Breakfast In Bed

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

When Children Have Big Feelings - An Adoptive Parent’s Perspective

There are days, many blissful uplifting days, when I feel like a regular parent to two affectionate, curious, contented, effervescent young kids. But sometimes, like a fast-rolling fog, the darkness rolls in and I remember how much pain and confusion lurks behind the dazzling smiles of these beautiful little beings. Suddenly I am staring raw anger and grief in the face, reaching out to a wounded child who needs my help. When faced with their emotional, and often physical, outpourings, I have to remind myself where these expressions of grief come from, that my children have experienced trauma and neglect in their life before adoption, and that their extreme outbursts may be an attempt to express this. The hardest part is learning to identify which of their behaviours is developmentally normal and what might be an externalisation of their unresolved grief, or a result of their emotional immaturity. Most important is to separate the feelings from the behaviours: “it’s OK to have those feelings, but it’s not OK to do that.” 

As a family we have developed our own unique approaches to problematic behaviour, and most of our close friends and family support this. But outside of this inner sanctum, I am used to having to deal with other people’s often unhelpful responses. The disapproving look when my child is hyper-vigilant in the supermarket or has a meltdown in the queue; being asked to stay home on the day of the school nativity in case he spoils it for everyone else; having fewer playdate invitations than everyone else and being left off party invitation lists. These are all real situations that our family has faced, and we are not alone. 

It’s hard enough when we are there with our kids, giving them parental support through their emotional rollercoasters, but now that they are school aged, we cannot be at their sides all the time, and they have to ride it out in the company of less enlightened peers and educators. The thought of this has been getting me down a lot lately. As they get older, the gaps in our children's emotional development become more obvious, and more problematic within friendships and social situations. While the youngest’s anxieties tend to manifest as toddler-like tantrums and lashing out physically, our eight year old lacks social confidence and her coping mechanisms project as bossiness, giddiness and lack of impulse control. But how can her classmates and their parents be expected to understand what’s behind this, and to feel compassion for her rather than contempt?

It is impossible to explain to every person who crosses our path the complicated reasons behind the way our children behave; that they cannot physically control their impulses because their brains have not developed in the same way as everyone else’s due to early neglect and trauma. Or that they are in the grip of very real feelings of grief, loss and anger about what has happened to them. The saddest thing of all is that when my children are treated as different and get excluded from social situations, it perpetuates their problems. Their self esteem, which was fragile to begin with, takes a further nosedive every time they are rejected or excluded by peers, given a ‘time-out’ by teachers, or experience disdain from total strangers. Low self esteem leads to social angst and this in turn keeps the fright-or-flight part of the brain (the amygdala) in a permanent alarm state, which then leads to more hyper, seemingly out-of-control behaviour. 

I don’t want you to feel sorry for my child because of what has happened to them in the past, I just ask that you try and understand them and why they are like they are now. What they need more than anything is to feel accepted and loved unconditionally, in spite of how they act. Of course we reinforce this all the time at home, but in the wider world they often seem doomed to meet with disapproval and rejection, and I fear for their long-term social integration because of this.

I do understand why people sometimes react the way they do; goodness knows I am frequently baffled by my own children’s actions and have to remind myself to treat their behaviour as a neurological state which needs therapeutic support, rather than as naughtiness that needs to be punished. And this isn’t something that’s exclusive to adopted children. Even adults flip out sometimes as a result of emotional overload, but we tend to be much more supportive of adult mental health problems than we do of our children’s. We expect such a lot of such tiny people, and tell them all the time that they need to suppress their big feelings, rather than give them the tools to express themselves constructively. Many school discipline systems fail to recognise that children are emotionally fragile, still developing beings, and focus too much on threats and bribes in an attempt to control behaviour, rather than addressing the underlying causes or helping them to move forward developmentally. The book Punished by Rewards tackles this widespread educational phenomenon, and I would encourage any headteacher, teacher or school governor who has endorsed the use of Golden Time, Thinking Clouds or Traffic Light systems in classrooms to read it.

Of course children must learn about rules, and need to be given boundaries, but this doesn’t negate the need for compassion and understanding for their underlying emotional distress. Fortunately, thanks to initiatives like the Thrive Approach, things are beginning to change, in schools which embrace this approach at least. But it is not enough to simply bolt this system onto existing practices. The overall mindset of schools and parents needs to shift towards a more empathetic approach, and away from labelling children as “naughty” or “disruptive” - a reputation that is hard to shake off. We need to help our children to manage their feelings, rather than punishing them for having feelings. A reward chart for compliance in class does not address children’s emotional needs, or equip them with the intrinsic motivation to Do The Right Thing.

Due to the sheer amount of time children spend there, schools play a crucial role their pupils’ emotional and moral development, but we as adults in the outside world are responsible, too. Next time you see a child having a public meltdown, or your own child comes home reporting someone else’s “bad” behaviour at school, take a moment to consider your response. Offer empathy and support, rather than disapproval. Since becoming more enlightened about infant neurology through Thrive training and from reading around the subject, I have found it easier to stand back from the midst of an outburst and remind myself what is happening, scientifically speaking, which helps me to take things a lot less personally when I am under attack by my own kids. I now know that there is no point in trying to reason with a child whose brain is locked in fright-or-flight mode. First I must help them return into the thinking part of their brain (the neocortex), and I have strategies up my sleeve to help get them there. I am also comforted by the knowledge that with the right input, young brains can still be developed and neural pathways forged to help them eventually be able to self-regulate.

I was prompted to write this post after reading an article in Psychology Today, which really resonated with my own experiences and aligns with much of the thinking behind the Thrive Approach. I would be interested to hear from others who are parenting with these thoughts in mind, too. Comment here, or tweet me @rowstar.