Often, we can be frustrated by our children’s actions. Even more frequently, people around us do not understand how we live and what we are trying to deal with. When we think of our child moving forwards in life, and having been given the wrong signals and equipment to start off with, it’s much easier to understand why our children do the things they do.
In her book Everyday Parenting with Security and Love, Kim Golding (2017) explains in great detail the reasons some children have attachment difficulties, and the relationship these have to trauma and other causational factors.
If you are re-parenting a child who has been subjected to abuse and/or neglect, it’s useful to think of their actions in this way:
The child ‘car driver’
Someone put my child in the driver’s seat of a car!
Even worse, it was someone who should have been looking after my child. Even worse, the steering wheel was tampered with to make the car turn left when the child turned right.
To make it harder, someone cut the brakes. Then, this person started the ignition and fixed the accelerator pedal down to the floor to make it speed off!
My child was in the driver’s seat of a car that couldn’t stop, went the wrong way, and was moving fast.
Now, people keep blaming my child for crashing into things, for going too fast, for being afraid, for damaging things, or for hurting people.
The social worker put me in the passenger seat and asked me to help my child. Sadly, she suggested doing a theory test first, but that’s way down our list of priorities.
Gradually, I am teaching my child to use the handbrake and to manage the steering. They are less fearful just because I am sitting next to them. Always sitting next to them.
All we need now is for people to stop telling us that my child needs to pass a driving test. This therapeutic parent driving instructor is just trying to get us all to our destination in one piece.
Common behaviors and underlying factors
Many of the behaviours we see in our children are fear-based responses, but they may not appear to us in that way. Indeed, our child may present as rude, defiant and attention seeking. If we bear in mind the ‘car driver’, and start from the basis that a child who has suffered some kind of trauma in their early life often feels out of control and experiences the world very differently, some of their behaviours start to make sense.
Fear Our children are often terrified of everyday objects, changes in routine, any type of transition, the dark, food… In fact, the traumatised child’s overriding emotion is nearly always one of fear. The fear is masked though, and we may experience it as anger or controlling behaviours. This is why we might see an escalation of defiance when there is an approaching transition.
It’s also very disconcerting to realise that, often, what our children are most scared of are adults. This is upsetting for parents and something they may not have considered. If your child appears to be rejecting everything, is unable to ask for help and follows you around, seemingly ever watchful, consider that you may be the source of fear as well as comfort.
My friend, Sarah Dillon, grew up in care and is now an attachment therapist. She describes the fear of adults in this way:
If you are scared of something, really scared, what do you do? Say you have a phobia of spiders and one suddenly appears. What happens? You might freeze, feel panicky. You may try to run away, or even kill it. You can’t think straight. You might keep a very close eye on that spider so you know where it is at all times. Well, I felt that way about adults. Adults were the source of my trauma and phobia, and every time I was moved I had a new spider to get used to. (Sarah Dillon)
Unable to re-attune
As our children are often fearful of adults and may have had negative experiences, it is almost impossible for them to ‘re-attune’ to the parent following an incident. If we think of a securely attached young child who has committed some mild misdemeanour, the parent may well withdraw their approval as a means of letting the child know they are not happy with them. A securely attached child will usually move quickly to repair the relationship and re-attune, perhaps by seeking comfort or testing out the parent’s response. A child who is fearful of adults, or overwhelmed with shame, is entirely unable to make the first move and will remain stuck, defensive and sad.
If the child has not learned that the parent or carer is reliable and trustworthy then they are unable to rely on them to meet even their basic needs. Our children are often mistrustful of our intentions and find it difficult to interpret our actions, even to read facial expressions. The term ‘blocked trust’ is also used to describe the child not feeling ‘good enough about themselves’ in Dan Hughes and Jonathan Baylin’s book, The Neurobiology of Attachment-Focused Therapy (2016). I have expanded on this later on in the sections, ‘sense of self and impact of shame’, and ‘a compulsion to break a forming attachment’.
Our children often have high cortisol levels and are hardwired to respond to stress and risk very quickly. They lack the usual impulse controls and can often blurt out what they are thinking, or act without thinking at all. These actions are more reminiscent of a very young toddler or baby as it is possible the child has missed out important developmental stages. Sometimes these behaviours look like ADHD. The child may have lived in an environment where they always needed to be alert and ready for action, or they may have experienced other trauma that has affected their brain development.
Lack of cause-and-effect thinking
Where our children have suffered some kind of trauma in their lives, nothing is predictable. Their early lives may have made no sense. My children did not know the difference between night and day. If even the basics of human existence make no sense, then it is much harder for the more complex layers to be ordered into a fathomable structure by these children. As the children tend to act quickly on impulse, without forward planning, they often suffer as a direct result of their own actions. This is because many of our own inhibitors stem from the fact that we don’t want to feel bad later. For example, we might not steal £10 from the kitchen table because we know we might get in trouble, or we don’t want to feel bad. Our children cannot project forward and think about how they might feel later. In effect, they lack empathy for their future self.
Control and power issues
It’s really useful to turn this particular behaviour on its head. We see it as their need to control, but our children are behaving in this way just to keep themselves safe. The antidote to the all-consuming fear that the child feels is to be in control. After all, if you are powerful you are more likely to survive. Control is a fear-based behaviour and their behaviour is saying, ‘I can’t trust adults to be in charge yet.’
Our children need to feel powerful but at the same time are deeply conflicted as, ultimately, most of them have a profound unmet need for the adult to be in charge, safe and nurturing.
Lack of empathy
Empathy is usually one of the last skills to develop. Our children need to have all their basic needs met before they can build on those and develop the more profound human characteristics such as empathy, gratitude and remorse. I have found that in general, children who have suffered trauma in early life need to have been responded to empathically, as in ‘modelled empathy’, for about seven to ten years before they can start to genuinely experience and demonstrate it.
Lack of remorse
Parents often panic a little that their child might be ‘evil’ because they show no remorse or empathy. Remorse is also a sophisticated emotion which our children may not yet be able to access. This doesn’t make them evil.
In securely attached children, we see remorse being established around the age of six or seven. If the child spent a lot of their early life dealing with a stressful environment, then there will not have been time to lay down the foundations for remorse to be established. Once the secure attachments have been made, the child begins to demonstrate some empathy, or the ability to take on the perspective of another, and remorse will follow. My children did not develop remorse until they were aged between 13 and 22.
Our children’s very existence may have depended on the need for them to be hypervigilant. Until she was 26 years old, my eldest daughter could not sleep unless she was facing the door, and even then this needed some therapeutic intervention. Our children often don’t know if the parent is going to disappear completely. Perhaps they have in the past. For this reason, they often have very good visual skills. Hypervigilance does not leave very much room for other things. If you have to remember where everyone is in the class, what they are wearing and what they are doing, there is not much space left for learning.
Sadness, grief and loss
It is sometimes easier to put to one side the enormous losses our children may have suffered. With loss comes sadness and grief. Children are moved between different foster carers to whom they may have formed attachments, then expected to show joy on placement with their adopters. They may be grieving for an absent parent, even if they were abusive. That is what the child knows, and the child may be feeling it is all somehow their fault. Most parents and carers are naturally very empathetic and understanding about this and give the child permission and space to grieve. Grief can be expressed as anger, defensiveness and controlling behaviours. The child does not want to lose anything else in their life. With fostering and adoption, there is often a direct conflict between the positive anticipation of the parent/carer and the sadness and grief of the child who feels compelled to keep themselves safe by attempting to meet the expectations of the new parent.
Fear of invisibility
When a child has suffered from unreliable parenting, neglect or abuse, they may have a deep-rooted fear of being forgotten or invisible. They will certainly have felt invisible at times. If you are dependent on powerful adults to feed you and keep you safe, but you appear to be invisible, you might die. When our children are scared of being forgotten we see some of the most powerful behaviours, such as nonsense chatter, anxiety-based behaviours, following and aggressive or rude behaviours, designed to press the parent’s buttons and forcibly remind them that the child is there!
We often see anger as a constant visible emotion in our children. Anger can be a defensive mechanism to avoid showing sadness. In order to be sad, our children need to display their vulnerability and this is something they don’t feel safe enough to do, so they use their anger like a protective shell. The shell is made up of rudeness, defiance and hostility, which seems to ooze from the child. The angry message is, ‘Don’t touch me. Don’t help me. Don’t come near me.’ See more details on this in ‘Aggression’. In our series of therapeutic parenting children’s stories, we show the shell on Rosie Rudey in her first book (Naish and Jefferies 2016).