A guest post by Mentally Sexy Staff Member Dan Barron. Dan’s previous article can be found here – Separation Anxiety In Children – A Dad’s Perspective
Our daughter is a ‘traumatised’ child; and she’s also a tough cookie. She joined our family at the age of three, via the Permanent Care program of Victorian Dept of Human Services, having been removed from her birth family’s home for her own well-being at an early age. She’s five and a half now.
We don’t know a heck of a lot about her early months, but we do know that she didn’t get the sort of loving, caring attachment to her birth family that most babies, thankfully, do get. Perhaps when she cried as a baby she didn’t have someone to come running to pick her up, change her nappy, feed her, cuddle her, love her. Perhaps she had a family that shouted at her, and at each other, perhaps they took substances that made it difficult to be good parents; we don’t know exactly. However we know that she didn’t develop an understanding of herself as loveable and valuable, and the world as a generally safe place. She came to see herself as unlovable, and the world as an unsafe place. In child psychology speak, she didn’t develop a ‘secure attachment’ to a parent figure that would have created a ‘positive internal model’. No, she sadly was left with a ‘negative internal model’ that left her with a sense of herself as unlovable.
When she arrived in our home, she brought with her of course all her clothes and toys and dollies and pictures and photos and knick- knacks. But she also carried with her the trauma of her earliest months, which had left her with a difficulty in being truly at peace and relaxed, and a sense of shame about herself that seemed to overwhelm her, each time we sought to gently guide her behaviours. So she was very sensitive to any change in our tone of voice and anything we said that was even a little less than positive or neutral was greeted by her as if we had literally screamed at her. With a ‘traumatised’ child, mum or dad using the ‘wrong’ tone of voice may be a sure sign for the child that, well, these people don’t really like me do they? Traumatised kids don’t know deep down that their ‘new’ carers like them, because of their previous experience of being rejected and badly treated. They can take things far more personally than the next child, and find it harder to separate themselves from this feeling of shame; that they are being personally criticised, rather than only their behaviour being criticised.
Not long after she moved in, the difficult behaviours that had been reported by the foster carers before us, began to emerge. So it was that one day outside our school my daughter began banging her head on to the school fence because I had asked her to pick up a toy she’d dropped on the footpath. Then she shrieked at me ‘I hate YOOOUUU!!’. It was loud. I think several nearby birds fell off their perches. Other parents looked on aghast, some of them, I have no doubt, wondering what sort of dad would illicit that sort of vitriol from his daughter. Extreme, out-of-proportion reactions to everyday events like dropping a toy became a daily occurrence in our house, sometimes 10 or more times per day. Objects (i.e. anything to hand) would be thrown, clothes taken off, chairs knocked over, books and papers ripped up, family members spat at. Toilet training took over a year as this she found the process really stressful and it caused her to ‘act out’, and her language was also markedly delayed, which was frustrating all round. Now I should say here, that we’ve had two other kids, and we know all about tantrums, believe me, but this behaviour was on another level. More frequent, more extreme, from a deeper place somehow.
It would have made our role as parents far easier if we could have controlled her behaviour by just pointing out how silly it was (!), but until you have built up a reason from her point of view to want to change, your ‘moral authority’ is basically zero. With a traumatised child you have to build that secure attachment first, so that their sense of shame, that they are a ‘bad’ person, can start to be diminished. You have to try and take every opportunity to make up the lost ground from the child’s earlier years, and build up a reservoir of secure feelings with them. This is of course far easier said than done, especially when the child has been screaming, throwing things at you and spitting; so it is inevitably a long, slow, stressful process.
There were a lot of tears, and a lot of angst, and not only for me and my partner and our daughter, but also our two older sons, who struggled for a long time to accept her arrival into the family.
However, if you met our daughter today you would probably not recognise the girl described in the story above. We have spent the last two years with her building the sort of loving relationship that she obviously didn’t get when she was younger. We’ve sat and read stories together, we’ve rocked her in our arms as if she was our baby from birth; we’ve played dress ups and cooked biscuits and washed up together. We have made up songs, and played lots of silly games. We’ve taken her to speech therapy, and a paediatrician, and early intervention services, and a child psychologist, and these have all helped us to bring her closer to us, and vice versa. Above all, we’ve managed to hang in there, we’ve kept being there for her, despite all the alarm bells ringing and saying ‘this situation is CRAZY!’
Can you imagine taking your biological child, however old, from your family and parachuting them in, warts and all, to another, stranger’s family? And then getting into your car and waving goodbye? It’s sort of unimaginable isn’t it. But this is what happened, in a sense, for the girl we call our daughter, and she’s managed to survive. And over the last year or so we have seen her gradually moving from an angry, and confused young girl to a smiley, curious and affectionate little girl. She is realising, bit by bit, that she is loved, and that she is loveable, and finally, that our family is where she belongs.
Further information on attachment issues:
- Available from the Office of the Child Safety Commissioner: ‘From Isolation to Connection: A guide to understanding and working with traumatised children and young people’.
- Website about Attachment theory and working with traumatised children: https://www.circleofsecurity.org/
Dan Barron has been a stay- home dad for the past 7 years with his three children, aged 13, 7 and 5. For several years he was Co-ordinator of the Northern Dads Playgroup, a playgroup for stay home dads and their children meeting in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. He has contributed regular articles to Darebin’s Parent Voice magazine, and is an active member of the Post Placement Support Service, a support group for parents of children who have suffered trauma in early childhood. In 2010 he donned underpants in his local supermarket in the name of the Mentally Sexy competition, and his daughter has received complementary chicken loaf slices from the deli counter ever since. In another life he may well have been a talented footballer for Nottingham Forest FC.