My girls don't trust adults. They don't feel safe. They believe that they alone are responsible for their needs. I know all this to be true because we've been living it for seven weeks. It also was fully apparent in their psychological evaluations that we just got back from the professionals. (Which, BTW, my diagnoses matched exactly with what the doctors diagnosed for the girls. Alphabet soup.)
This chapter of The Connected Child deals with helping a child navigate their fear based responses to everything. It covers a lot! I spent most of the chapter saying, "yep. uh uh. oh yeah. yes. oh my". This chapter goes over so many different parts that I'm not going to effectively capture much. Really, I just recommend that anyone affected by fostering or adoption should read the book. This chapter especially helps shed a light on some of the wonky behavior you're sure to encounter.
Helping a child feel safe builds trust.
One of our big focuses as a foster family is to make sure our girls understand that they are now living in a safe home. We constantly point out all the things that are in place to keep them safe. Because they were living in a dangerous place for so long before, that is what they were conditioned to think of as normal. In fact, (for many reasons) they denied being abused the first time they were confronted by officials. I believe it's important for them to value safety. In the event that they leave our home, they need to be able to recognize what is not safe so that they can stand up for themselves. As everyone knows, it is common for the cycle of abuse to continue after the children leave foster care.
And, like the books says, felt safety increases trust. The more the girls trust us, the better we're all going to get along.
One of the triggers for my children is food. We're still playing detective. I can't exactly place what kind of a role food played in their neglect/abuse. But, it played a role. Adding our Food Rules has helped. The girls feel safer knowing that if they don't like what is being served, they won't have to go hungry. They trust that they will be fed.
I also think that this fear of the unknown is part of what causes so many problems on the weekends at our house. Despite my best efforts to reassure the girls that all their needs will be met, they ask a lot of questions about food all weekend long. So, sometime before next Saturday, I'm going to sit down and draw up a schedule listing out some of the things that do stay constant each weekend. One of those is food - both meals and snacks. I think posting this loose schedule outlining the fact that they will be fed, will help increase the girls felt safety.
Give appropriate choices to share control.
MissArguePants is all about needing control. Of course she now has the "official" ODD diagnosis. Precious falls on the spectrum a bit as well. These girls need to control all aspects of their lives.
I am all about the choices. I always have been. I guess that's my inner Montessori coming out. However, I learned the hard way that my girls can't handle too many choices. This has been a major shift for me as I used to take a hands-off approach to so many things. For example: before, at snack time, my boys would simply have to choose between a healthy snack (if that's what I said was necessary) or they could have what we call a junky snack (if allowed). I knew that the girls would need educated on the differences between "healthy" and "junky". But I quickly realized that they couldn't handle being given all the choices that fall within a particular category. So now I'm back to making a lot more of the choices and taking a much more active role. It's all about balance.
For those are are used to controlling more aspects of your children's lives, you have to let go. It's as simple as saying something like, "Would you like to put on your PJs first or brush your teeth first?" Both things need to be done. But now the child feels more control as they get to pick the order.
TurtleTurtle doesn't trust that I'm going to meet her needs. She is petrified to ask me for things because she has already convinced herself that I'm going to say no. However, instead of just clamming up and not saying anything, she will whine or simply bark orders at me. At breakfast time, the choices are pretty open (given what I said above, they are probably TOO open - ugh). The girls know that I will prepare food specifically for them. I'm not a fan of being a short order cook, but right now they really need all the extra love and attention I can muster. However, instead of asking for me to make her oatmeal, TurtleTurtle will sit at the table and announce, "I'm hungry." Then, if I don't immediately read her mind and start preparing something just to her standards, she'll get upset with me. Then, most of the time, she'll announce quite rudely what she wants, "I want oatmeal".
Well, this is a trigger for me. (I'm figuring out that I've got a lot of triggers too.) You see, I have no problem making her oatmeal. I really don't. I just don't like being ordered around by a 9 year old!!
After much soul searching this weekend, and a good conversation with my favorite social worker in the world (my sister), I made a compromise.
I caught TurtleTurtle in the afternoon during a time when she was regulated and not hungry. I sat her down and asked if we could talk about something briefly. I started by validating that she has a hard time asking me questions. Of course, by now, she couldn't make eye contact with me. She realized we were going to talk about a "big feeling". Anyway, I told her that her feelings are normal. I told her that it will get easier for her to ask me questions and to talk to me respectfully when she trusts me more.
I then went on to let TurtleTurtle know that I do want to give her good things. But, I'm a grown up. I am in authority over her. I do need a certain amount of respect.
The compromise is that she can use sign language to ask me things.
I told TurtleTurtle that all three of my boys knew sign language when they were babies and before they could talk they could ask me for things in sign. Her eyes got big and she insisted that babies aren't that smart. I was able to quickly point out that they are. I reminded her that she's nine years old and is fully fluent in Spanish and English. Surely a baby could learn a few signs. I assured her that she could learn too and it might make it easier for her to ask me for things. I also reminded her that MissArguePants will sign "sorry" sometimes because that's easier than actually saying the words.
I showed TurtleTurtle the sign for "eat" and the sign for "please". If she needs me to help her get something to eat and asking a question is too hard, she now has permission to sign Eat Please and I will meet her need.
All this is because TurtleTurtle can't approach me. I scare her to death. It's my job to play detective and then come up with the best way to handle things so that she feels safer.
Feelings of safety take time.
I particularly like the way they ended this chapter:
Despite their scars of past deprivation and lingering fearfulness, at-risk children can learn to take comfort and safety from their families. Be patient, and do everything in your power to let your children understand they are safe and welcome in their new homes.
Deeply encoded fear responses take time to ease, but eventually, as your child heals and grows, situations and circumstances that were once scary and threatening become less so. Eventually you won't need to be as vigilant with his or her environment.
Healing can't be rushed, but you can help it progress dramatically – by giving your child the gift of felt safety.