informed parent.
When children have experienced trauma, particularly multiple traumatic events over an extended period of time, their bodies, brains, and nervous systems adapt in an effort to protect them. This might result in behaviors such as increased aggression, distrusting or disobeying adults, or even dissociation (feeling disconnected from reality). When children are in danger, these behaviors may be important for their survival. However, once children are moved to a safer environment, their brains and bodies may not recognize that the danger has passed. These protective behaviors, or habits, have grown strong from frequent use (just as a muscle that is used regularly grows bigger and stronger). It takes time and retraining to help those “survival muscles” learn that they are not needed in their new situation (your home), and that they can relax.
© 2016 Melinda Irvine
Sources: Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Parenting a child who has experienced trauma. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.