When you decide to become a foster parent or adopt a child that has experienced trauma it is common for people to fall into the trap of thinking they can love the trauma away for their littles ones. It’s tempting to wish that were possible. I, myself, have often wished I could climb inside my kids and find all their wounds and cover them with love until it no longer hurts.
Unfortunately, we cannot change the past. All we can do is offer our children a safe place to work through their experiences, help them learn healthy ways of coping with the pain, and love them through it all.
Trauma causes a myriad of behaviors in children, no child will behave the same way and each child will go through different types of trauma fueled behaviors at different times. Currently, our older boys have really been struggling with hoarding, with food in particular, and fighting.
We have tried all the more traditional approaches to handling these behaviors and they made no impact. We then had to step back and ask ourselves what the root cause of the behavior is and what they are trying to gain. For our boys, and many children who have experienced trauma, the goal is often to feel in control of the world around them. Feeling like they have no control is a terrifying feeling because then it is hard to predict what may happen.
Our first concern was the fighting. We needed to come up with in the moment interventions that would help them find better ways to handle being angry than hitting one another. Once one punch is thrown it usually descends into a full on brawl. The trick was to get them redirected before the first swing, and that can be harder during the moments they are not within direct line of sight. To help them feel more in control of the situation we sat down with them and asked them for ideas of good things we can do when feeling angry. They came up with a good list that includes things like:
Asking for a hug
Tearing up a piece of paper (that an adult provides)
Taking a positive time out
Singing a song
Talking about it
We took the ideas and wrote them down on slips of paper, with illustrations since they are not reading fluently yet. We labeled the container “The Mad Box” and we have it on their dresser so that when arguments begin they can go to the box and find a good alternative to fighting. It’s really helping them to have a list of safer choices instead of having to come up with them on the fly.
One of the biggest sources of fighting was the tv in their room. The fighting over the remote was getting out of hand and they did not respond to having tv privileges being taken away, as soon as they got their privileges back the fights started again. Once again control was the issue and not having a structure to follow. Thinking, if I don’t get to have control over what we are watching now I never will. We created a simple chart for their room and they take turns having a day they get to be in charge of their remote. If someone starts a fight about the remote they lose their day and if the fight gets out of hand the tv goes off for 24 hours. Since we implemented the new system there was one fight over the remote (to test the system) and none since.
Now that we had a game plan for the fighting we needed to work on the hoarding. For kiddos with attachment issues it is often easier to attach love to items and food than to abstract things like spending time together or caring about one another. When you attach love to physical things love becomes finite and it is easy to worry there isn’t enough to go around. This was showing up here with snacks and food being snuck into their rooms and hidden. Not just a cookie or a cracker, entire boxes of food hidden in their room and eaten entirely. Added into the attachment they have to the food is the history they have of not getting enough to eat. Now, even when there is plenty to eat they are worried they will suddenly not have enough food. The best way to ensure they knew they had enough food/love was to stockpile it.
We decided, after trying to reason with them, that we just needed to meet them where they are and soothe their anxiety about it all. Hopefully, in time that anxiety will lessen. Each boy now has a box for snacks in their room. The box gets filled once a week and they have complete discretion over when and how they eat their snacks. If they eat them all at once that is fine but new snacks will not be added until the next week. If they eat them slowly all week that is also fine. They are not allowed to take snacks out of each other’s boxes or from the kitchen without permission. We opted for clear boxes so they would have the comfort of knowing the food was there even when they were not eating it. The first few weeks they emptied their boxes immediately, but slowly they are learning when the box will be refilled and how to spread it out and slowly they are relaxing into that security.
Experience tells us more confusing and confounding behaviors will crop up over time and we pray we always remember to stop and figure out what the cause is and what their goals are so we can meet them where they are. In the meantime, we will keep loving on them and continue to be amazed with their strength and resilience.